This August, for the first time in 74 years, major film studios will be able to own movie theaters after the "Paramount Decree," a 1948 antitrust ruling by the Supreme Court banning the practice, will officially end.
After a rough couple of years for the movie theater industry during the pandemic, it is showing signs of life again, as Top Gun: Maverick recently became the first blockbuster to cross $1 billion at the worldwide box office in 2022. As a result of the box office rebounding and the decree ending, studios might be looking to take advantage of this new opportunity.
Here are five stocks that could benefit from the three-quarters century-long prohibition coming to an end.
The easiest and fastest way for a major studio to get into the movie theater business would be to acquire one, and there is no bigger movie theater chain in the world than AMC Entertainment(AMC -1.93%). Despite its notoriety as a "meme stock," the company owns the most theaters and screens worldwide, with 950 and 10,500, respectively.
If a film studio is interested in buying the world's largest movie theater chain, it will have to pay AMC's enterprise value -- or market cap plus net debt -- to acquire it. As of this writing, AMC's enterprise value is roughly $11 billion, or approximately $11.5 million per movie theater.
AMC's enterprise value is about 60% higher than its market cap, meaning that if a company were to acquire AMC, then AMC;s stock would see a quick pop close to 60% if it was an all-cash deal. If the acquisition involved stock from the acquiring company, the price could fluctuate until the day the deal closes.
AMC's price tag may be too expensive for some studios. Still, its operations in 12 countries, including the United States, Europe, and Saudi Arabia, could be enticing for film producers looking for immediate access to worldwide distribution.
Another player in the movie theater business, albeit smaller than AMC, is Cinemark Holdings(CNK -0.79%). Cinemark currently owns 520 movie theaters and 5,829 screens in the United States and Latin American markets, with an enterprise value of about $3.75 billion, or roughly $7.2 million per movie theater.
Cinemark's enterprise value is about 110% higher than its market cap, meaning its shares could double in an all-cash acquisition.
While Cinemark would be a significantly cheaper target for a film studio to acquire compared to AMC, it wouldn't have the as good of market penetration with its locations limited to North America and South America. Still, Cinemark's Latin American theaters could be attractive to studios like Disney, which produced Latino-influenced movies like Encanto and West Side Story in 2021.
In the U.S., movie studios receive roughly 55% to 60% of the gross ticket sales, with the remaining percentage going to the movie theater. Internationally, the split favors movie theaters, with about 40% of gross ticket sales going to studios. Prior to the pandemic in Disney's 2019 fiscal year, the company's theatrical releases generated almost $5 billion in revenue. So, it would make sense for Disney(DIS -1.62%), famous for its Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbusters, to want the entire revenue pie over a large slice.
Additionally, Disney has been an acquisitive company in the past, especially in the film world, with acquisitions of Pixar, Lucasfilm, and most recently, 21st Century Fox. Disney has about $13 billion in cash and cash equivalents to make an acquisition; however, the company's roughly $46 billion in long-term debt may make management more hesitant than it has been in the past.
Notably, the original Supreme Court ruling didn't include Disney because it wasn't considered a major studio at the time. However, the company has reportedly followed the ruling outside of owning the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles -- which required court proceedings to acquire.
4. Paramount Global
Another major motion picture studio that might be interested in soon acquiring movie theaters is the company the original Supreme Court ruling was named after, Paramount Global (PARA.A -1.60%) (PARA -1.25%). The company's film division, Paramount Pictures, accounts for two of the ten highest-grossing movies of 2022 with Top Gun: Maverick and Sonic the Hedgehog 2. With additional film franchises like Mission Impossible, Scream, and Transformers, Paramount appears focused on theatrical releases as a part of its long-term strategy. Like Disney, Paramount would benefit from receiving 100% of box office receipts.
Also similar to Disney, Paramount has some debt concerns, with $16.8 billion in long-term debt on its balance sheet. However, the company does have $5.3 billion in cash and cash equivalents and access to a $3.5 billion credit facility that remained undrawn as of its most recent quarterly earnings to finance any possible acquisition.
Thinking outside the box, one company that could look to acquire a movie theater chain is Netflix (NFLX -0.31%). The streaming leader's stock is down 70% year to date after reporting a loss in its subscriber count for the first time in 10 years.
Any movie theater acquisition wouldn't be the first for Netflix; in 2020, Netflix acquired the Egyptian Theatre for a reported $14.4 million. With the fear of more subscribers canceling the service, Netflix could add to its value proposition by letting users see its content on the big screen at no additional charge. Any revenue from competing studio films could be an added benefit as well.
Netflix has just over $6 billion in cash and cash equivalents and $1 billion in untapped credit facility funds. And despite Netflix's stagnant subscriber growth, management expects the company to be cash flow-positive indefinitely, meaning the company shouldn't need to take out additional loans to fund its future content. Netflix does have about $14.5 billion in long-term debt that could give management pause on any possible acquisition.
The end of the "Paramount Decree" could change the movie industry forever. However, whether or not a studio decides to take advantage of the recent decision is out of any individual investor's hands. And it's generally inadvisable to buy a stock based solely on the hopes of a company making an acquisition or getting acquired.
With that caveat, watch the box-office returns on upcoming blockbusters to see whether the movie theater industry continues to improve after a couple of down years during the pandemic. If more films like Top Gun: Maverick can cross the $1 billion threshold, studios may be chomping at their popcorn to get into the movie theater business.