Sunday Rant: Life After MoviePass.
MoviePass is dead. Long live the MoviePass concept.
After shambling along on fumes, it happened. Helios and Matheson, the company that owns MoviePass ran out of venture capitalists with more funds than sense. The demise of the company unfolded like a spectacular, slow-motion car wreck. I assumed the company was already headed to the big bankruptcy court in the sky when it shut down in July. Then suddenly my card started working again. For a glorious month, I was able to see my agreed upon movies without the usual chicanery of black-outs and stealth blockades. I thought we might finally be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps they’d shed so many of the “power users” making the service hemorrhage cash that I could get back to plunking my card down for a trio of new releases. Ha, right. It was just the last, torturous false dawn of a company that became notorious for bait and switch tactics.
A Brief History of MoviePass.
MoviePass started life in 2011 as an experimental program in San Fransisco. It offered one movie a day for a monthly fee, and worked by printing out vouchers you took to the theater. Customers didn’t like the vouchers and movie theaters gave the system a hostile reception.
In 2012, MoviePass went national in a deal costing around 30 dollars (more for major markets, less for small ones.) It moved to a debit card loaded via app.
By 2014, movie chain AMC temporarily buried the hatchet due to waning ticket sales. Their partnership unrolled in a few big cities for a fee now averaging 40 dollars.
In 2016, former Netflix/Redbox exec Mitch Lowe took the reigns and instituted new price plans at more modest levels. You could get 2 movies a month for either 15 or 21 bucks.
In 2017, Helios and Matheson grabbed a majority stake in the company and the fireworks began. They slashed the “movie a day” plan’s price to ten bucks. The result was the company going from 20k subscribers to 1 million subs by the end of the year. Also, AMC went on the warpath for good, despite, you know, MoviePass paying them the exact asking price of a ticket.
…Then Things Went South.
The price would drop twice more in the next year, down to a ludicrous 7 dollars a month. This precipitated a roller-coaster of changes. Attempts to strong-arm deals with AMC and others failed, and the company revealed it was losing 20 million dollars a month. The “movie a day” plan is temporarily yanked in favor of 3 movies a month. It would come back in different forms, but the fever dream of paying 30 cents per movie was obviously killing the patient.
2018 also saw AMC roll out their own subscription plan and MoviePass pour gasoline on the growing customer backlash by adding in sneaky fees and then going completely dark during the big summer months. They would come back, only for users to find that new releases were being restricted (often in dubious manners, as we’ll discuss.) Eventually a lackluster curated list of what was available each day appeared, featuring mostly indie movies that nobody outside of LA and NYC had a chance -or desire -to see.
That brings us to 2019. MoviePass, facing an exodus of staff and subscribers and mounting competition from other subscription movie services, retools once again to a three tiered system…before promptly going dark again for the summer season. It would return again for a brief flicker, but the endgame was inevitable.
Was It Inevitable, Though?
The numbers behind MoviePass’ meteoric rise and catastrophic fall seem preordained in hindsight. You get what you pay for after all, and too good to be true is nearly always just that. What the rear-view mirror doesn’t show is that they were far from the only company doing things this way. Netflix itself went from niche service to must-have service by offering money-burning deals and then leaning on the supply chain to get some relief. They regularly drift over the line between profits and losses. Uber is still operating in the red despite market dominance, vaporizing 3-4 BILLION dollars a year of investor capital. Nobody is writing the epitaphs for these companies yet. The legislation that proceeds the epitaph, but not the epitaph itself…
Perhaps MoviePass could have gotten the clout it needed to get market dominance with a timed deal. 6 months of theoretically 30 cent movie tickets would still have been a great motivator. They showed then could at least survive about a year on that model, so it may have been enough. Honestly, if I had known about the service when it was ~25 bucks a month, I’d have jumped on board. I think they needed more eyeballs on the product, but going supernova as the only option was not a wise marketing strategy.
The early beef with AMC seemed like the cut that caused the fatal bleeding. It seems like the bad blood between both companies was septic from the get-go. If they had somehow on-boarded the company that owns the most theaters in the US (and around the world) it could have gone a long way to getting everyone else in line. Once again, in hindsight it seemed like most chains have come around to the idea that subscription services work. On that note…
The movie going landscape seems vastly changed from when MP rolled out. In 2011, the box office was in the middle of a contraction. While the totals would slowly inch up afterwards, ticket sales have been in a predominantly downward trend since the start of the 21st century. It’s only the explosion of ticket prices that’s kept things mostly on an even keel. It can’t keep up. If tickets go up the $1.50 of the last decade, or worse, the $4.00 since 2000, the movie-going experience is quickly going to become a very occasional occurrence.
That may suit Disney down to the ground, as they control all of the franchises that are routinely considered cultural events lately. Everyone else is either getting hosed or going to have to aggressively market their films to streaming services. That would bump those services prices, or further the splintering of the market where only WB can afford to put a WB movie on their app, Disney a Disney product on their app, etc. In some ways, the biggest loser of the MoviePass flame-out could be Netflix. Prohibitive movie ticket prices will drive people to the home market, but an increasingly cut-throat and fractured home market where it is by no means certain Netflix will remain the top dog.
Waiting in the Wings.
Despite becoming a clown car filled with flaming whoopee pies, MoviePass did radically change the game. Subscription movie ticket services are now routine. For a while they had competition from other third parties like Sinemia (which also flamed out spectacularly in April). Now, most theaters offer a similar plan to MP’s, in-house. AMC offers AMC Stubs A-List, which allows you to see 3 movies a week at AMC for 18-23 dollars a month. Regal just rolled out their Unlimited program, which allows a movie a day at their locations for $18/$21/$23, depending on your market. Alamo Draft House is tooling up their own loyalty program, Season Pass, which allows for a movie a day for 20 dollars. Those are three pretty major chains, covering a substantial bit of the market that was once ruled by MoviePass.
Unfortunately, not All of the Markets.
The closest chain to me is Regal, which is about a half hour drive. While that’s not ridiculous, and 21 bucks for a movie a day is rock solid, it’s not MoviePass. Add in gas and tolls, and that 21 bucks quickly turns into 30 – 50 dollars. And I’m spoiled for choice. Not everyone is going to have a Regal or AMC in their backyard.
I have 18 theaters in my area. They run the gamut: three independent theaters, three regional chains, and one national chain. Hell, there’s even two drive-ins, though they never took MoviePass. With MoviePass, I could catch the big releases relaxing in the recliners at Cinemagic or hustle my way over to the “vintage” little theater in Portland and see indie stuff. I could even occasionally get MP to pay for a Bollywood movie down in Massachusetts or the Oscar Short Film compilations at Frontier Cafe. Each of those choices all came with just one price tag attached. Now, not so much.
*The King is Dead. Long Live the King.
MoviePass did a lot wrong. They over-promised, and often under-delivered. Their account management was downright evil- they would re-enroll old users, and they (allegedly!) went in a changed passwords for power users so they couldn’t log in to get a ticket. The swap from 30 movies to 3 movies, to maybe-kinda-sort 3 movies – if you like indie stuff that is showing in ten theaters total – was a pain in the ass. I lucked out cause one of those ten theaters usually was in Portland, but it was still a swindle for 99% of other users. But I stuck with the program.
Part of that was morbid curiosity. What better way to keep abreast of the slow-motion movie disaster than to stand in the eye of the storm? Another part of it was idealism. I like the idea of a third part ticket service that could potentially have used its clout to hold the mega chains to account. The ticket price black hole we’re spiraling around shows that they’re not inclined to innovate their way out of the problem. They’re happy to just increase prices and try to hype add-on experiences like 3D and IMAX. MoviePass did indeed force them to change tact and compete for eyeballs.
Lastly, at least for me, MoviePass was always a good value. 30 movies was a spectacular value. During Oscar season, I’d see 10-15 movies in a month. Even at 3 movies a month, I was able to see most of the stuff I wanted to review and only have to fall back on loyalty programs or discount weekday matinees occasionally. When you talk about upwards of 30 movies a month, it sure helped to have that little red card in your wallet. When it worked…
Well. The saga of MoviePass never ends. There’s reports out that former CEO Ted Farnsworth is looking to re-buy the company. The message on the app and the website says the service is down, probably for good, but leaves room for a comeback. The company certainly has a track record for shrugging off fatal wounds. Who knows? If they actually price their product sensibly and fire all of the dirt bags at the top who pulled the shit outlined above, the plan may just work. Or I could be back in three months, playing taps at MoviePass’ funeral, yet again.