Few of the C-suite executives running movie theaters these days have been as omnipresent as Adam Aron, the CEO of AMC Theatres. While navigating the world’s largest cinema chain through the Covid pandemic, Aron’s public profile only managed to grow, even at a time when most of his company’s theater locations were shuttered for months on end. This is due in no small part to the millions of retail investors who helped turn AMC’s publicly traded shares into a meme stock during 2021. Organizing through Reddit, Twitter and other social media platforms, they refer to themselves as “apes” and view Aron as their “silverback” leader, nicknames he has fully embraced.
Leaning into his newfound notoriety, Aron took to Twitter and YouTube to communicate directly with the millions of retail shareholders that helped save AMC financially when most predicted the circuit would soon be filing for bankruptcy. He regularly holds special screenings for apes around the United States where the draw is less the movie than it is Aron’s presence. He even rode on AMC’s float in the Rose Parade in 2022 along with some of his Twitter followers.
Boxoffice Pro’s Daniel Loria and Celluloid Junkie’s J. Sperling Reich interviewed the executive at CinemaCon 2023, going over the latest ambitions and initiatives of the world’s largest cinema circuit.
Daniel Loria: Going back to 2020, AMC struck a deal with Universal that would allow the studio’s films to hit Premium Video on Demand (PVOD) demand early—either 17 or 30 days after release—while your circuit would stand to share in a portion of those PVOD revenues. I understand that was a deal that made sense at the time, but here we are now three years later operating under very different market conditions. Is that PVOD deal with Universal still providing AMC the same value it once did? Is there a chance those terms, in regard to the window, can be revisited?
Adam Aron: Honestly, the PVOD experiment of 2020 is simply not really on my radar right now. We’ve had so many other issues to deal with, including the survival of our company from a three-year pandemic, where the box office in 2022 was still 35% below 2019 levels, that there are other issues that are of far greater importance to my time and attention.
On a broader point than just the particular Universal PVOD discussions of 2020, what’s really interesting to me is that the entire industry, including Universal on movies where it’s not going to PVOD, has come to a consensus surrounding a 45-day window.
J. Sperling Reich: It’s like an unspoken consensus within the industry.
Adam Aron: Well, we don’t speak about it with competing theater chains, and I don’t know that [Universal] would speak about it with competing movie studios. But I know that, generally, movies are playing with a 45-day window. Getting that consensus has been really important.
Another important development over the past year is that, in 2020 and 2021, the studios were really leaning into their streaming services as their top priority. Then came “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Avatar: The Way of Water,” and a lot of good movies in between those three. Hollywood started to realize again how much money could be made by releasing movies theatrically. They also realized that movies that were released theatrically became national or global events and that those movies only became even more successful when they were eventually released in their respective streaming services.
So what I think happened over the last 17 months — again, starting with “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and continuing through to “Avatar: The Way of Water” — is that studios have once again prioritized theatrical releases as the smartest way to monetize their assets. They’re giving us their biggest movies first, then they’re going streaming, and that makes everybody happy. I think those developments are far more important than the Universal deal.
J. Sperling Reich: You talk about the existential nature of surviving as a company. You have a privileged vantage point, but without giving anything proprietary away, what do you think is working for AMC which is also working for the exhibition industry at large?
Adam Aron: For the industry generally, the thing that has been working is time—the passage of time. If you look at the domestic box office as a basic placeholder for the size of the industry, for five years in a row, it was between USD $11 billion and USD $11.9 billion. Then comes the pandemic, and in 2020 it dropped from USD $11.4 to USD $2 billion. Then it goes to $4.5 billion in 2021 and USD $7.5 billion in 2022. This ecosystem was not built for a USD $2 billion box office, it was not built for a USD $4.5 billion box office or a USD $7.5 dollar box office. This ecosystem was built for an USD $11.5 billion box office. The pandemic brought us all down to our knees, but with the passage of time, we’re on an upwards ramp.
The forecasts for 2023—I’m not saying AMC forecasts, but of the forecasts that I’ve seen, I haven’t seen one under USD $8.5 billion and I haven’t seen one over USD $10 billion. That appears to be the billion-and-a-half dollar range where everybody is. Anywhere in that range is a lot more than USD $7.5 billion. As I say, with the passage of time, we’re clearly on an upwards ramp: USD $2 to $4.5 to USD $7.5 billion… to “pick your number for this year.”
I believe that 2024 is going to be bigger than 2023. I think that Covid was a five-year detour for this industry, and we’ve already completed three years of it. March of 2023 was the three-year mark since theaters were shut. I think this recovery is a four, five, six-year affair, but let’s call it five years before we’re kind of back to normal. For those companies that had cash, they were able to survive this horrible decline and an upwards ramp where, as of the calendar year 2022, we’re still down 35% from pre-pandemic levels. Last year was not a particularly good year for movie theaters.
What’s worked for AMC is quite different than what’s worked for the rest of the industry. It’s pretty well known that we’re one of the two meme stocks in the United States: Gamestop and AMC. Somewhere between 3 and 4 million avid passionate shareholders descended on AMC and bought control of our company, with whom I tweet every single day. I started tweeting in April of 2021, once we realized retail investors had shown up. My tweets have been read about 300 million times. What’s been really important for AMC is that these retail investors have come to our side, and they’re our most enthusiastic backers. They’ve allowed us to raise a lot of cash. In debt, equity, or concessions from landlords and lenders, AMC has raised over USD $5 billion since March 2020. That’s why we’re still here today, and that’s why we’re still strong today. I give a lot of credit to those retail investors who really love AMC, and whose connection to our company is strong.
It’s obviously a unique situation. I don’t know of any other movie theater company in the world that has millions of investors or has been able to raise the kind of capital we’ve been able to raise or has so many millions of people following everything that we do, the hundreds of thousands of people who read every tweet that comes out of our pen. So that’s been a particularly noteworthy thing for us. We are the biggest movie theater chain in the world, and we’re the biggest movie theater chain in the United States. If you go on Twitter and read my Twitter feed…
Daniel Loria: Oh, we read the Tweets. We read the replies, too, sometimes…
Adam Aron: Some are a little grouchy. But so many of them are so supportive of the company and in love with the company and committed to the company, and are going to stay committed to the company for a very long time. That’s a great asset that we have.
Daniel Loria: Dynamic pricing is a new concept for movie theaters here in the U.S., but it’s not unheard of internationally. You’re the world’s largest movie theater chain, so I understand introducing dynamic pricing in the United States was something you implemented after having research and data to back it up from your global circuit. The concept has met with some pushback domestically, however. Why do you think that is? How is the U.S. different in terms of promoting a concept that’s been easier to implement overseas?
Adam Aron: Because it’s never been tried before here, so it’s news since it’s a change of habit. It should work. It works in every other industry. We’re testing it right now across the United States. We’re testing it in three cities: Kansas City, Chicago, and New York. We’ll probably test it in more cities later in the year and see what the reaction is. I’m not surprised that when you change the habit of an industry, it takes people a little while to adjust to it.
Daniel Loria: How do you feel about the results from those three test markets so far?
Adam Aron: It’s too early to tell.
J. Sperling Reich: Speaking of changing habits, a big thing happened right at the start of the pandemic: the Paramount Consent Decree was thrown out—which essentially permits movie studios to go out and buy movie theaters. From what we’ve been told by certain people, big guys love that it’s gone, little guys hate it. Now, that’s something studios could and would have done a long time ago if they wanted to. On the flip side of that, a movie theater chain like AMC can now safely venture into acquiring movies that play exclusively at AMC, and later on stream on AMC On Demand. Has there been any thought into going into distribution on some level?
Adam Aron: We actually did that several years back. You may recall that we owned 50% of Open Road.
Daniel Loria: You even had a Best Picture winner in “Spotlight” through Open Road.
Adam Aron: We’re considering content as a possible avenue for investment dollars, but we haven’t made any decisions yet.
Daniel Loria: Talking about investment, let’s talk M&A. I know survival is top of mind for everyone right now, but there has been a lot of speculation lately around consolidation in this industry. In terms of opportunities that are out there at the right price, is domestic or international expansion more appealing to you as the CEO of the world’s largest exhibition circuit?
Adam Aron: Yes.
Daniel Loria [Laughing]: So whatever’s the best deal on the table?
Adam Aron: With AMC, you’re dealing with the largest exhibitor in Europe, and the largest exhibitor in the United States, so we should want to support either one of our businesses. You know, you use the phrase “people are focused on survival.” That’s what I was focused on last year. I believe that AMC has survived. The box office is growing, earnings are growing. We’re starting to look past playing defense and looking towards playing on offense.
You may recall we bought up almost half of the Arclight/Pacific circuit. We bought up more than half of the Bow Tie circuit in the northeast. There are a number of other theater chains that we have talked to about combining forces. Nothing necessarily this week, but I think you’ll see AMC continue to add locations when we find attractive theaters in great locations that we can bring into our fleet on really good economic terms.