Two of this year's most anticipated films will have a Christmas Day showdown, but it won't be happening at a multiplex near you. Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) announced last month that Pixar's Soul will be offered to Disney+ subscribers at no additional cost starting Dec. 25. The jazzy computer-animated feature was originally set to hit theaters in June, and then November, before Disney threw in the towel on theatrical distribution entirely.

On Wednesday it was AT&T's (NYSE:T) Warner Bros. pushing an even bigger film to its own streaming service on Christmas Day. Wonder Woman 1984 will come to AT&T's HBO Max next month. Like Disney did with Artemis Fowl, Mulan, and soon Soul, AT&T thinks a highly anticipated flick can help its own nascent streaming service. However, there's a plot twist. Wonder Woman 1984 may be the star attraction that puts HBO Max on the map, but exhibitors are getting a golden lasso, too. Wonder Woman 1984 will also hit a patron-hungry multiplex near you on Christmas Day.

A film slate and an overflowing popcorn bucket against a red background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Wonder wall  

Movie studios have options these days, and it's obviously not just homespun digital platforms that are being fed. It's just hard to justify theatrical releases these days after AT&T's Tenet flopped at the domestic box office. Studios have pushed out many big 2020 theatrical release to 2021, hoping that the climate will be kinder. However, you have to wonder why Disney didn't follow AT&T's lead. Why not release Soul for Disney+ subscribers and folks willing to pay to take the family to the movies? 

The simultaneous release of Wonder Woman 1984 for HBO Max subscribers at home and everyone else at a movie theater makes sense. It's the best use of a marketing campaign since it can promote both outlets in the same promotional missive. 

A multiplex is still a source for incremental revenue. Movie theaters across the country rang up $13.3 million in ticket sales this past weekend, collecting eight-figure hauls in 10 of the past 11 weekends since Labor Day weekend. 

Theatrical distribution doesn't come cheap, but we live in the golden age of digital projectors and exhibitor flexibility. Theater operators are also desperate. A year ago, the major multiplex companies would've balked at having a studio put out a film at the same time it's hitting a streaming service. However, after seeing Disney bypass theaters completely for Hamilton and Mulan this summer -- and now Soul -- they're probably delighted that they're still invited to the Wonder Woman 1984 debutante ball. 

A lot can happen between now and then. Things can go badly, and given the recent surge in the COVID-19 case count, who knows where the country will be in terms of a potential lockdown over the holidays and what that would mean for a potential multiplex outing? Things can also go well, and families who traditionally go to the movies over Christmas may make this the time they finally decide to return to the silver screen. Disney may be the more successful media stock here, but you have to side with AT&T's approach. If big-budget films are going to survive, they're going to have to play anywhere they can draw a paying audience. AT&T's HBO Max isn't going to suffer because Wonder Woman 1984 was hoping to squeeze an extra $40 million to $60 million at the box office to help recoup some of its costs, and if anything it may stop a film as a product from being devalued as a premium consumption experience. 

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