Record-Shattering Chinese New Year Box Office Might Bode Well for IMAX

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As many people turn to streaming for their movie-watching fix, investors in the film exhibition and movie theater space have taken it on the chin. Changing consumer habits have many wondering when the occasional trip to the local movie house will die out altogether. A record box-office haul in 2018 has temporarily quieted those fears, but the skeptics remain.

Giant-screen purveyor IMAX (NYSE: IMAX) has done its best to stay above the fray. The company believes that by offering a premium experience, it can maintain a successful niche in what many believe is a dying industry. IMAX will again make its case directly to investors when the company reports its fourth-quarter financial results after the market close on Tuesday, Feb. 26. Let's recap the third quarter and catch up on some recent word from China to see if they provide insight into what investors can expect when IMAX reports earnings.

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Impressive bottom-line growth

For the third quarter, IMAX reported revenue of $82.1 million, a decline of 17% compared with the prior-year quarter. Several issues impacted year-over-year comps. System sales can be lumpy and the company had four fewer sales in the third quarter compared with the same time last year. Additionally, Q3 2017 benefited by $8.7 million from IMAX's investment in Disney's production of Marvel's Inhumans television series. Finally, there were fewer blockbusters in Q3 2018 compared with the prior-year quarter.

The big story was the significant improvement on the bottom line, the result of cost-cutting measures. Cost of revenue came in at $40 million, down 32% year over year, while expenses of $6 million fell 40% year over year. Excluding one-time restructuring costs of $3.4 million in Q3 2017, expenses fell by 7% year over year. This resulted in net income of $7.5 million, up 159% year over year, and earnings per share of $0.08, compared with a loss of $0.01 in the prior-year quarter.

Happy Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, runs for an entire week from Feb. 4 to Feb. 10. This is prime movie time for families in China, and this year brought in a record box-office haul.

IMAX announced a "record-shattering opening box office" during the Chinese New Year. A trio of local-language films -- The Wandering Earth, Crazy Alien, and Pegasus -- delivered 217 million yuan ($32.3 million), up 40% year over year, and the company's best Chinese New Year performance ever. The Wandering Earth accounted for the lion's share of the results, capturing 185 million yuan, or $27.6 million, to become the highest-grossing local-language film ever for IMAX. This is particularly impressive considering last year's 80% year-over-year gains during the same period.

Last month, Transformers spin-off Bumblebee, from Viacom's Paramount Pictures, ruled the box office in China, delivering 43 million yuan ($6.1 million), representing one of IMAX's best January performances. At the time, IMAX said it closed out the year in China with strong demand for Hollywood blockbusters, including Bumblebee, Aquaman from AT&T's Warner Bros. Pictures, and Marvel's Venom from Sony. These movies helped boost IMAX's November and December box office by 40% year over year and produce a record December in China.

What the quarter might hold

Since a large portion of the company's results are largely dependent on the success or failure of the slate of movies at the box office, IMAX doesn't provide specific revenue and earnings-per-share guidance. The company did share that it expects total operating expenses to be essentially flat compared with last year, showing that IMAX is continuing to hold the line on cost containment.

We'll have the rest of the answers when IMAX reports earnings after the market close on Tuesday, Feb. 26.

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Danny Vena owns shares of IMAX and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends IMAX. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.