Cinema operators, like Cineworld Group PLC (LON:CINE), look set to be collateral damage in the streaming wars.

At Christmas, a pair of blockbuster movie releases delayed due to the pandemic, will in launch exclusively to online subscribers – Pixar’s Spirit on Disney+ and DC Comic’s Wonder Woman 84 on HBO Max.

On the surface, this sees Hollywood establishment utilising their proprietary streaming platforms to claw back some value from shot-and-paid-for premium content, by banking new subscribers as they trail Netflix.

What begins as contingency amidst the pandemic, may become proof-of-concept for a new movie distribution model.

Warner Bros – an AT&T Inc (NYSE:T) company – on Thursday announced that its entire 2021 movie schedule will be streamed via its HBO Max platform, at the same as they roll out at cinema theatres.

As the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine gathers pace, movie makers are facing a problem. The upshot is that they’ll need to squeeze most intended 2020 movies and those originally slated for 2021 into an increasingly saturated market.

At the same time, if they are take streaming seriously they need to catch-up with Netflix.

Warner’s HBO Max had around 28mln subscribers at the end of Q3 and is lagging Walt Disney Co (LON:DIS) which has amassed 70mln paid subscribers in just over a year.

Netflix, of course, leads the sector with nearly 200mln signed up customer accounts, whilst Amazon’s Prime Video has about 150mln.

HBO Max, in November, announced it would stream ‘Wonder Women 84’ on the platform on Christmas Day as part of the regular subscription.

Waters were tested earlier in the year, in April, as Universal released Trolls World Tour via video-on-demand streaming (which used one-off sales rather than a monthly subscription model).

Trolls performed exceptionally well, exceeding expectations – albeit, it was a kids movie during the Easter school holidays at the height of COVID lockdown 1.0. Other on-demand releases had mixed commercial performances.

Disney, via Disney+, has been experimenting too.

In September, it released the live-action Mulan movie as ‘premium on demand’ which essentially meant the Disney+ subscribers could pay an extra US$15 payment to watch the film and just three months later it is now available on the standard subscription.

For Christmas, meanwhile, Disney will put out Pixar’s latest movie Spirit on Disney+ without an additional fee.

Despite the somewhat mixed signals, Disney’s management were evidently enthused by Mulan’s performance.

“I think what we’ve learned with Mulan is that there’s going to be a role for it strategically with our portfolio of offerings,” Disney chief executive Bob Chapek said on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call.

Given that Disney now presides over the largest and most valuable catalogue of movie making intellectual property – Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and all of Twentieth Century Fox – it will be very influential in how thing evolve.

Warner’s HBO Max, meanwhile, aims to grow its subscriber base substantially driven by exclusive new content. Highlights in the 2021 movie releases will include James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, Dune, a new Matrix sequel and the Lebron James led Space-Jam sequel. All titles will stream on HBO Max for a month window, before reverting to traditional distribution.

Quite what the fall-out of it all means for brick-and-mortar cinema business remains to be seen.

Stock in America’s largest cinema chains AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc (NYSE:AMC) and Cinemark Holdings Inc (NYSE:CNK) slumped 18% and 19% respectively on Thursday.

In London, today, Cineworld (which has 7,178 screens across 546 sites in the US under the Regal brand) dropped 10% to trade at 65.13p per share, after trading as low as 56p.

Cinema operators are already fighting existentially amidst the pandemic.

Even if government restrictions allow them to open their doors there are scarce little to show paying customers. Plainly, 2020 has been a blow-out for them and now the prospect of a 2021 recovery appears less than guaranteed.