Plenty of people harrumphed Wednesday when George Lucas told a crowd that “going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks” in the future. Well, one day later that has become a reality. Well, sort of. Paramount said Thursday that it will offer the film world’s first “mega ticket” for an advance screening of the Brad Pitt zombie actioner World War Z in five Regal theaters around the US. For $50 — that’s a $75 value, mind you — a moviegoer with said golden ticket from Fandango gets admission to the June 19 3D showing of the flick, a download or stream of the film when it’s released on home video, custom 3D glasses, a limited-edition official movie poster and a small popcorn. (What, no soda?) The offer is good at megaplexes in Irvine, San Diego, Houston, Atlanta and Philadelphia. Maybe it’d be wise to invest that $50 in some serious running shoes in case those mega-speedy WWZ zombies really do attack.
Exhibition industry watchers wondered whether Regal still had an appetite for acquisitions in November, when it announced a $155M special dividend. But today’s deal, following Regal’s $250M bond offering in January, should put that question to rest. Hollywood Theaters, which has 43 venues with 513 screens, had been looking for help before June, when $157M of its bonds are due. The companies say that Regal’s $191M cash payment will cover that. The No. 1 exhibition chain also picks up $47M in lease obligations. Investors seem pleased by the deal, which increases Regal’s screen count by 7.5%: Its shares are up about 2% in early trading. Even with the outlay, “Regal is well-positioned to once again generate results above expectations in 2013 driven by its leading industry position on a robust film slate (with higher 3D penetration) along with a well-capitalized balance sheet to take advantage of additional M&A opportunities,” B. Riley Caris’ Eric Wold says. Here’s today’s release:
UPDATE, 2:30 PM: Regal CFO David Ownby said during the company’s conference call that the lower results were mostly attributable to tough comparisons with the year-ago quarter. That was especially true for 3D offerings, when only …
Big Media 3Q Corporate Earnings Roundup: Are CEOs Really Worried About Recession? Or Just Looking For Convenient Excuse?
Three months ago, when Big Media CEOs wrapped up their 2Q earnings, they were still relentlessly upbeat about the business. Any worries about the economy? Not then. But the messages they delivered over the past few weeks, as they discussed 3Q, were different. Although they’re still optimistic — remember, they’re paid to be salesmen — now and then you could hear expressions of concern about where things are headed. It stood out when Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman noted that “ad sales growth will face some headwinds.” Other CEOs who are known for speaking bluntly warned that other shocks may bedevil the business. For example, Dish Network Chairman Charlie Ergen said that his satellite company — and others in pay TV — have to fight harder against rising programming costs because “there’s a limit to the price increases that could be passed on to consumers.” Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt warned that premium channels such as HBO, Showtime and Starz “are clearly impacted by the economy as consumers try to cut back.” Either they’re genuinely worried, or they want a scapegoat to blame for things that are going bad, or may soon do so. Whatever the case, we can expect to hear a lot more about the economy when it’s time for the post-mortem on the all-important 4Q earnings.
As for industry performance matters, parents of movie studios had their usual mixed results to brag about or explain away: Time Warner benefitted from Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2. Viacom was up on Transformers: Dark Of The Moon. And News Corp beat its chest about Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and X-Men: First Class. But Disney’s Cars 2 was no match for last year’s Toy Story 3. Comcast’s Universal Pictures had nothing to compare to last year’s Despicable Me. Lionsgate suffered from Conan The Barbarian and Warrior. And DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 2 didn’t contribute as much in the quarter as Shrek Forever After did in the same period last year.
Over at the TV networks, Comcast’s NBC underperformed the Street’s already modest expectations. Execs at almost all the companies were eager to talk about the cash they expect to collect soon from political ads — as well as their favorite new ATM machines: retransmission consent deals and digital streamers including Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix. Speaking of Netflix, CEO Reed Hastings once again tried to reassure investors that he’s focused on “building back our reputation and brand strength” after his decision in July to slap a 60% price increase on customers who wanted to continue to rent DVDs and stream videos. In 3Q Netflix lost 57.7% of its market value and 800,000 subscribers. And since that customer loss was bigger than projected, Netflix shares continued to fall — they’re now down 67.3% since July 1.
Here are some other themes from the latest earnings reports:
Ad sales: They’s good, but for how long? Most television networks report that scatter prices are comfortably above the upfront market from this past summer. CBS chief Les Moonves says prices in 4Q are up by “mid-teens” on a percentage basis, while Discovery says it sees least high single digit percentages. But Disney’s Bob Iger noted that scatter prices have “slowed slightly these last few weeks.” Kurt Hall of National CineMedia — the leading seller of ads in movie theaters — was far more direct when he spoke to analysts after ratcheting down his company’s financial forecasts. “I’m sure that the broadcast and cable guys are sitting there now counting their lucky stars they got their upfront done before August,” he told analysts. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
The battle lines are starting to harden around who’ll pay for those lame-looking 3D glasses. I’ve learned that other studios might line up behind Sony’s decision to stop paying the average 50-cents a pair fee beginning in May. Rival studios tell me Fox is on board. “We’re studying our options, but haven’t made any decisions yet,” denied Fox Filmed Entertainment spokesman Chris Petrikin. Remember, Fox was first in line to try to stop paying for glasses back in 2009 when it released Ice Age. But then had to abandon that effort after theaters rebelled. Sony was technically correct today when it said in a statement that “there never has been” a formal agreement stipulating that studios would shoulder the cost of 3D glasses. But it’s easy to understand why exhibitors are stunned by Sony’s stoppage. Because it changes an understanding that’s been in place since 2005 when Disney’s Chicken Little kicked off the 3D movie phenom.
“It is a radical departure from what the practice has been,” National Association of Theater Owners President John Fithian tells me. Now Regal CEO Amy Miles warns that if studios end the practice then it could “result in fewer screens exhibiting 3D films”. That’s bad news for Hollywood, which plans to release 39 films in 3D next year, vs. 36 in 2011. Exhibitors might encourage consumers to bring their own 3D glasses. That may be the future anyway. But BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield says if theaters require payment for 3D specs on top of the typical 3D surcharge ($3.25 to $4 a ticket), then “the U.S. moviegoer will reject this as another way for exhibitors to milk them and further decrease their interest in 3D (and perhaps going to the movies in general)”.
The fight is over glasses manufactured for RealD which it, in turn, supplies them to theaters. RealD’s stock price was down -14.7% today on the Sony news. The 3D tech company won’t disclose