Why Did Movie Theater CEOs Make Such a Killing During the Pandemic?

While CEOs at Disney slashed their pay, top execs at AMC Theatres and Regal parent Cineworld were rewarded even as their companies lost billions

While some Hollywood companies like Disney lowered the pay of their top executives as stock prices and revenue collapsed due to COVID-19, compensation for CEOs of the world’s two biggest cinema chains saw the biggest surges of any entertainment company — how does that work?

Earlier this year, AMC Theatres reported that compensation for CEO Adam Aron rose from $9.6 million in 2019 to $20.9 million in 2020, even as the company lost $4.6 billion in 2020 and was forced to close hundreds of locations worldwide and furlough 26,000 employees. (Almost all of its U.S. jobs have been recovered as AMC has reopened its 593 domestic locations in recent months.)

At Regal Cinema’s U.K.-based parent company Cineworld, meanwhile, CEO Mooky Greidinger and deputy CEO Israel Greidinger saw their compensation get cut in half from just over a combined £3 million to £1.44 million (roughly $2 million). But in January, despite staunch opposition from some shareholders as the company lost £3 billion ($4.3 billion) in 2020, the brothers were approved for a long-term incentive program that could see them receive up to £65 million ($92 million) in stock awards if Cineworld’s stock price rebounds to pre-pandemic levels.

Cineworld stock

Neither company responded to requests for comment.

Within Hollywood, the few other CEOs who saw significant surges in their compensation led companies whose share price rise during the pandemic, namely Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and co-CEO Ted Sarandos, as well as Apple CEO Tim Cook.

In 2020, Hastings and Sarandos received compensation packages worth $43.2 million and $39.3 million respectively, all while Netflix’s stock soared from $325 per share at the start of 2020 to as high as $555 in January 2021, with the current price still up year-over-year at $484 per share. Cook’s non-stock compensation increased 28% from 2019 to just under $15 million in 2020 while Apple’s stock exploded from $57 per share at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to a current price of $125.

But AMC and Cineworld’s stock haven’t seen such fortune. Cineworld’s stock, which has never exceeded £4 per share, is currently selling at 92 pence, down from a peak of £3.18 on the day “Avengers: Endgame” was released on April 26, 2019. The Greidingers are set to begin receiving stock awards if the price reaches £1.30 per share.

AMC has fared better this year, with its price closing just over $26 last Friday after languishing at around $2 for much of 2020. But that Wall Street bump has less to do with the company’s performance or renewed confidence in movie theaters than a Reddit campaign and 3 million new shareholders seeking boost the stock of pandemic-battered brands like GameStop. Even with the influx of WallStreetBets investors who want to stick it to short-sellers, AMC’s stock is still down from a five-year peak of just under $35 per share at the end of 2016.

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Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • jeremy.fuster@thewrap.com • Twitter: @jeremyfuster