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Workers are seen in a Cineplex theatre in Mississauga., Ont., on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018.

Christopher Katsarov/Globe and Mail

Superhero movie Black Panther could not save Cineplex Inc. from another decline in box office attendance during the first quarter, a negative trend that has been driving down the company’s stock and that on Wednesday sent the shares to a six-year low.

Attendance at movies across the Cineplex chain cracked through the 70-million mark in 2012 and climbed to a peak of 77 million in 2015. But from there, it began to fall, bumping down to 70.4 million in 2017. The decline extended into the first three months of 2018, as attendance fell nine per cent to 17.8 million from 19.6 million a year earlier. The blockbuster Black Panther movie accounted for more than a fifth of Cineplex’s box office in the quarter.

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It was only last summer when investors began to worry. Cineplex stock peaked at $54.35 last May and in August, after a difficult quarterly earnings report, the stock lost almost a third of its value in a month. It rallied through the fall, but this January it plunged again. On Wednesday, after the company announced its first-quarter results, Cineplex shares fell about five per cent or $1.34 to $28.05, their lowest close since March, 2012. The stock is now down by nearly half from last year’s high.

Cineplex said its work to diversify its business – such as opening standalone arcade-restaurant-bars called the Rec Room – will succeed. On Wednesday, as quarterly revenue and profit fell, the company raised its dividend for an eighth consecutive year. Chief executive Ellis Jacob said investors have unduly fixated on box office attendance.

“People are so much about what are the quarterly results, not thinking about what is the company going to actually look like five years from now,” said Mr. Jacob. “Too many people are just focused on the film business, not the overall business that we’ve created.”

In the first quarter, revenue at the box office, and food and beverage sales at theatres, was $290-million, down six per cent from $307-million a year earlier. The decline was less than the nine-per-cent slide in attendance, because Cineplex continues to make more money from each customer as they pay for things such as premium theatres and alcohol.

The percentage of Cineplex’s core business as a share of its overall sales dropped to 74 per cent in the first quarter from 78 per cent a year ago. Total company revenue was $391-million, down one per cent from $394-million last year. Profit was $15-million or 24 cents a share, down from $23-million or 37 cents last year.

Rec Room revenue was about $9-million in the first quarter, up from $2-million, as Cineplex expands its nascent chain. The fifth Rec Room opened this week in London, Ont., and two more will open next year, in St. John’s and Winnipeg.

Cineplex’s media-advertising business, at theatres and elsewhere, fell short of expectations. Revenue in the quarter fell to $33-million from $34-million. Canaccord Genuity analyst Aravinda Galappatthige said this was the “main disappointment” of the quarter. He said the Rec Room was “performing well.”

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As Cineplex diversifies, movies are still its mainstay. Mr. Jacob predicted strong months ahead, with the recent success of Avengers: Infinity War and additional coming franchise films such as Solo: A Star Wars Story and Incredibles 2. But when asked whether Cineplex can remain above 70-million in annual attendance, Mr. Jacob said it was hard to predict the vagaries of the box office.

“If you told me last week that Avengers was going to be the biggest movie opening ever, I would have said, ‘Nah,’ with Star Wars and all that,” he said. Mr. Jacob also said that the decline at the box office is not a secular one. “When the content is there, people will come. They want to enjoy the experience. You can’t replicate the experience at home.”

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