US box office gains momentum in 4Q

LOS ANGELES -- A stronger than expected start to movie theater attendance in the fourth quarter and a smaller decline in the third quarter than forecast prompted a Nomura analyst to tweak his profit estimate for Regal Entertainment Group on Wednesday.

The momentum bodes well for the final three months of the year, which will see the launch of big movies including the finale of the Twilight series as well as the first installment of The Hobbit and the 23rd James Bond movie, Skyfall.

In the first two weeks of the month, U.S. movie theater ticket revenue is up 23 percent from a year ago, according to analyst Robert Fishman. The decline in ticket sales in the third quarter was 7 percent, versus an expected 8 percent decline.

For all of the fourth quarter, Fishman expects domestic movie theater ticket revenue will be up 7 percent from a year ago. Higher ticket sales also mean better sales of popcorn, soda and candy.

In October Taken 2, starring Liam Neeson, and Argo, starring Ben Affleck, helped boost ticket sales compared to a year ago. The final weekend of September was also helped by the success of Hotel Transylvania and Looper.

Fishman boosted his third-quarter earnings estimate for Cinemark Holdings Inc. by a penny to 36 cents per share.

Because Regal Entertainment Group's fiscal third quarter ended Sept. 27, before the final weekend, Fishman cut his estimate for Regal's earnings by a penny in the third quarter to 15 cents per share, but boosted his fourth-quarter estimate by a penny to 13 cents per share.

Cinemark shares rose 59 cents, or 2.5 percent, to $24.36 in afternoon trading. Regal rose 3 cents to $15. Carmike Cinemas Inc. shares were up 4 cents at $12.40.