…But Did You Die? My Intermittent Issues with MoviePass, Concluded
By Ben Gruchow
June 7, 2018
This relationship did not end with War Dogs. Which is great, because that would have been a really ignominious way to wrap up this topic.
Here’s a small irony, given the film I purchased my last MCU Phase I ticket for and didn’t actually see: it was another election, and another game change, that revived my decision to go back to the theater as a habit. Except it was less “decision”, and more “compulsive need to use movies as an escape from reality for the first time”. Credit the timing: if MoviePass was going to initiate this kind of pricing change—and hope that the attrition had a bigger impact on the consumer than on them—they could hardly have picked a better strategic year than the one concluding with the most turbulent, fraught, and emotionally-draining presidential election in modern history. I mean, I probably would have seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them anyway, but it’s a big “probably”.
I’d forgotten during those final two months or so of 2016 to do my regular checkup on MoviePass policy, and I was surprised to find out that they’d quietly reinstated their original pricing platform, or something close to it: $40 per month, up to one 2D movie per day. I went right back to it. My schedule with work and school constricted my availability to attend movies with the frequency that I had the previous two years, but it still wouldn’t be too difficult to break even; just an average of one movie per weekend, and I’m in the clear.
Something was off this time, though. It could be attributed to the fact that Phase II of the MCU had started in January (in contrast to Phase I starting in July) and January of 2017 was sort of a garbage month for movies—I mean, not that 2016 was any better, but at least back then STX had the common human decency to title their subpar horror movie The Boy instead of The Bye Bye Man. Still, I kept to my once-per-week schedule for the first three months of the year. I broke even, didn’t abuse the system, pretty much saw what I wanted to when I wanted to, and I even found out that the 24-hour countdown clock had apparently been wiped away, which opened the door to more efficient viewing habits; if I wanted to, I could just block off six or seven hours and see all the wide-release openers at once.
All was well, except it also sort of wasn’t. The experience of being confronted with a massive price hike (retracted or not) had made me a little gun-shy about deploying the card with more frequency. This meant I enforced discipline on myself preventatively, keeping that possibility of another change at the back of my mind. It also meant that I had to actually think about it more often, and the value-for-money component of the deal became an ongoing factor. And if there’s one thing you don’t want to do as a company when you’re still growing your user base—especially if you’re a monthly subscription—it’s equate use of your product with a chore instead of a privilege. This had a chilling effect. Going to the theater—MoviePass or not—was and is a leisure activity for me, like it is for most people; leisure activities generally take the path of least resistance, and there was already ample competition for that time. The Terms of Service is not reassuring toward this, as evidenced by the following line: “MoviePass reserves the right to offer members a new price option if they exceed watching a certain amount of movies per month.”
This led up to an odd dividing line at the end of March; up to that point, I’d seen at least one movie a week. I got really bold in the fourth weekend of the month, where my father and I were killing time while visiting family in Madison and saw Power Rangers and Life back-to-back. This was, unfortunately, where I found out that either MoviePass had reinstated the 24-hour countdown or never removed it in the first place; the movie about angry space ninjas got through all right, but the movie about angry space mucous did not (to be clear, both of those films are underrated and reached fewer viewers than they deserved; the ability to resist deploying the terms “space ninjas” and “space mucous” is for people made of stronger stuff than I). The efficiency concept went out the window.
That weekend was pretty much it for adherence to my frequency schedule. I saw one more film in March, the Ghost in the Shell remake, but it seemed like the process of viewing movies had finally started feeling enough like work that I lost much interest in taking time out of my day to see anything. I could say that there was just nothing in April I wanted to see, or I could blame it all on something like The Boss Baby opening to ridiculous numbers…but I did kind of want to see Fate of the Furious, and May had several films that sparked my interest more than that. Yet the next time I saw a movie was June, when Wonder Woman came out, and that arguably only happened because it was the first well-reviewed DCEU film.
Ironically, it was around this point that MoviePass changed its consumer pricing again—this time in the opposite direction from the previous year. In August of 2017, the company sold a majority stake to an analytics firm, Helios and Matheson. The firm saw potential for in the data-acquisition components of the service, primarily in how to target retail to specific demographics by identifying the type of movie(s) they saw. The problem was the tiny user base; MoviePass still had fewer than 20,000 subscribers at the time. The firm’s solution was to pump funds into the company to help subsidize a massive across-the-board price reduction—from $40 per month to $10. For every subscriber, new or current.
I don’t care who you are. It doesn’t matter if you only go to the movies on discount days or as a special occasion or you’re there so often that every auditorium has a seat that’s molded to your rear over time. If someone walks up to you and pitches you on a monthly subscription service giving you more or less unlimited access to theatrical films while costing the equivalent of a single ticket, you’re going to take it unless you hate movies in general. The value-for-money guesswork is instantly wiped out; at ten dollars per month, you’ve pretty well crossed the invisible line where you’re seen as a good enough value that more people will pick up your service regardless of how often they actually use it. The gamble is hoping that the incentive actually works, because you’re already bleeding cash and you’re about to bleed a whole lot more.
It worked. The MoviePass subscriber base went from 20,000 to 150,000. In two days. By mid-September, it was at 400,000. By the end of 2017, it had hit a million. By February of this year, it was at two million. The increase in traffic flow took down their website, overwhelmed their service and support departments, created a backlog of card orders, and generated more news mentions than they’d gotten in the past three years. In response, the company dropped the monthly rate to $8 if you paid annually; the next month, they dropped it to $7. In six months, MoviePass had increased their user base by a thousand percent, and increased their brand awareness by some incalculable amount. If the box-office staff weren’t familiar with the service in 2015, I guarantee they are now. It’s probably part of the new-employee training program.
MoviePass had attained, in a very short period of time, most of the bargaining power they needed to begin negotiating in their own favor with theaters. This has reopened some old battle scars; AMC in particular went on the record as labeling MoviePass a fringe player that was setting up its new subscriber base for disappointment. Shortly after this remark, something happened that would count as a textbook example of passive-aggressive retaliation if it were admitted to: MoviePass subscribers found out they mysteriously couldn’t book tickets for any AMC theater in their area. Non-AMCs worked without a problem. This block was removed in short order and MoviePass categorically denied any interference on their part…but it’s the type of “what-if” that serves as an excellent warning no matter what.
With their increased presence, MoviePass also took steps to begin cutting down on some longtime subscriber behavior where it circumvented their rules. You can’t subsidize the normal ticket price of a PLF screening and just pay the surcharge anymore. Prior to this spring, the staff would just treat it like two separate transactions; now, they look at you with an expression combining guilt and annoyance as they tell you MoviePass monitors what movie is ticketed at the point-of-sale to make sure it reconciles with the app check-in. This sort of thing has a transparently obvious motivation behind it: the company either wants to or is actively planning a tiered service option that allows PLF and 3D screenings for a higher monthly amount, and they don’t want the market segment cannibalized by shysters like me.
I’m cool with that, in all honesty, as long as they keep the regular tier where it is. My moviegoing since the price reduction has returned more or less to its pre-MoviePass frequency: it’s been 9 months since, and I’ve seen 6 films with the card. Even at $10 per month, I’m spending more per ticket on this membership than I would if I just went up to the ticket counter and bought the thing out of pocket.
Here’s the thing: I’m not bothered by that at all, for several reasons. Chief among them is that the overall value has still thus far been acceptable. In the current Phase III of the MCU, I’ve seen 6 movies and spent $90. That’s $15 per movie—more than normal rates, but low compared to Phase II, where I saw 15 movies and spent $320, which equates to $21.33 per ticket. Yet in Phase I, I spent barely more than that—$360–and saw 96 movies, which equates to $3.75 per ticket and singlehandedly brings the average per-ticket price from the entire period down to $6.58. I’ve still saved money by using the service, after both downshifts in frequency. Using bar-napkin math and assuming current prices stay the same, I could go the next 40 months as a subscriber without seeing a single film before I finally hit a $10-per-ticket average.
Will I do that? I’m not sure. Being a part of this service has created an odd stew of feelings within me when I consider whether to actively use it again or terminate my subscription: they’re clearly not going away anytime soon with this kind of rapid increase in user base…except maybe this is akin to when a star goes supernova right before core collapse. I want to reinstate the habit of going to see movies more frequently…but not to the point where the company decides I’m a liability and extends a new pricing “offer” to me. If I’m not using it, I should probably kill the service…except I like the concept and don’t want to see it fail. MoviePass has complicated the moviegoing process while paradoxically making the moviegoing experience easier to obtain. I can’t help but feel like that’s not exactly how it’s supposed to be, and yet I can’t bring myself to think that it’s a bad decision.
MoviePass doesn’t ultimately demand much from you, apart from that monthly cost; there’s no deposit, and no real contract terms or special riders to speak of. Unless you never see more than one movie in a month, or you only see them in PLF and 3D, there is no logical reason not to join. Its biggest liability is a mild kind of dependence that’s self-imposed and self-reinforced: get in the habit of going to more movies, and the inevitable moment where you have to pay out of pocket for a premium screening (or pay several days in advance due to demand outstripping supply, as happened to me recently) is something that may bug you more than if you weren’t part of the service to begin with. Get accustomed to a monthly cost that’s low enough to more or less set to auto-bill and forget about, and you’ll need to keep the possibility of another significant pricing shift in mind. The service lowers the amount of financial resources required, and heightens the amount of organizational resources required, to be a frequent moviegoer. The ratio of that trade-off is more than fair to me. For the time being.