AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc.’s
chief executive, has decided to run with the meme-stock bulls who helped his company avoid bankruptcy during the pandemic.
More than any CEO swept up in the meme-stock trade, Mr. Aron has come to represent the surrealism and opportunities of modern-day trading. He is a Harvard Business School graduate now known for sharing social-media memes of Reddit in-jokes. He has traded a Chinese real-estate firm, the Dalian Wanda Group, for three million individual investors he calls his community. He has promised the new shareholders dividends and free popcorn.
And it has helped the world’s largest movie-theater chain emerge from its pandemic hole. AMC raised $587 million Thursday through another stock sale effort, its seventh in nine months, adding up to more than $2.2 billion total since it began its stock sale efforts in August. The sale comes on the heels of a recent rally that brought
share price to $72 from $10 in early May.
“Fearless leader, we trust your process!” one Twitter user posted Thursday in a reply to Mr. Aron’s tweet about raising capital. “Guide us to the moon!”
It was the latest twist in what has become one of the most unusual relationships on Wall Street. Mr. Aron said in an April interview that he viewed the individual shareholders as “my bosses. They’re who I work for.” Now, Mr. Aron contends with the new challenge of keeping a fragmented investor base happy amid extreme stock volatility and challenges to the movie-theater industry, including getting people back to cinemas post-pandemic and dealing with the growing threat from at-home streaming.
The latest stock offering sold out within hours of being announced but pushed the price down by 18% Thursday to $51.34. Some individual investors who tout the stock on social media and forums like Reddit’s WallStreetBets hub took to the internet to complain about the company diluting the share count, while others cheered the company and Mr. Aron.
AMC has embraced the individual investor horde, now the majority of its investor base, to bring its movie theater business from the brink of bankruptcy to a well-capitalized company riding the economic reopening and shopping around for potential acquisitions. “Growth through acquisition is currently a priority,” Mr. Aron told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday.
The CEO, known for raising money and wooing investors, has gotten its theater chain through the pandemic by capitalizing on AMC’s stock price surges to raise cash and nurturing connections with the company’s individual investors. He tweets to them both serious corporate rationales as well as photoshopped memes that rile traders seeking to drive up the stock and make quick profits.
Mr. Aron said he sees the individual investors as his potential customers. “And we are already thinking about ways that we can excite them and lure them back into our theaters again,” he said in the April interview. The company increased its outreach to individual investors on Thursday by opening a web portal to communicate with them and furnishing loyalty perks like free popcorn and exclusive screenings.
Still, AMC acknowledged the volatility of its shares and the unusual nature of being around 80% owned by individual investors. It warned in its filing for Thursday’s offering that investors shouldn’t buy the shares “unless you are prepared to incur the risk of losing all or a substantial portion of your investment.” Mr. Aron and AMC sold the shares after the latest sign that the moviegoing business can make a legitimate comeback. Memorial Day weekend box office sales in North America reached nearly $100 million, a new high since the pandemic.
“Not often do you have a CEO out there representing this particular demographic of people,” said Anton Torres, 33 years old, an AMC shareholder who works as a cable technician in Washington state. “It’s huge,” he said, referring to Mr. Aron’s efforts to reach out to the individual investor community.
Most corporate leaders caught up in meme-stock trading frenzies, such as the chiefs of
Hertz Global Holdings Inc.,
have largely avoided the spotlight. Mr. Aron has eagerly exploited his newfound status as a celebrity in online investing forums, embracing a shareholder base increasingly dominated by bullish traders.
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He has posted memes on Twitter where his face has been put on “The Godfather” movie poster, renamed “The Apefather,” a reference to the AMC investor group that calls itself AMC “apes.” He also has posted an image of himself where his face was subbed for actor Sigourney Weaver’s on the movie poster for “Gorillas in the Mist.”
Even before Reddit leapt onto his company’s stock, Mr. Aron seemed ready-built for the internet meme world. In an exhibition industry populated by movie-theater industry lifers who tend to keep disputes behind closed doors, he got into public fights with Hollywood studio chiefs and floated ideas like having a phones-allowed texting row in AMC auditoriums. On conference calls with analysts, he quoted Winston Churchill and described disappointing quarters as “no picnic.”
For those who have worked with Mr. Aron, the outreach employs a skill set of working with investors honed over many years as the CEO of various companies in far-flung sectors. When Mr. Aron got the AMC job in late 2015 after working as CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, he essentially had one shareholder to keep happy:
the Chinese billionaire and head of Dalian Wanda Group, then the majority shareholder in AMC.
Mr. Wang was known as an idiosyncratic boss, as likely to take meetings with subordinates in the karaoke lounge as in the boardroom. Mr. Aron won him over, colleagues say, and frequently traveled to China for in-person meetings.
Wanda sold nearly its entire stake in AMC earlier this year, replacing Mr. Aron’s small constituency with the three-million-person one he now has.
On social media, AMC believers can be seen bragging that they saved the company from bankruptcy earlier this year, propelling a capital raise in January after the company warned it could file for chapter 11 if it didn’t receive a sufficient cash infusion.
However, the company’s feedback from its backers hasn’t been all positive. Some users have complained on social media about AMC’s decision to exploit the rally in its stock to raise capital, which pressures the share price.
After announcing a stock deal with hedge fund Mudrick Capital Management LP on Tuesday, some online accounts posted messages that AMC should lay off selling equity and just watch its stock price rise, squeezing out short sellers—or those betting that the company’s stock price will fall—and driving the shares even higher. Those messages continued after Thursday’s equity sale.
“We have helped save AMC,” one Twitter user posted in a reply to Mr. Aron Thursday. “You’re making me and most likely millions of other shareholders disgruntled.”
“Seriously we got the company this far let us have our squeeze,” another said.
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