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AMC is cashing in on a strong return to theaters

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

AMC Theatres is the largest movie theater chain in the country, and last week, the company reported its highest earnings since the start of the pandemic. The current blockbuster "Dune: Part Two" is helping. But as NPR's Isabella Gomez Sarmiento reports, AMC's success is also thanks to some very savvy marketing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICOLE KIDMAN: We come to this place for magic.

ISABELLA GOMEZ SARMIENTO, BYLINE: That's how movies begin at AMC Theatres - with Nicole Kidman taking her seat in a silvery suit. On a recent webcast about the company's 2023 earnings, chairman and CEO Adam Aron said the magic is working.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM ARON: Global attendance at AMC Theatres in 2023 tallied up 19% over the prior year and marking the highest annual attendance in the post-pandemic era.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: That's, of course, thanks to Barbenheimer last summer and AMC's exclusive deals to release Taylor Swift and Beyonce's concert films.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAYLOR SWIFT: THE ERAS TOUR")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Are you ready for it?

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: And another contributor to AMC's brands is the company's monthly subscription program called AMC Stubs. As Celia Mattison of Brooklyn, N.Y., knows, ticket prices have gone way up since the pandemic.

CELIA MATTISON: As movie tickets get more expensive, I think I have a lot of friends who are, like, I just don't really want to spend $24 on a movie right now.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: So that's where AMC Stubs comes in. You pay a set fee each month, and you can see multiple movies every week, including in IMAX. Stubs is not a new program, but the company reports it has added 10 million new accounts since 2019. And to be clear, AMC is not the only theater offering this. Regal Cinemas and Alamo Drafthouse both have similar models, but AMC's branding has given their cinemas an almost cult-like devotion. Oscar Velazquez says he went to a competing theater recently, and it just wasn't the same.

OSCAR VELAZQUEZ: It was, like, Bizarro World. I was like, who - where is Nicole Kidman?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIDMAN: Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.

BILLY RAY: My name's Billy Ray, and I wrote the Nicole Kidman AMC ad.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: That ad is a one-minute pre-roll introduced by AMC in 2021. It's inspired an "SNL" spoof and countless Halloween costumes.

REANNA CRUZ: It's at a point where, like, I can literally recite it word for word, like, beat for beat.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Reanna Cruz says they saw around 60 films with AMC stubs in 2023.

CRUZ: I don't know. It makes it feel like going to the movies is cool. And, like, it's kind of, like, an in-crowd community thing.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: The ad's screenwriter, Billy Ray, says that's why the spot resonates.

RAY: People want community again. Well, movies are part of how we get there.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: The theater industry still needs big event films to sustain this growth, but AMC's earnings show their theaters are doing something right - or, at least, maybe Nicole Kidman is. Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KOFFEE AND KANDEE SONG, "LOTS OF FUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.