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Thinking Outside the Box (Office): How AMC Redefined What It Means to Be a Theater Chain

by Eli Williams

Theaters have long been home to quintessential coming-of-age experiences: sneaking into an R-rated movie, popping your braces off on hard candy, eating your weight in popcorn and supersized sodas and awkward first dates. For decades, AMC, the world’s largest theater chain, was at the forefront of it all. But shifts in American viewing—and shopping habits—starting in the late ’90s and early aughts proved to be the first domino collapse in a series of consumer behavior and technological shifts put into overdrive by the pandemic. According to Gallup, in 2021, those who attended a movie saw 3.6 films on average, compared with 6.9 in 2007. AMC’s luck began to sour like a parent who took their kids to see Minions: The Rise of Gru, only to be surrounded by teens clad in suits who brought their FYP IRL (the release of Minions: The Rise of Gru was overshadowed by series of viral TikToks that featured groups of teenagers dressed in suits in theaters, often wreaking havoc in the process).

Covid nearly proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the theater chain, which had suffered from years of lost footfall and financial mismanagement and was teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy. That all changed in January 2021, when an army of young Gen Z traders planted the seeds for the theater chain’s comeback, bolstering AMC’s fortunes and radically transforming its business model and cultural standing. Now, the chain is enjoying a reinvigorated financial base and a newfound relevance in mainstream culture, thanks to the unlikeliest of brand champions.

Here’s how it all unfolded:

TIMELINE OF EVENTS:

FIRE IN AN EMPTY THEATER

  • March 2020: As the world moves into lockdown, 527 out of AMC’s 589 domestic theaters close. Internationally, just 78 out of its 356 theaters remain open. At the end of Q4, sales fall by 89%.

  • September 2020: Christopher Nolan’s much anticipated Tenet is the first major blockbuster to be released in theaters since the onset of the pandemic, bringing in an underwhelming $20.2 million (compared to its $205 million budget) over its first four days in North American theaters. Some blame Nolan’s penchant for overly complex plotlines. Regardless of the actual quality of the film, many declare it to be confirmation that the movie theater is further falling into obsolescence.

  • Jan 1, 2021: Meme stock revolution kicks off. Retail traders squeeze out hedge funds betting against AMC, erasing nearly $600 billion in debt.

  • Jan 5, 2021: AMC stock hits an all-time low at just $1.98, a dollar amount that won’t even get you a bottle of water at a theater. A major winter wave of Covid continues to keep moviegoers out of theaters.

PLANET OF THE APES

  • May 6, 2021: Expressing gratitudes to the “apes” that propelled AMC stock to new heights, CEO Adam Aron announces that he would be donating $50,000 to save endangered gorillas in Central Africa.
  • June 1, 2021: AMC raises more than $230 million for possible theater acquisitions and investments. Propped up by retail traders, the influx of cash proved to be a major milestone that allowed the chain to claw its way out of financial ruin.

  • June 2, 2021: AMC CEO Adam Aron announces a new loyalty program for AMC shareholders called AMC Investor Connect, “an innovative, proactive communication initiative that will put AMC in direct communication with its extraordinary base of enthusiastic and passionate individual shareholders” that includes…free popcorn and NFTs. AMC stock closes at a record high of $62.55. Most traded stock by volume on the day (766,462,500).

SOMEHOW HEARTBREAK FEELS GOOD IN THIS PLACE”

  • September 8, 2021: CEO Adam Aron announces a “never been done before” 25 million dollar promotional campaign “We Make Movies Better,” featuring Nicole Kidman hyping up a viewing experience that streaming fails to offer. According to sources, Aron had Kidman top of mind when he was first ideating around ways to promote the theater chain, and worked closely with the actress to land on the final concept based mainly on Kidman’s fond memories of the theater-going experience from her youth.
  • March 15, 2022: AMC buys a gold mine with its meme stock winnings in an effort to diversify its assets.

  • May 5, 2022: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness releases in theaters, raking in 677.8 million. AMC in Times Square has 70 different screenings of it one single day.

  • August 6, 2022: Nicole Kidman is coming back to a theater near you after renewing her contract with AMC.

  • Today: The chain has come down from its high, both literally and figuratively. While experiencing a minor bounce back from some renewed interest from meme stock investors. It’s on shakier financial ground, but has been able to stabilize off of big box office wins from Top Gun Maverick, Minions: The Rise of Gru and Spiderman: No Way Home.

Movie theaters are down, but not out. While the number of movies released to theaters are still well below pre-pandemic levels, recent box office successes have cast aside doubts from those who bet on theaters’ demise.

Hollywood is undoubtedly becoming risk-averse. Take a look at the most popular films of the past year and you’ll notice that they have a colon or a number after the title. While movie studios might be betting on old classics to encourage moviegoers to buy $9 bags of popcorn, theater chains will need to be dogged in their pursuit of innovative ways to bring viewers into their doors.

AMC didn’t find a silver bullet, but they’re nonetheless an interesting case study in authentically tapping into the social landscape in order to bring renewed relevance to their brand (whether via crypto payments or a rogue Nicole Kidman commercial), and the moviegoing experience—swimming with, not fighting against the cultural tide.