Remarkable: How AMC Movie Theatres Have Survived Despite Massive Debt

Adam Aron, the CEO of AMC Theatres, gives me a choice.

We’re supposed to have a 20-minute interview in Las Vegas at CinemaCon, a four-day gathering of movie theater owners and Hollywood studios designed to breathlessly hype the year’s upcoming blockbusters, but he’s distracted. Executives from Warner Bros. want him to come backstage before their presentation to schmooze with the filmmakers they brought to Caesars Palace. (Aron doesn’t care about hobnobbing with directors, he stresses, but “they like to meet me.”) So here are my options: Stick to the plan, with Aron’s mind flittering elsewhere, or cancel other commitments to get dinner and much more time on the record. The second choice, a publicist’s nightmare, makes it more likely that the AMC chief will say something controversial. But Aron has endured a pandemic that shut down his business, withstood roller-coaster share prices and sidestepped nagging speculation that he’s about to get canned. He thrives on risk.  

Hours later, we’re at Carmine’s, a family-style Italian restaurant that Aron loves. Over comically large portions of lemon chicken and angel hair pasta glistening with butter (and marinara sauce on the side), along with enough iced tea to hydrate Sin City, Aron opens up about the challenges facing AMC and the moves he’s making to keep the chain afloat as it struggles under a $4.5 billion debt. He also admits that by the time he trekked to the Colosseum before Warners show, most of the directors he went to meet were gone. But he did get to snack on onion dip. “It was delicious.” 

At CinemaCon, where cinema owners are treated like gods, Aron is a big deal. But outside the smoke-filled walls of Caesars, it’s hard to envy him. He’s running the world’s largest theater chain at a time when it faces questions about its survival — and he’s doing it as the movie business is flailing, having been shellacked by COVID and then two labor strikes. Since the pandemic, Aron has cycled through nine lives and then some, while averting the dreaded “B” word — bankruptcy — a fate that befell competitors like Cineworld and Alamo Drafthouse. 

“We’re still here,” Aron says of Kansas-based AMC, which operates 895 theaters globally. “When you think about what we’ve been through the past four years, it’s kind of a miracle. It could have gone kaplooey 10 times, but it didn’t. And good for us. We’re almost finally through it.”  

Privately, studio executives and rival exhibitors would love to see AMC file for Chapter 11. It’s not a case of schadenfreude. Given its stature, AMC is seen as the barometer for the industry’s financial health. This upsets other theater owners because they have more pristine balance sheets and feel the company’s current woes are a drag on the sector. The next two years will be crucial, as AMC has more than $2.8 billion of maturities due in 2026. Because of the looming deadline, the company is reportedly weighing debt-extension proposals. 

“Adam wants to avoid bankruptcy, and it sounds like investors are open to renegotiating debt,” says Alicia Reese, VP of Equity Research at Wedbush Securities. “But there’s so much noise about AMC’s lack of profitability that unfairly implies an unhealthy industry. Studios and rivals want to reduce that noise.” 

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In 2023, AMC CEO Adam Aron, left, partnered with Taylor Swift on “The Eras Tour” and Beyoncé on her concert film “Renaissance.”
Getty Images

The pandemic exacerbated things, but AMC’s debt dilemma is largely self-created. Aron became CEO in 2016, having previously overseen the Philadelphia 76ers and Norwegian Cruise Line. He quickly transformed the company into a global powerhouse, acquiring Carmike Cinemas, London-based Odeon & UCI Cinemas and Nordic Cinema Group — deals that didn’t always pay off.  

“Hindsight is tough,” says Eric Wold, senior analyst with B. Riley Securities. “In terms of Adam’s desire to get bigger and have more control over the industry, it was smart. He now has a lot of pull with studios.” 

Despite its financial challenges, AMC is still a buyer, picking up several high-performing leases formerly operated by Arclight, Pacific Theatres and Bow Tie Cinemas that shuttered during COVID. And Aron is open to expanding again. Would he buy Alamo Drafthouse, the Texas-based circuit that’s like church to cinephiles and is exploring a sale? 

“We would be willing to grow AMC through acquisition going forward if we can find the right theaters at the right price,” Aron says, adding that he “won’t talk about individual theaters.” 

That AMC is even afloat right now, let alone entertaining another spending spree, is due to a financial deus ex machina that’s bizarre even by Hollywood standards. In 2021, as movie theaters were struggling to stay open and Wall Street was betting against the business’s recovery, the “meme stock” frenzy — fueled by young retail investors, many of whom were more interested in sticking it to hedge funds seeking to short-sell the stock than they were supporting the big screen — sent the circuit’s stock price to the moon. It miraculously allowed AMC to improve its financial situation and renegotiate its massive debt obligations. Shares subsequently fell back to earth and are trading at slightly under $5.

“Retail shareholders saved AMC,” Aron says. “We said back then we weren’t necessarily trading based on fundamentals. The share price has come down, but [the phenomenon] was good for our company. And there are still millions and millions of retail shareholders who are invested in AMC stock. I tweet every week of my life that we’re glad they’re there.”   

He not only communicates with them on social media; he also embraces their ideas, which include accepting bitcoin and crypto payments for tickets and concessions. Those investors, who call themselves “Apes,” hail Aron as “the Silverback.” (It’s a reference to “The Planet of the Apes,” a movie in which primates overthrow humans.) And Aron, a 69-year-old Harvard Business School graduate, has embraced the disruption with a showman’s flair.  

Being the center of attention comes naturally. At dinner, Aron interjects as the waiter asks if we’ve ever dined at Carmine’s, famous for platters of food so big that a wrestler in bulking season would struggle to polish them off. “Can I help? Order a lot,” Aron says, “because the portion sizes are very small.” 

Aron is charming in a “dad joke-y” way, but Hollywood executives and rival exhibitors can’t decide whether he’s a business savant or the captain of the Titanic. Aron captured lightning in a bottle with the chain’s $25 million promotional campaign to get people back to the movies, in which he hired Nicole Kidman to tout the “magic” of the AMC theatrical experience and famously declare that “somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.” Moviegoers committed her melodramatic speech to memory and petitioned when AMC attempted to shorten the commercial, which still plays before every showtime. But some feel that Aron puts the exhibition industry in the news for the wrong reasons — like in 2023, when he revealed he had been the victim of an “elaborate criminal extortion” by a woman who “threatened to release sexually explicit photographs of, and sexually explicitly communications” with the CEO. And despite the company’s economic hardships, he’s profiting handsomely; his total compensation in 2023 rose to $25.4 million in salary, stock and bonuses, according to public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Retail shareholders may have saved AMC from catastrophe, but there are dangers ahead. These include a lighter release calendar and underperforming blockbusters that sent the box office tumbling 20% behind 2023 and 40% behind pre-pandemic levels. 

Over the past four years, Aron has made attempts — some more unusual than others — to expand the company’s business outside of box office. AMC has invested in a Nevada-based gold and silver mining company, started selling popcorn in shopping malls, launched a branded credit card and partnered with Zoom so audience members can schedule conference calls from the comfort of their local multiplex. There’s also that “Dune” popcorn bucket (you know the one) that ignited the internet, to say nothing of the wildly successful AMC-distributed concert film “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour.” 

As Aron pours several sugar packets into his nth iced tea, he waves off the naysayers who have concerns the box office won’t ever rebound. “Your industry brethren are still so negative,” he tells me, referring to fellow journalists. “I understand why. It’s because they’re looking back. Just look a little ahead, and the box office in 2025 and 2026 is going to be so much bigger than 2023 and 2024.” 

AMC still needs to survive the next seven months. This year doesn’t look like it’ll match the grosses of 2023 — the best post-pandemic year but far below pre-COVID revenues. Last year’s strikes derailed the recovery as anticipated blockbusters were delayed while the industry shut down for months. Cinemas were collateral damage in the strikes, which Aron calls a “needless, self-inflicted wound.” He estimates theaters need six to nine months to recover.

“We’re aware of our current circumstances. Believe me,” he says. “But it’s not going to stay that way. It’s the first time in four years that I’ve been able to look ahead and say with some confidence that it’s not going to be atrocious.” 

It helps that traditional studios, after a torrid affair with streaming, fell back in love with theaters. In 2020, during the worst of the pandemic, AMC and Universal feuded over the video-on-demand release of “Trolls World Tour.” It ended with the companies striking a historic deal to shorten the theatrical window from 90 days to roughly three weeks — sending shockwaves through a slow-to-change sector of the business. Now there’s a shift in attitude from the major distributors when assessing the value of the big screen; studios once again want their movies to enjoy a longer stay in theaters.   

“People were writing off the existence of theaters as some bizarre anachronism,” Aron says about pandemic-era disputes. “Then studios finally realized again, ‘Wait a second — there’s a shitload of money to be made in movie theaters.’”  

Despite the change of heart, studios are releasing fewer films. In response, AMC is filling in the gaps in the calendar: Aron once again shook up the industry in 2023 by beating out traditional studios to partner with Swift on “The Eras Tour” and Beyoncé’s concert film “Renaissance.”

Swift’s movie set all kinds of benchmarks, becoming the highest-grossing concert film ever, with $261 million globally. “And it was really good,” Aron says. “It got an ‘A+’ on CinemaScore and 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s not like we threw together some garbage.” 

Aron expects that AMC will unveil “two to three” concert films a year and recently expanded the company’s distribution team, underscoring its commitment to releasing its own movies.  

Hollywood studios, which regularly work with AMC, aren’t thrilled about the chain’s foray into distribution, feeling that the exhibitor is encroaching on their territory. Theater owners, too, feel slighted by the arrangements with Swift and Beyoncé. AMC was the only chain to know about the existence of those films in advance, so it could put tickets on sale first. 

“We couldn’t blow Taylor’s secret,” Aron explains. “And those theater chains who groused to you? They grossed $100 million in ticket sales. It’s not like they sold diddly.”  

To soothe bruised feelings, before Beyoncé’s film went on sale, AMC gave its competition a super-secret heads-up: Don’t tell anyone, but be ready to put tickets on sale. 

“At least half a dozen movie circuits leaked the news,” Aron laments. “Beyoncé was seriously thinking about not doing the movie at all because the secret was blown. So, they didn’t keep their word.”  

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Aron at the “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” premiere in Los Angeles.
Getty Images

Aron has other plans to revitalize the company’s languishing stock price. He wants to improve the moviegoing experience. To do that, he’ll deploy $200 million in capital annually to reinvest in theaters, which will renovate auditoriums with comfy recliner seats, upgrade projection systems and add premium large-format screens. AMC already boasts the largest North American footprint of the newly popular Imax screens. “Those are the seats that sell first,” he adds. 

Aron tends to speak in outlines, ticking off the one, two, three steps in his multipronged plan of attack. When it comes to appeasing shareholders, it’s twofold. “No. 1 is to make sure we survive since COVID. And we’ve done a pretty good or, I’d say, very good job at that. No. 2 is to deliver increased earnings going forward. We’re quite focused on that.”

He adds, “It’s generally smart for people in my role not to talk externally about the share price. I happen to be a very large AMC shareholder. So clearly I would prefer that the stock price be higher rather than lower.”  

According to Aron, AMC doesn’t need the box office to return to pre-COVID levels. He says the company has cut costs and let go of underperforming leases. “We’re focused on delivering more revenue and bottom-line profit,” he says. “At some point, the share price will take care of itself.”   

Another win: Customers have been spending more freely at the concession stand, which helps revenues. A big growth driver has been movie-themed merchandise, like a top hat for “Wonka” or a toy pink convertible for “Barbie.” In 2023, those collectibles delivered $54 million in sales. Aron expects 25 or more movie tie-ins in 2024.  

Thanks to those efforts, AMC went viral last year after the internet discovered the souvenir canister for “Dune: Part Two” looked more like a sex toy than a sandworm. The now-iconic bucket has been memed to hell and even immortalized on “Saturday Night Live” in a sketch about a teenager with other plans for the popcorn container. Aron tuned in, but he wasn’t impressed.

“It wasn’t their best skit,” Aron says. “It was great they did it. But you gotta remember that I’m so much older than you. When I think of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ I’m going back to John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Eddie Murphy. I have very high standards for comedy on ‘SNL.’”  

But it reminds him of an aphorism: “The only bad publicity is your obituary. As far as I’m concerned, they can make fun of AMC on ‘Saturday Night Live’ every week,” he says. “Nothing would be better.” 

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