The multiplex is dead these days. Theater operators across the country sold $48.5 million in ticket sales over the weekend. It's the second-worst weekend since the end of January, and it probably doesn't help that the only weaker showing just happened to be last weekend

If you're AMC Entertainment Holdings (AMC -3.28%) or any of its rival exhibitors, you're feeling the pain behind the sharp deceleration of summer audiences after a promising start. After working so hard to get consumers back to the local multiplex, theaters have now had back-to-back weekends where roughly 1% of the population came out to the movies. The worst six weekends of the telltale summer season in terms of ticket sales just happen to be the last six weekends. 

Momentum is problematic. Patrons have returned to their homes -- for now -- to stream first-run entertainment. The economy is showing signs of teetering. Shares of the leading theater chains are plummeting. There are good reasons to expect things to get better later this year, but for now it's difficult to get past the troublesome trend of weak ticket sale tallies.

A pair of movie theater goes are captivated by what they're seeing on the screen.

Image source: Getty Images.

Wake me up when September ends

There are silver linings beyond the softness of the last official weekend of the summer season. The top draw -- The Woman King -- drummed up $19 million at the domestic box office. It may not seem like much for a chart-topping premiere, but it's the strongest debut in more than a month. 

The Viola Davis-helmed film about the the all-female warrior unit that protected Africa's Dahomey in the 1800s is also generating rave reviews. A healthy 95% of critics tracked by reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes recommend the movie. The audience approval rating is clocking in at a whopping 95%.    

The previous weekend's top flick also fared well with critics, with Barbarian getting the thumbs up from 92% of the platforms reviewers. Some may view this as a negative, since it means that it's not the quality of the new releases keeping people away. However, it also means that these two films should enjoy decent theatrical runs as word of mouth makes the rounds. 

Investors have been hesitant to pile into the multiplex operators since box office returns have started to decelerate sharply in the latter half of the summer. The combined value of AMC and AMC Preferred Equity (APE) enters this new trading week 49% below last month's peak. The third quarter that appeared so promising is now a pressure point for the industry. You have to go back to 1998 to find a worse pre-pandemic third quarter to date in terms of ticket sale revenue, and that's with admissions per guest so much higher now than two dozen years ago.  

The good news is that AMC has gotten a lot better about improving high-margin concessions stand sales per patron. The lack of compelling new releases will reverse course as the holidays get closer. 

These are challenging times for movie theater stocks, and some of AMC's competitors aren't going to make it. A shakeout is usually a good thing, but if it thins out the number of available screens across the country it will give movie studios less incentive to offer long windows of exclusivity to multiplexes when the home-streaming market is thriving. The holidays will have to save industry.