Sometimes 2019 seems so far away. Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) had all six of the country's highest-grossing films that year. It was still a challenging period for AMC Entertainment Holdings (NYSE:AMC) and its smaller rival exhibitors, though. Despite Disney kicking in the final theatrical entry in its Star Wars franchise and the climax of the Avengers saga, U.S. box office receipts declined by nearly 5% that year.

Things were about to get a lot worse for both businesses. Investors will be quick to point out that this story has a happy ending. Disney stock hit an all-time high last month. AMC shares touched their highest levels in more than two years back in January. However, which one would be better to make your next stock purchase? Let's take a closer look at how these two once seemingly inseparable blockbuster partners are now doing their own things to survive if not thrive in the new normal.

Mad Hatter, Rabbit, and Alice appear confused in front of the Disney World's tea cup ride.

Image source: Disney.

Going in different directions

The pandemic upended film distribution models and theatrical release windows for Disney. After the early March 2020 release of Onward, it would be a solid year before the movie-making powerhouse would deliver a new release to stateside multiplexes -- Raya and the Last Dragon, which debuted last month. In the interim, its priority became feeding its new Disney+ streaming service.

The strategy worked. Disney+ launched in late 2019, and it has already surpassed 100 million subscribers worldwide. Fans aren't flinching at a monthly price increase this year, and some of them are fine paying an extra $30 to stream Raya and the Last Dragon or the live-action reboot of Mulan instead of heading out to a movie theater. 

Even with AMC now approaching full strength with 99% of its locations reopened, many of the market's biggest content creators aren't eager to return to the 2019 model of theatrical release windows. Disney recently committed to continue feeding its ascending digital distribution business with films at the same time that they are released in theaters. 

Investors understand that decision. Disney's stock price moved nicely higher in 2020 even as its revenue posted double-digit year-over-year declines in the final three quarters of the calendar year. 

AMC wasn't as lucky in 2020. Its stock plummeted 71% last year. Investors left it for dead, but that was a mistake. The country's largest multiplex operator has seen its stock more than quadruple in 2021. 

AMC has tried to make the best of the pandemic as well as the paradigm shift in media consumption trends. It has shifted to offering big-ticket screen rentals during the lull of blockbuster content. It's been beefing up assigned seating and mobile ordering for concessions. It got smarter in some ways during the downturn. The success this month of Godzilla vs. Kong at domestic movie theaters -- and folks returning in even larger numbers for big releases overseas -- should inspire media companies to get back into the multiplex with their most anticipated films. AMC has a shot to get the last laugh here -- but is that enough?

Fade to black

It would be easy to view multiplexes as an endangered species, but AMC isn't going to go down without a fight. It's making smart moves to adapt to a climate that will remain challenging for it. 

However, when it comes to singling out the better buy, Disney is the clear winner here -- even if one can accurately assert that the stock's price has gotten ahead of itself. A lot is riding on Disney+, and even the media giant doesn't expect the fast-growing platform to turn a profit until 2024. However, content is ultimately king. Disney's catalog of franchises and its stellar track record of success make it the undeniable crown wearer here. Disney is the better buy. 

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.