Cineplex takeover makes sense as pressure from streamers mounts
Cineplex Inc. has agreed to be bought by British theatre chain Cineworld in a $2.8-billion deal that, if approved, would create the largest cinema empire in North America, the company announced on Monday.
Cineplex is the dominant theatre banner in Canada, with a 75 per cent share of the box office. But at 1,700 screens, it’s a relatively minor player compared to a giant like Cineworld. In an industry in which streaming services are weaning studios off their dependence on cinemas, joining a giant could be the right move for Cineplex, analysts suggested Monday.
The Cineworld Group plc offer, which values Cineplex at $34 a share, would boost Cineworld’s screen count to more than 8,900 screens in North America, surpassing AMC and making it the largest cinema circuit on the continent, Cineworld chief executive Moshe Greidinger told investors on a conference call.
Cinemas have been struggling to hold on to their right to screen films exclusively for several months before they’re shown on other platforms. With studios such as Disney running their own streaming services, the pressure to shrink the theatrical window will grow, said Sam La Bell, head of research at Veritas Investment Research.
“You want to have enough bargaining power with the studios so you can have sway,” he said. “The bigger you are, the more bargaining power you have.”
The deal needs to clear several hurdles before it is approved, including a seven-week period during which Cineplex can solicit competing offers. But analysts didn’t have high expectations for the go-shop phase.
“We believe that this transaction is most likely the end game,” CIBC analyst Robert Bek wrote in a research note. “There is low probability that a white knight will step in with a competing bid, however this scenario is not off the table.”
The deal also needs regulatory approval in Canada, two-thirds approval from Cineplex shareholders, and approval from a simple majority of Cineworld shareholders. Cineworld says it already has assurances from its largest shareholder, which owns a 28 per cent stake.
We don’t see any deal threats to the deal, just some baggage to drag across the line
Robert Bek, analyst, CIBC
“While current market share of Canadian box office at 75-per-cent-plus may lead to anti-trust scrutiny from the regulatory body, we don’t see any deal threats to the deal, just some baggage to drag across the line,” Bek wrote.
If the deal goes through, Greidinger said he will roll out Cineworld’s Unlimited subscription plan in Canada, allowing moviegoers to watch as many films as they want for a monthly fee.
“The success of Unlimited is really indisputable,” Greidinger said.
After closing at about $24 on Friday, Cineplex shares soared following the acquisition announcement Monday, closing at $33.96 — just below Cineworld’s offer. The $2.8 billion transaction value includes the assumption of net debt, Cineplex said.
“Given Cineplex’s recent share price underperformance, valuation and high-quality asset mix … we are not entirely surprised,” RBC analyst Drew McReynolds wrote about the deal.
Amid turbulence in the business, Cineplex has taken strides to diversify itself, entering the restaurant sector with its Rec Room chain of pub-arcade hybrids. It also runs the Playdium arcade chain and an arcade-equipment rental business. On the movie side, Cineplex has added a slate of premium screening options — VIP theatres, enhanced viewing experiences such as UltraAVX and 4D — to distinguish itself from the experience of watching at home, allowing the company to extract more revenue from a shrinking audience base, La Bell said.
While Greidinger spoke positively about Cineplex’s non-theatre businesses on Monday, analysts questioned how long they’d last after the entirely debt-financed deal.
“Asset sales are probably in the mix,” Le Bell said, suggesting that Cineworld will be motivated to pay down debt and might not be interested in staying in the restaurant business. Greidinger, however, noted that Cineplex’s arcade supplier sends equipment to other theatres in the Cineworld network.
He said Cineworld is expecting to realize US$130 million in cost savings after the purchase.
“Consolidation is a part of the life today,” Greidinger said, adding that the number of screens in his empire “is not what counts.” What counts, he said, is “cash flow and the profit.”
Theatres are ultimately competing for attention, said Kaan Yigit, president and research director at Solutions Research Group Consultants Inc. That means they’re not just up against streaming services.
“So if you want to compete for attention with that scale/size, you either have to be a narrow specialist or of a certain size yourself,” Yigit said in an email.