Cineworld PLC chief executive officer Mooky Greidinger has taken another audacious bet on the future of the movie-theatre business with a $2.2-billion offer to buy Canada’s Cineplex Inc., only two years after swallowing the U.S.-based Regal Cinemas chain in a similarly gutsy move.
Either Mr. Greidinger is a glutton for punishment or he knows something that has escaped most observers as investors turn their backs on brick-and-mortar theatre chains. Until the British-based Cineworld’s suspiciously rich $34-a-share offer on Monday, Cineplex’s stock had been trading at less than half of its 2017 peak of around $54.
Why would Mr. Greidinger pay so much for a declining business that is increasingly dependent on gimmicks, such as cushier seats and booze, to persuade people to get up off their couch?
Already threatened by streaming giants Netflix and Amazon, Cineworld now faces competition from the very Hollywood studio that has been responsible for putting the most bums in movie-theatre seats this year. With Walt Disney Co.’s move into streaming, theatre operators could see even more moviegoers abandon the multiplex for the comfort of their own living rooms.
The rivalry between the theatre chains and streaming services is one worthy of Ford v. Ferrari, the Christian Bale race-car vehicle whose relatively strong box-office numbers – it has brought in about US$185-million worldwide since its late-November release – has been a bright spot in an otherwise grim fall movie season that has produced mostly flops (see Teminator: Dark Fate).
Much will depend on how Disney plays its cards; but almost everyone agrees that the Hollywood monolith, whose Avengers: Endgame this year broke the all-time box-office record held since 2009 by Avatar, has the better hand. Theatre chains such as Cineworld and U.S.-based AMC Entertainment Holdings may have even less bargaining power to negotiate exclusive theatre runs for the big-budget action blockbusters that have become their bread and butter.
Indeed, without the Marvel franchise – a magnet for teens – it’s hard to imagine a future for theatres. After all, the latter seem to have already given up on serious movie lovers.
After last year’s Roma, two of the leading contenders for this year’s Oscar for Best Picture – The Irishman and Marriage Story – are Netflix original productions that have had only minimal theatrical runs. Major chains, including Cineplex, all refused to show the films because Netflix would not bend to their demand for a three-month exclusive theatre run before moving online.
Still, Mr. Greidinger is not alone in being bullish on the future of the multiplex. Vincenzo Guzzo, whose Montreal-based Guzzo Cinemas would become the largest Canadian-owned movie-theatre chain if the Cineworld deal for Cineplex is completed, is betting on a theatre-going renaissance once the novelty of streaming wears off.
“People will try streaming for a few years, but pretty soon they’ll start to realize that it’s not very sexy,” Mr. Guzzo said in an interview. “You can’t get the same movie experience online.”
Mr. Guzzo actually sees Disney’s move into the streaming business as a positive development for movie theatres. Unlike Netflix, Apple and Amazon, the legendary Hollywood studio – which bought Twentieth Century Fox earlier this year – has an interest in ensuring that the multiplex survives.
“No one would have given Disney US$2.8-billion for Avengers: Endgame [if the box-office-record-breaking film was only available] through streaming,” he insisted. “So, Disney actually knows the value of going through a theatrical release.”
For independent theatre operators such as Mr. Guzzo, however, Cineworld’s takeover of Cineplex – which accounted for three-quarters of the $800-million collected in Canadian box office receipts in 2018 – adds a new element of uncertainty to the competitive landscape.
A year ago, Mr. Guzzo was scouting locations in Alberta and British Columbia as part of a plan to take his Quebec-based chain across Canada. He is still considering the idea, though he concedes that Cineworld’s move into the domestic market could lead him to alter his plans. Much will depend on whether Cineworld closes some Cineplex locations or abandons Cineplex’s aggressive push into non-theatre businesses, such as its Playdium and Rec Room entertainment complexes.
And, of course, whether Cineworld is able to thrive in the Canadian market. AMC, which is currently controlled by Chinese-based Dalian Wanda Group and U.S. private-equity firm Silver Lake Partners, pulled out of Canada in 2012. Belgian-based Kinepolis Group NV currently owns Canada’s Landmark Cinemas chain, which holds about 12 per cent of the domestic market.
It’s not clear Cineworld can count on a Hollywood ending to its Canadian adventure.