The good news is movie theater chain AMC Entertainment Holdings (AMC -1.63%) topped last quarter's revenue and earnings estimates. The bad news is it's still deep in the red, and only selling a fraction of the number of tickets it was selling before the pandemic took hold.

None of this is terribly shocking, of course. A year earlier, the world was largely shut down due to COVID-19. Though the contagion is still with us, consumers and businesses alike are coping. Theaters in the U.S. were mostly reopened by March -- before AMC's second quarter began -- and studios were at least willing to give theaters a try. Universal's Fast and Furious series entry F9 debuted in June, catching the tail end of the quarter in question. A Quiet Place, Part II, and Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard were also released in May and June, respectively. Godzilla vs. Kong was in theaters back in April. They weren't necessarily must-sees, but for newly vaccinated movie-goers ready to get out and do something close to normal again, they were something.

As it turns out, though, they were still very little. AMC has miles to go before nearing the sort of business it was doing before the coronavirus rattled the world.

Investor sitting at a desk, looking at a smartphone.

Image source: Getty Images.

A still-ugly picture

The image below speaks volumes, plotting the number of movie tickets AMC sold every quarter through the quarter ending in June. Also plotted are the company's historical quarterly revenue, adjusted EBITDA, and operating profit (or loss), which is a function of those ticket sales. As the saying goes, read 'em and weep.

AMC's business is still about a third of what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Data source: AMC Entertainment Holdings. Chart by author. Fiscal data is in millions. Ticket data is in thousands.

Last quarter's 22.1 million tickets sold is around a fourth of the company's usual quarterly ticket sales, around 90 million. Q2's revenue of $444.7 million is roughly a third of the normal figure of $1.3 billion. The most recent results are clearly better than the non-existent numbers being produced a year ago, but still, we're miles away from the pre-pandemic norm. The company's also still deep in the red, reporting an operating loss of $296.6 million and negative adjusted EBITDA of $150.8 million.

Neither the numbers nor the trend should be surprising, even if analysts and investors alike could only make broad guesses given that the turnaround remains a work in progress. Any revenue and earnings estimate that's even close to the actual reported figure is impressive in light of the circumstances.

The earnings beat itself, however, has largely obscured more important matters and left important questions unanswered. Chief among these questions is, how much longer will it take the entire movie industry to crawl all the way out of the hole it's still clearly in?

From sizzle to fizzle

The release of F9 in June drew patrons back to theaters, to be sure. Box Office Mojo reports domestic ticket sales of nearly $99 million for that late-June weekend, which was the best weekend the business had seen since February of last year. Walt Disney's (DIS 0.03%) Black Widow led an even better weekend in early July, leading to $117 million worth of ticket sales in the U.S.

The movie industry's post-coronavirus rebound is already fading.

Data source: Box Office Mojo. Chart by author.

Things have clearly cooled off in the meantime, however, despite reasonably splashy titles like Jungle Cruise, Space Jam: A New Legacy, and The Suicide Squad being in theaters. Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard and A Quiet Place, Part II are also still in theaters, offering at least something theatrical to a wide audience. Consumers just aren't as stoked about going to the movies as they were a month ago.

Can AMC explain these gloomy trends with the resurgence of COVID-19 via the delta variant? Sure, that's a headwind that can't be ignored. Something else that can't be ignored, however, is the fact that Jungle Cruise, The Suicide Squad, Space Jam: A New Legacy, Black Widow, and F9 can all be streamed at home.

Bottom line

This isn't a forecast for a complete collapse of AMC. One way or another, the theater chain will carry on. It may require some sort of reorganization or debt restructuring, but the name will survive.

The return to normalcy (or profitability) is at least several quarters away, though, and that could be a few rough quarters. In the meantime, this company has to justify an $18.5 billion market cap, never having produced more than a billion dollars' worth of EBITDA in any four-quarter stretch and never having turned an annualized operating profit of more than $265 million in any four-quarter span -- even in its 2018 heyday.

At the very least, AMC investors should exercise caution. These investors should also start asking exactly how AMC is going to convince a bunch of consumers to fall out of love with streaming new releases at home. There might not be a good answer to that question.