UPDATE 3-Imax profit beats as big-name 3D films draw crowds

* Adjusted EPS $0.53 vs year-earlier loss $0.06

* Revenue up 120 pct at $72.8 mln

* Hikes 2010 theater installation forecast

* Stock falls more than 5 pct, analysts say profit-taking (Adds analyst and chief executive comments, stock prices. Figures in U.S. dollars unless noted)

By Susan Taylor

OTTAWA, April 29 (Reuters) - Big-screen movie company Imax Corp IMX.TOIMAX.O posted a market-beating profit on Thursday and said it will accelerate its expansion plans, as it benefits from a growing appetite for such 3D blockbusters as "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland."

Imax, which has transformed its business to digital projection from large-format film, said that, based on recent deals, it expects to install more theater systems in 2010 than it previously forecast.

Despite the strong results and sturdy growth prospects, Imax shares dropped more than 5 percent, which analysts attributed to profit-taking after a recent run-up by the stock.

“It’s an example of sell on the news. The stock’s had a massive run here in the last quarter,” said Piper Jaffray analyst James Marsh.

“Investors have been served up with a buffet of good news: international screen install growth, programming deals with Warner Brothers, a box office outperformance. So it’s been a great quarter, which was obviously evident in the results.”

Imax, which opened its first theater in 1970, said it earned $26.6 million, or 40 cents a share, in the first quarter, compared with a year-earlier loss of $2.6 million, or 6 cents a share.

Excluding stock-based compensation, its profit was 53 cents a share.

Analysts, on average, had expected earnings of 37 cents a share before items, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

“The results were far better than I expected and I think that Imax is poised for a very strong year,” said Brigantine Advisors analyst Steven Frankel.

Revenue more than doubled to a record $72.8 million from $33.1 million, beating analysts’ estimates of $67 million, as more theaters showed popular Imax films.

Film revenue in the quarter was up 275 percent to $29.3 million as gross box office receipts -- of which Imax gets a share -- soared to $232 million from $28 million.

“I thought the strength was really across the board, from revenue to EBITDA, all the way down to EPS. It was a high-quality quarter,” said Marsh. “I thought the most surprising thing was just the improvement in gross margins.”

Gross margin rose to $48.3 million, or 66 percent of revenue, from $14.2 million, or 43 percent of revenue.

Imax said it now expects to install 40 to 45 revenue-sharing theaters from its backlog this year, up from a previous estimate of 35 to 40. It also expects to install 15 to 20 new sale and lease systems, up from a previous estimate of 10 to 15.

The company signed contracts for 41 theater systems in the first quarter, compared with three in the year-prior period and 35 in all of fiscal 2009. It has closed a further 13 theater system deals since the quarter ended on March 31.

To date, second-quarter gross box office is $30 million, a 78 percent jump over a year earlier.

“I think this will be another strong quarter for us in film box office,” Chief Executive Officer Rich Gelfond said in an interview.

“The first (quarter) was dominated by two movies, which were “Avatar” and “Alice”, which played for a long time and played very well. In this quarter we have more blockbusters that will play for shorter periods of time.”

The second-quarter slate includes “Iron Man 2”, “Shrek Forever After”, “Toy Story 3” and “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.”

Toronto-based Imax announced a deal on Wednesday with Warner Brothers to release up to 20 movies in Imax format through 2013, including “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” parts one and two, “Happy Feet 2”, “Batman 3” and “Superman”.

Imax shares fell 5.1 percent to $19.25 on Nasdaq and 5.4 percent to C$19.37 on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Thursday. The stock price has nearly doubled from the start of the year.