Imax is back on the block

Investment banks hired to seek sales opportunities

This article was updated at 6:21 p.m.

Canadian company Imax is again putting itself on the block.

Giant-screen film firm said it has hired investment banks Allen & Co. and UBS Warburg to look into “strategic alternatives for growth” after receiving unsolicited offers.

“The most likely result will be an acquisition,” said co-CEO/co-chair Rich Gelfond. “But if we’re approached with something that works for the company and our shareholders, we’ll consider it.”

Gelfond, who declined to provide details on the offers, said the move was different from a failed sale attempt six years ago because this was being initiated by management.

News comes on the same day the company announced stellar fourth-quarter results. Earnings climbed 54% to $12 million and revenue inched up 4% to $49.3 million.

For the year, earnings were up 63% to $16.6 million and revenue climbed 6.5% to $144.9 million.

Imax struggled for a long time to break out of a niche that saw it release mainly education-flavored movies, even after it had moved into multiplexes.

But the company has benefited in the past several years from the release of a number of consumer pics, including a pact with Warner Bros. that will yield day-and-date release of “Superman Returns” this summer. Company also will release “V for Vendetta” day-and-date this month and a new pic every six to eight weeks throughout the year.

Imax now has 80 theaters at multiplexes around the country, in addition to specialty venues like the Kennedy Center and the California Science Center.

Still, Imax faces an uphill climb as exhibs concentrate on efforts to upgrade theaters.

Even blowing up consumer-oriented movies for Imax projection has not always yielded maximum profits for the company, as many of the proceeds from those screenings have gone to producers rather than to Imax.

Analysts on Thursday pointed to studios as well as tech firms as possible buyers for Imax.

Warner Bros., for example, could use it to better coordinate its own releases and its biz model with Imax screenings — though Imax could be an unwieldy fit at the already large conglom.

If deal goes through, Imax could use deeper pockets to expand beyond traditional model of selling its systems in favor of a higher-yield profit-participation model, execs said. It also could move into original production.

Gelfond pointed to the HBO model, in which the cabler built itself up on Hollywood films and then expanded into producing its own fare.

For the year, systems revenue climbed 13% to $87 million, while theater operations held steady at $17.5 million. The only slump was in film revenue, which slipped 5% to $26.5 million, due to disappointing B.O. numbers from “Magnificent Desolation.”

Company’s stock rose 85¢ on the potential sale to close at $10.35, close to its 52-week high.

But there’s little guarantee the news will amount to anything besides a short-term stock gain: When the company was on the block in 2000, there were no takers, and the stock price eventually plummeted.