* “Avatar” helps drives record quarter
* Net EPS $0.06 vs $0.21/share loss year-ago
* Revenue jumps 98 pct to $54.2 mln
* Stock climbs 6.6 pct to C$17.48 on TSX (Adds CEO comments, stock prices, details. In U.S. dollars unless noted)
By Susan Taylor
OTTAWA, March 11 (Reuters) - Giant-screen movie operator Imax Corp IMX.TO said on Thursday a strong slate of films, including the blockbuster “Avatar”, helped it bounce back to a fourth-quarter profit and it forecast a “very strong year” ahead.
Imax, which is enjoying a revival as moviegoers flock to see such 3D films as the recently released “Alice in Wonderland”, said early box office returns signal improved results.
“In the first quarter of last year, we did roughly $30 million in film revenues and, to date, in the first quarter this year, we’re up to about $187 million,” Chief Executive Richard Gelfond said in an interview. “I think it will be significantly better than our first quarter last year.”
“Avatar”, the all-time top grossing movie, contributed just 12 days of sales in the fourth quarter and is seen giving a bigger lift to the first quarter.
Shares of Imax added C$1.09 to C$17.48 on the Toronto Stock Exchange and 96 cents to $16.98 on Nasdaq on Thursday morning.
The Toronto-based company issued its better than expected results before market opened on Thursday.
Imax posted a net profit of $4 million, or 6 cents a share, compared with a year-earlier net loss of $9 million, or 21 cents a share.
Revenue rose 98 percent to a record $54.2 million.
That betters analyst expectations for earnings of 7 cents a share and revenue of $45 million, on average, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Film revenue in the quarter jumped 104 percent to $15.1 million and system sales rose 69 percent to $19.6 million.
Revenue from joint venture theater system installations grew more than fivefold and sales from its production and digital remastering technology nearly quadrupled.
Gross margin rose to $27.9 million, or 51.4 percent of revenue, from $6.5 million, or 23.6 percent of revenue, in the 2008 quarter.
At quarter end, Imax had a backlog of 136 theater systems, compared with 21 at the end of 2008.
The company said its 2010 film slate includes the release of “How to Train Your Dragon” on March 26, “Iron Man 2” and “Shrek Forever After” in May, along with “Toy Story 3” and “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” in June.
Imax, which is keen to expand its presence in Asia, agreed this week to form a joint venture with a South Korean exhibitor to operate up to 15 new theaters in that country. In December it said it was in talks with at least five companies in China.
“If you use a baseball analogy, Imax is only getting to first base. I think there’s a long way to go,” Gelfond said.
$1=$1.03 Canadian Reporting by Susan Taylor; editing by Rob Wilson