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Top exhib Regal Entertainment Group posted a 46% drop in net income for the third quarter Thursday, citing rising rent and other expenses.

Investors blitzed Regal’s stock on the news, sending it down 19% to $10.79, an all-time low, despite a final run to positive territory by the Dow and many media stocks.

Net profit fell from $58 million to $31.6 million. Revenue of $757.6 million was essentially flat with the year-ago quarter.

“We are pleased with the solid year-to-date box office results that have been achieved despite the challenging economic environment,” said chief exec Mike Campbell. “We are also encouraged by the early fourth-quarter results.”

Admissions dipped 3.5%, but that decline was offset by a nearly 4% rise in average ticket prices.

Total rent expenses increased 10%, or $8.5 million, due to the acquisition of 400 screens from Consolidated Theatres during the quarter.

In a conference call with analysts, Campbell reiterated confidence in the exhib biz as a shelter from the economic downturn as moviegoers seek an escape.

“As long as the product holds up I think that we’re in a position to tough out any recession that we have,” he said, noting overall B.O. has posted gains in five of the past seven U.S. recessions.

Regal clarified its debt position on the conference call, especially in light of the imminent outfitting of many of its 6,700 screens for digital and 3-D projection.

The circuit is carrying $2 billion in bank debt, amortized at 1.6%. The bulk of that is due in equal installments in June and October of 2013. The company has a revolving credit agreement running through October 2011. Its $211 million of convertible notes matures on March 11, 2011, and all remaining debt is due 2012 or later.

Separately Thursday, the company declared a quarterly dividend of 30 cents per share, payable Dec. 18 to shareholders of record as of Dec. 10.