A lot can change in less than a year, and right now the extreme makeover is not a good look if you're AMC Entertainment (NYSE:AMC) or one of the smaller movie theater chains. Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) CEO Bob Chapek was speaking at an analyst conference this week, and it doesn't seem as if the House of Mouse is going to approach theatrical distribution with the same attitude as a year ago.

"I think the consumer is probably more impatient than they've ever been before," Chapek said during Monday's presentation at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecommunications Conference, as recounted by Variety.

We've been spoiled by streaming access to the biggest releases over the past year, and that's not an easy spigot to turn off once it's been turned on. Chapek sees what multiplex operators don't want to see, and in the eyes of consumers it's no longer AMC calling the shots on theatrical release windows.  

"I don't think they'll have much of a tolerance for a title, say, being out of theatrical for months, yet it hasn't had a chance to actually be thrown into the marketplace in another distribution channel, just sort of sitting there getting dust," Chapek concluded.

If you're a movie fan, you're giddy with the power that now rests in your remote control. If you're AMC, it's a good time to get nervous and lament how much power has slipped through your fingers in less than a year. 

A pair of young moviegoers asleep in a movie theater.

Image source: Getty Images.

The last dragging 

When Raya and the Last Dragon hits theaters this weekend, you're not going to be out of the picture if you're not ready to trek out to your local multiplex. Disney's first theatrical release since Onward a year ago will also be streaming for Disney+ subscribers willing to pay an extra $30 to catch it months before other Disney+ accounts have access through their existing plans. Disney took a similar premium streaming window approach with the live-action reboot of Mulan late last year, only that time -- in the U.S., at least -- it didn't play in movie theaters. 

You're not seeing AMC CEO Adam Aron threatening to boycott Disney films in response, and that just goes to show how quickly leverage has shifted in this medium from exhibitors to consumers and media stocks. A little more than 10 months ago, what Chapek is saying now would've been tantamount to a declaration of war between movie studios and Hollywood. 

Things were so different in late April of last year. Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Studios was bragging about 5 million digital rentals of Trolls World Tour at $19.99 apiece in just the first three weeks of the animated feature's release. Movie theaters weren't open. There were Trolls World Tour product licensing deals in place that forced the studio to put out the film through the only premium outlet available in the new normal at the time. AMC was miffed. Comcast got excited. 

"As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats," Comcast's NBCUniversal chief Jeff Shell said. AMC threatened not to screen any Universal movie at its theaters under those terms. Now we have Chapek saying roughly the same thing -- or at the very least narrowing the release windows between theatrical and streaming -- and it's just accepted as obvious. 

The movie industry owes AMC a lot. It has kept its theaters open even as rival Regal and other smaller operators have shut down to keep the cash burn in check. Box office receipts in the country plummeted 93.5% in February relative to the same month a year earlier -- and that's pretty much where it's been since October. AMC is taking one for the team because it knows that it would've been game over for the industry if it had followed Regal in darkening its projectors. 

AMC bulls will counter that the theater chains will bounce back once better content becomes available. Tenet came out too early in the pandemic, when folks were still staying clear of social outings. Wonder Woman 1984 was available to HBO Max subscribers at no additional cost the same day it hit theaters. The bulls are right that the pipeline will improve as 2021 plays out, but the consumer mindset has changed. Streaming access from home will be available either immediately -- as we're seeing with Raya and the Last Dragon this weekend -- or just weeks later instead of months later as we've seen in the past.

The new normal hasn't made us long for in-person corporate meetings or gym workouts. We've embraced new technology to make the old methods obsolete, and AMC is going to have a lot to prove if it wants consumers to believe that streaming first-run releases from the comfort of home is transitory and not the new disruptive standard. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.