Business News

AMC Entertainment in Talks With Chinese Buyer

Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes

AMC Entertainment, which owns the second-largest movie theater chain in North America, is in talks to sell the company or a significant stake in it to the Wanda Group, one of China’s largest theater owners, according to people briefed on the discussions.

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If completed, the deal will begin a new phase in China’s push into the global film industry by sharply increasing its leverage with Hollywood and creating the first theater chain to have a commanding presence in the world’s two largest movie markets.

The people who described the discussions spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are private and not finished. The off-and-on negotiations, they said, began more than a year ago, then became more serious in recent weeks, as AMC scrapped plans for a stock offering that would have raised as much as $450 million.

AMC has been owned since 2004 by an investment group that includes the Apollo Investment Fund, J. P. Morgan Partners, Bain Capital Investors, the Carlyle Group and others. Apollo and its founder, Leon D. Black, also had a major stake in the chain before it was sold eight years ago for about $1.7 billion to a group in which Apollo and J. P. Morgan are the largest holders, with about 39 percent each.

Neither Gerardo I. Lopez, AMC’s chief, nor a company spokesman responded to queries. A spokesman for Apollo declined to comment. A representative for Wanda in China was not immediately available.

Any deal, whether for the entire company or for a major stake, would probably put a current value of roughly $1.5 billion on AMC. That figure is based on its reported cash flow of about $181 million for the 52 weeks ended Sept. 29 and an industry expectation that theater chains in the United States will continue to sell for as much as eight times their annual cash flow.

For AMC’s investors, a recent spike in ticket sales may present an opportunity to cash out an investment that has been in place longer than is usual for hedge-fund money and to invest in businesses with more growth potential.

Wanda’s interest in AMC comes as China has been rushing headlong into new business alliances with American movie companies, as it seeks to double the contribution to its economy from entertainment and media in the next five years.

Wanda, a conglomerate whose interests include commercial properties, luxury hotels and department stores, is involved with film production and distribution in China. It operates a rapidly growing theater chain that now has 86 multiplex locations, and a total of 730 screens, including 47 large-format Imax screens.

On its Web site, Wanda says it accounts for about 15 percent of China’s movie ticket sales, which were about $2.1 billion last year. Wanda has said that by 2015 it plans to more than double its screen count to about 2,000.

Founded in 1920 by three brothers with a single Missouri theater, AMC, based in Kansas City, later was a leader in building complexes to show more than one movie at a time. It now operates about 350 theaters with 5,050 screens. (The biggest theater chain is Regal Entertainment, which has 522 theaters with 6,580 screens.) AMC is known for having better locations than some of its rivals, which include Cinemark, the third-largest chain. Six of last year’s 10 top-grossing theaters belonged to AMC.

In the United States, the major movie studios are largely barred from owning theaters under federal consent decrees that long ago broke up an integrated system under which the majors were able to produce, distribute and exhibit their own films.

After the breakup, theater chains became the direct customer for studio movies. The theaters sell tickets to those movies, splitting the proceeds with the distributor under deals that are often fiercely negotiated.

Last year, however, AMC expanded into movie acquisition. It joined with Regal to form Open Road Films, which buys and distributes the kind of midbudget pictures that studios have started to neglect in favor of megabudget film franchises. Open Road releases have included “The Grey,” an action drama starring Liam Neeson that took in $51.6 million earlier this year.

AMC and the other big theater chains are experiencing an upswing because of blockbusters like “The Hunger Games” and “The Avengers,” which took in $207.4 million over the weekend to set an opening record. Ticket sales in North America for the year to date total $3.6 billion, a 16 percent increase from the same period a year ago, according to analysts. Attendance is up 18 percent to about 456 million.

But the last few years have been extremely difficult for theater operators. Last year, attendance in North America fell to 1.28 billion, a 4 percent decline from 2010 and the lowest total in 16 years. Ticket revenue for last year totaled $10.2 billion, a 3 percent decrease.

Chinese theatergoers have shown a taste for effects-laden American fantasies and action films like “Avatar” and “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.”

On the flip side, Chinese-made films have made little impression in the North American market, which remains five times the size of China’s, though people briefed on the current deal say Wanda’s ownership of theaters here might create a pipeline for Chinese films in the United States.