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Cineworld in deal to be North America’s top movie theater operator

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Movie theater operators have been combining to squeeze costs so they can afford facility upgrades as they try to fend off competition from streaming services such as Netflix.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Britain’s Cineworld Group is on track to become North America’s biggest operator of movie theaters with its plan to buy Canada’s Cineplex Inc. for $1.6 billion.

Cineworld, which already owns the United States’ Regal Cinemas, will pay 34 Canadian dollars a share in cash for Cineplex, a 42% premium to Friday’s closing price. The deal will be funded by $2.3 billion of loans.

Shares of Cineworld rose 5% in London, paring an earlier loss of as much as 8.6%, their biggest intraday drop in about two years. Analysts at Citigroup Inc. said that although the deal makes sense, Cineworld’s debt will remain high afterward. Toronto-based Cineplex jumped 41.4% to 33.95 Canadian dollars.

Movie theater operators have been combining to squeeze costs so they can afford facility upgrades and counter the risk that on-demand services such as Netflix Inc. will hit attendance. Bigger chains can also have a stronger bargaining position in negotiations with studio giants such as the Walt Disney Co., which have also been growing through tie-ups.

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“The deal is being done first of all to improve the experience of the public and having more customers and second to get efficiencies in other costs,” Mooky Greidinger, chief executive of Cineworld, said in an interview. “We saw in the last couple of years a lot of consolidation deals in the studio side,” which has added pressure on cinema chains to find savings.

Greidinger said Netflix is “not a direct competition to us,” as “they are still TV movies, in my eyes.”

However, other analysts have pointed out that the streaming services from Disney and AT&T Inc.’s HBO will add to the pressure on theater chains.

“Top theater chains are gearing up for a challenging 2020 box-office year, as a weaker slate and surge in streaming services could mean another down year for the industry,” Amine Bensaid, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, said in a research note last month. “The studio model could contend with increased pressure if new direct-to-consumer services such as Disney+ and HBO Max follow in Netflix’s footsteps by developing more films for their digital services.”

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The takeover of Cineplex continues a push by the London-based Cineworld into North America. It follows the company’s $3.6-billion purchase of American operator Regal Entertainment Group in 2018, targeted at broadening its growth opportunities beyond the U.K. and Ireland. The British group now derives almost three-quarters of its revenues from North America.

The combined group will overtake AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. to become the biggest cinema operator in the region. China’s Dalian Wanda Group Co., which controls AMC, has been scaling back on its entertainment assets globally as billionaire Wang Jianlin shores up finances.

Were the deal to have closed at the end of this year, the combined company would have a ratio of net debt to earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortization of four times. Cineworld targets leverage to drop to three times by the end of 2021.

“The leverage of Cineworld post the Regal transaction has been a sticking point for investors, and although the company is targeting three times by the end of 2021 we think this will continue to be an area of focus,” Jefferies analysts including James Wheatcroft said in a note.

The buyer was advised by the Bank of America Corp., HSBC Holdings and the Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which have all committed to provide the financing. Cineplex was advised by the Bank of Nova Scotia.


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