Get Out, Before I Love You Too Much: My Intermittent Issues with MoviePass
By Ben Gruchow
May 30, 2018
The header for this column is from Saturday Night Live; it’s spoken by Maya Rudolph from within her invaluable embodiment of Donatella Versace. I include it here because it speaks to my relationship with the MoviePass service. Rarely have I been so comprehensively smitten with something that finds a new way to irritate me at least several times a year. I think the only other contestants for that prize might be my cats, and my social-media feed is already saturated with coverage of them.
I first heard about MoviePass in May of 2014, roughly two to three years after it had been unleashed in beta and the app (around which the service revolves) earmarked as one of the most disruptive relative to its industry—disruptive, at least, when it came to the high-volume segment of the industry’s consumer base. It wasn’t very well-known to the average filmgoer. At the time, I fit comfortably into that latter demographic: as absorbed by the medium as I was academically and viscerally, I was inconsistent on how often I actually went out to see a movie. My average trips per year probably totaled about half a dozen, and most of those were the designated “you-must-see-this-in-IMAX” studio tentpole releases.
In mid-2015, a week or so after submitting my first review for this site, I got a special-offer email from MoviePass, apropos of nothing—I hadn’t been to their site or visited their Facebook page or started hounding their support department yet, and I don’t remember getting anything from them prior to this. Here, though, I saw opportunity: the service had been around for three years without imploding, and I had time and considerations I didn’t have before as far as moviegoing frequency.
The hook of MoviePass is alluring in its appeal and simplicity: pay a flat monthly fee and earn the ability to see up to one movie a day in the theater. After you create your account, the company ships you a debit MasterCard, you download their eponymous app and input the card number, and setup is complete. The service revolves around the app, which functions like a hybrid of Fandango and social media: you find the theater, the movie, and the showtime, and then you “check in” to that showtime. Within a few seconds, MoviePass loads your MasterCard with the value of the ticket for that theater and showtime, and you pay at the box office with that debit card. It’s easier than it sounds here, because the setup process is intuitive on step-by-step basis and the app itself is user-friendly.
There are a few restrictions, none of them all that pervasive or ruinous to the concept. You can only see each movie once; after you’ve checked in and bought your ticket, all future showtimes for that film are unselectable in the app. The 24-hour distance between screenings is on a rolling timer, so there’s no way to see one movie at 8:00 on a Thursday night and then see a premiering movie at midnight. And the service only works for standard 2D showings: you can’t check in to anything playing in 3D, IMAX, XD, BTX, RBG*, or any other premium format. Still, the math isn’t hard to work out in your head: at $30 per month, which was the going rate in 2015, you need to see an average of one movie per week in order to break even on your investment. It’s even more ridiculous at the current monthly cost. We’ll get there.
MoviePass was the 2011 brainchild of Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt, hatched as a way to do for theatrical viewing what Netflix had achieved for streaming media. At the same time, it hoped (and needed) to achieve the same pattern as a successful fitness center: charge one low fee to everyone to get a subscriber base well beyond capacity, and hope that a majority of the base rarely shows up. The no-shows help offset the compulsive-shows. It was an unusual and interesting hybrid of disciplines, but one that was the time notable more for faceplanting on its first launch than for blowing up the industry. In its initial phase, the service operated on a voucher system instead of a debit card: customers checked in to a movie from home, printed off the voucher, and took it to the theater; MoviePass ate the cost. Rollout consisted of 21 theaters in the San Francisco area, with approximately zero of those theaters being alerted prior. If you’ve ever worked in the service industry and had a customer basically give you an IOU that you’ve never heard of and haven’t vetted, you can imagine how well this went over. Cue a halt to the rollout and a regroup.
At some point over the next year, both the scope and delivery mechanism of the initiative changed. This was probably as much out of necessity as ambition: twenty-odd regional theaters would never amass a subscriber base large enough to outweigh cost, and the startup lacked the resources to do a similar outreach on a national scale. The solution the company hit upon was frankly ingenious: utilize a mobile app (nowhere near as ubiquitous even in 2012 as it is today) for check-in, and handle payment by partnering with a MasterCard provider and issuing debit cards. It more or less removed any burden from the theater in terms of processing, unless that theater didn’t take MasterCard at all. And it instantly made the concept scalable; keep up with new theater openings and make sure to orient them on the mapping functionality most devices already had, and there was no need to expend the energy on outreach and partnerships.
The goal was to operate severely in the red for the first phase of development utilizing investor funds, while expanding the subscriber base to such a degree that MoviePass would be able to negotiate lower ticket prices with chains and potential shares of concession revenue under explicit benefit and implicit threat. Concession revenue is crucial to a theater’s bottom line; during the abbreviated test run in San Francisco, MoviePass acquired enough data to suggest that the lower per-ticket cost incurred by more frequent trips spurred moviegoers to spend more on concessions—to the tune of a 123-percent increase. The pitch to theaters would be straightforward: Negotiate with us and you get an increase to your bottom line. If you blow us off and we have to increase prices to stay solvent, our subscriber base is large enough to take a chunk out of your concession revenue.
Theaters were not happy with the concept (none more so than AMC Theatres, which engaged in passive-aggressive battle with MoviePass almost from inception until…well, now; they’re in a cease-fire at the moment, but we’ve been here before). Studios and venture capitalists were ecstatic, though, and MoviePass accumulated considerable investor funding to build their base.
I knew some of this in 2015, although the chances of the initiative succeeding seemed relatively faint even then; MoviePass had been around for three years and had still achieved very little market penetration. Fewer than 20,000 subscribers had joined up; the Cinemark XD megaplex in my area accepted the service, but the box office staff were to a one unfamiliar with the name or what it meant. One of them remarked that she thought it sounded sort of cool. Once I took my first steps toward using it and saw that theaters accepted it even if they didn’t know what it was, I realized that this was actually going to be a thing. This was the start of Phase I of the MCU (MoviePass Cardholder Unbounded; I’m never apologizing).
I was the kind of MoviePass customer their actuarial staff had nightmares about, assuming they had an actuarial staff (and assuming actuaries can have nightmares, and not just super high-risk dreams). I didn’t bother with anything pithy like ramping up my moviegoing habits over time or taking care to only go on discount days; I saw almost every wide-release movie that was released between July and October, as close to opening day or weekend as I could. I chewed through a number of independent films. These were harder to track down the more limited their release was; Amy wasn’t an issue, but I was out of luck as far as things like Stonewall.
I cast as wide a net as I possibly could; any attempt to build a data profile off of my moviegoing habits would have most likely started and ended with, Is there a movie coming out this weekend? Did it hit five percent or above on RottenTomatoes? He’ll probably be there. A big part of that immediate crush of content had to do with developing my writing on the subject. I believe that criticism and analysis of film is like any other type of discipline, where your work benefits as you’re exposed to more instances of the subject; if you only see event movies, then your barometer for what constitutes a good movie is going to begin and end with the best and worst of that limited pool.
But the majority of it was just the kid-in-the-candy-store element: I love giant screens, I love sound systems that would shake my house apart, and I really love it when movies that fire on all cylinders—whether those cylinders cost nine figures or seven—utilize that horsepower to assert control not just over idle conversation and distraction, but over the entire shared experience in the auditorium. Some of the films released that summer slipped through the cracks—Minions, Self/Less—but they were the minority. Even the inevitable decline in theater trips, once some of the initial novelty wore off, produced a quantity that stomped all over anything prior to MoviePass. The company’s vision of increased concession sales was also coming true, at least for me—the barrier to spending irritating amounts on bottled water or the occasional box of M&Ms or Sour Patch Kids was much lower when I hadn’t just spent double digits on the ticket. Really, the 24-hour countdown clock was the only thing that kept me from salivating at the mouth about the product while hounding everyone I knew to the signup page.
As spring of 2016 gave way to the summer movie season, I knew that Mitch Lowe, cofounder of Netflix and Redbox investor, had taken on a role of increased responsibility at MoviePass, and I had a feeling this would mean there’d be changes to policy coming—probably not ones I’d love, given that a swap-out of CEOs usually means something is in need of correction, magnitude varying. Even still, the email I received in early July 5th made my jaw drop:
We started MoviePass to make it easier to see more movies in theaters and encourage the exploration of cinema. We constantly strive to provide the best service to make this possible, and as a result, we are making some adjustments to our membership plans.
Below we have 2 new plans to choose from. The Premium Plan ($99 per month) now features any large screen format. In addition, we now have a Standard Plan ($40 per month) that offers a total of 6 2D movies per month.
In case a reminder is needed, this is an elimination of the rate up to that point ($30), replaced by a “budget” plan that was thirty percent more per month while providing a reduction of up to eighty percent in terms of the movies you could see. The plan that provided the original once-per-day admission, meanwhile, underwent a threefold increase in monthly cost (we can attribute the remaining $9 of increase to the useless addition of 3D and the somewhat-useful addition of IMAX/PLF). No grandfathered plans would be allowed; you either selected one of those two, or your account went on hold, or you cancelled. The final touch was the timing: the changes would take effect as of the very next billing cycle, which was less than three weeks away.
In case you were wondering, the faint howl of betrayal and impotent rage you heard on the afternoon of July 5th, 2016 was the sound of less than or equal to 20,000 MoviePass subscribers expressing their disapproval. It may have also just been me. It was probably just me.
I’d heard of new leaders coming in and changing policy to save or rehabilitate an ailing company, but those changes are usually incremental, and the consumer base usually responds indifferently or not at all. Even significant price increases for subscription products usually have me on board (after an initial willingness to let it go entirely) if the product is good enough. With this change, I never moved beyond that initial willingness. MoviePass had, in one stroke and with virtually no warning, exceeded its value as an expenditure to me. Maybe that was Lowe’s intent when he implied experimentation with prices: just shoot for the moon right away and see how much he had to drop prices to win customers back.
Two weeks and change of time before my account went on ice was more than enough time to develop a healthy sense of resentment toward them and their entire business model, which gave me the
excuse I wanted justification I needed to message David about the idea and get his thoughts on the implications behind the business decision. His reaction was amusing: That’s…bold. The initial concept for a column on the subject started developing shortly after.
Bold it was, and it engendered a similarly-bold reaction from the subscriber base. I feel for the poor souls in the customer-support department for MoviePass; I wasn’t even vocal enough about the subject to post a seething dismissal of the company on their community forum, and there were legion of those. I can only imagine what phone calls and emails to the department must have looked like, given that I was vocal enough to try those avenues. The irony in that was that the MoviePass representative I spoke with sounded just as taken by surprise by the development as I was, and the representatives I spoke with down the line were just as in agreement that the shift in pricing model was a lousy thing to do to customers; either there was a fundamental failure in the chain of communication, or the company was flawless at deploying the training segment for customer identification.
The last movie I saw on my original MoviePass subscription was Ghostbusters on July 14th, 2016. MoviePass didn’t know that, though; because I wanted to see it in XD and there were no more non-XD showings that day, I bought a ticket for The Purge: Election Year. The most depressing thing about recollecting that chain of events is realizing that I actually paid out of my own pocket to see Sausage Party and Suicide Squad. I checked up on MoviePass off and on over the next several months to see if they’d come back to Earth at all as far as their pricing logic, but to no real avail. My moviegoing frequency crutched along for a few more weeks, and after War Dogs in late August it dropped off entirely. I saw fewer films for most of the rest of that year than I had before I’d gotten MoviePass. Not only was I much more conscious of the pricing, but the way the game had changed left me with an unpleasant feeling regarding the overall activity.
To Be Concluded (unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe)
* There is, to my knowledge, no PLF format named RBG. There is a documentary in limited release now about the second female Justice of the Supreme Court under that acronym, though, and it is excellent.
** ‘Occasional’ means ‘every time I could rationalize it’—i.e., every time. You know it and I know it.