By some measures, the glass is half full. Movie theater chain AMC Entertainment Holdings (AMC 0.77%) generated revenue of $763.2 million during the three-month stretch ending in September, leaving the year-ago, pandemic-crimped top-line figure of $119.5 million in the dust. Although it still logged a loss as it continues to struggle with the lingering effect of the pandemic, the third quarter's loss of $0.44 cents per share was smaller than analysts' expectations for a loss of $0.53. Sales topped outlooks of $708.3 million as well.

On the flip side, a loss is still a loss. Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter's warning that most of this year's meme-inspired buyers will soon be cashing out of their position (sending the stock lower as a result) isn't helping matters either.

Person sitting in a movie theater alone.

Image source: Getty Images.

Largely lost in all the noise created by this well-watched meme stock, however, is the fact that the total number of moviegoers is still only about half of what it was before the coronavirus contagion materialized in late 2019. It's not apt to re-reach those levels anytime soon either.

Even that footnote requires an important asterisk, though.

Theaters still seeing tepid attendance

Revenue and earnings are typically the first two figures investors scrutinize in quarterly reports, and understandably so -- these numbers are not only a snapshot of a corporation's current condition, but they also help shareholders gauge growth.

They're not a perfect means of measuring an organization's relative health, however, including movie projection companies. Some fixed costs are incurred even when a business is temporarily mothballed, unfairly eating into profits. At the other end of the spectrum, price increases can exaggerate a business's top line.

A far more meaningful measure of the film industry's and movie theaters' success, therefore, is a raw headcount of the number of people who are actually buying tickets. They also tend to be the ones who in turn buy popcorn, soda, and candy. Fortunately, AMC Entertainment provides this data in its quarterly reports. Unfortunately, this data is anything but thrilling compared to 2019's pre-pandemic figures.

The numbers: Last quarter, AMC entertained a total of just under 40 million paying customers. That's well up from third-quarter 2020's comparison of 6.5 million. But keep things in perspective. Theaters were mostly shuttered in the third quarter of 2020. That's not a great comparison. A far more telling comparison is 2019's third-quarter customer count, and even 2018's third-quarter tally of total tickets sold. The bad news is, those numbers are 87.1 million and 82.7 million, respectively.

And the Q3 data is indicative of the bigger trend. AMC's movie attendance is still less than half of what it was two years ago, with roughly the same number of movie screens being utilized now that were used then. The graphic below puts the matter in perspective.

Chart showing steep drop in AMC's theater attendance in 2020.

Data source: AMC Entertainment. Chart by author.

It's not just AMC either. Rival theater chain Cinemark Holdings (CNK 0.19%) reports 30.7 million people bought tickets at one of its theaters last quarter. That's way up from the 2020 comparison of 1.9 million, but still well short of 2019's 73.3 million and 2018's 69.8 million third-quarter ticket purchases.

Point being, despite the hype linked to smash hit movies like Walt Disney's (DIS 0.55%) Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or MGM's latest James Bond franchise installment No Time To Die, consumer interest in setting foot in a theater remains on the tepid side.

The data supports the idea too. A survey recently taken by a market research outfit indicates that slightly less than half of all adults in the U.S. are willing to enter a movie theater within the next week, versus 63% saying they'd consider paying to stream a new release in their home.

The ol' chicken and egg argument is a problem

With all of that being said, it's still too soon to draw permanent, sweeping conclusions about the movie theater industry's current and future health.

It's not blatantly apparent, but even casual observers who give the matter a closer look can see that the number of films playing in theaters right now isn't what it was before the COVID-19 contagion rattled the world. Box Office Mojo reports that the total number of releases has fallen since the efforts to recover despite the pandemic theoretically starting to take shape in May.

While studios are sending their splashiest and most expensive titles exclusively to theaters -- like the aforementioned No Time to Die or Columbia's Venom: Let There Be Carnage -- they're waiting for a more accommodating, less infected environment to promote all their films in theaters like they used to.

The thing is, this delay still ultimately works against the movie projection business. The longer consumers remain out of theaters, the more opportunity streaming brands like Disney and Netflix (NFLX -0.79%) have to become a bigger piece of consumers' entertainment budgets.

Bottom line? Current and prospective AMC shareholders need to keep tabs on the company's total customer counts just as much as they watch sales and earnings.