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By Pushkala Aripaka
(Reuters) - Cineworld's on Friday reported its December box office sales recovered to nearly 90% of pre-pandemic levels helped by the Marvel superhero film "Spider-Man: No Way Home", sending its shares 3% higher in early trade.
The world's second-largest theatre operator said its cash flow turned positive in the fourth quarter after sales improved.
Movie delays hurt footfall in November, and global curbs to contain the Omicron coronavirus variant also hit demand.
Cinema operators have also been hurt by straight-to-streaming, but Cineworld has seen gradual recovery since April helped in part by Marvel films including "Black Widow" and "Eternals".
The December sales update is likely to bring some relief for Cineworld after it was ordered last month to pay C$1.23 billion ($985 million) in damages to rival Cineplex for abandoning a planned takeover, though Cineworld has appealed the decision.
Many of the main markets for Cineworld have refrained from stringent lockdowns, while vaccinations have also helped. The company gets 90% of its revenue from vaccine-advanced nations such as the United States, UK and Israel.
"Spider-Man: No Way Home" became the sixth-highest grossing movie ever at the U.S. box office https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/box-office-spider-man-no-way-home-rules-again-the-355-misfires-2022-01-09, raking in $668 million so far and surpassing 1998 Oscar-winner "Titanic". The superhero adventure was the first pandemic-era film to top $1 billion https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/spider-man-no-way-home-becomes-first-pandemic-era-movie-smash-1-billion-2021-12-26 in global sales.
Group sales for Cineworld in December stood at 88% of pre-pandemic 2019 levels, up from 56% in November.
Larger rival AMC Entertainment Holdings last month said nearly 1.1 million people watched the new 'Spider-Man" film when it opened in its U.S. theatres, setting a company record https://www.reuters.com/business/media-telecom/amc-says-over-million-people-watch-new-spider-man-movie-its-us-theaters-2021-12-17.
Britain's Cineworld, which also operates U.S.-based Regal Cinemas, acknowledged challenges remain due to the pandemic but said a strong slate of 2022 releases, including "Jurassic World: Dominion" and "Top Gun: Maverick", gave it confidence.
($1 = 1.2488 Canadian dollars) (This story corrects to read Cineworld, not Cineplex, in paragraph 8)
(Reporting by Pushkala Aripaka in Bengaluru; Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips and Rashmi Aich)