Review 1.4: The Death of MoviePass

I signed up for MoviePass in January of 2016, long before an alarmingly low price point for the movie theater subscription service changed everything. At the time, I was paying $45 per month. I was newly single and a fan of movies, but tickets in New York City start at $15 and only go up from there, so seeing films in the theater was not a luxury I would be able to afford more than a few times a month. With MoviePass, then, I was already saving money on the third ticket. Anything after was just gravy.

Eight months later, the price went up $5. Now it was slightly more than the price of three tickets. The value proposition had diminished, but I was still getting use out of it. Eleven months later, the price dropped by 80%. I almost canceled my subscription on the day it dropped. The previous few months, the company’s business model made a little bit of sense: I didn’t see four movies, and they made a few dollars off me. I was frustrated about that, but inertia is complicated. Not too long before, MoviePass added a photo requirement. I didn’t like that. I resolved that, soon, I would cancel my subscription. So when I saw an email titled “You’re gonna love this ellipses heart emoji,” I was done. I didn’t open the email but resolved to finally get rid of it.

Then I saw the headlines. Change of plans.

The price drop was announced a year ago last Wednesday. Not only did I not cancel my subscription on that day, but I immediately told everyone I knew that they should sign up for it. I wanted others to get in on it, both so they would go see movies with me and because we all knew it couldn’t last. When they announced the one-year-for-$8-a-month plan, I didn’t take it, because I didn’t expect the company to be solvent for long enough to save me money.

They proved me wrong there. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

I am not happy to see MoviePass fail. While specifics remain in flux, its final form is becoming clearer. In the end, it will be a service that saves people a little bit of money on a limited number of movie tickets each month. That was its destiny, the route that its long-solvent, forever-niche European competitor Sinemia took.

But MoviePass did something special for me, and for hundreds of thousands if not actually millions of others. In New York City, the service was always a particularly good deal for its subscribers and a particularly bad one for its bottom line. MoviePass works – worked – all over the city, from the big theaters with 25 screens down to repertories with one or two. Only a handful held out. With it, I went to see movies again – this time big: Boogie Nights, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (with live piano accompaniment), Hausu, and In the Mood for Love – all on 35mm.

I saw movies that I really, really liked that I normally would have relegated to Netflix or whatever other streaming service, if I ever saw them at all: Upgrade, Strangers 2, Game Night, Blockers.

And on and on.

MoviePass has been an important part of my life for the past few years, but I have no loyalty to the company itself. At this point, I don’t think anyone does. The headlines have been hard to miss.

Maybe it was a mistake to hire former Netflix exec Mitch Lowe as its CEO from a business perspective – I think we’ll know sooner than later – but if the goal was to ensure the company’s place in the film history books, no one could have done better. Whatever happens, its legacy has been cemented. Dropping those prices made MoviePass a simultaneous smashing success and colossal failure in the way that only Silicon Valley tech-bro types seem able to do.

It’s disruption.

You rock the status quo so hard that you become an indispensable part of the industry – financials be damned – while everyone struggles to catch up and the titans die out.

MoviePass thought they could bully their way into a profit share, getting a cut of concessions from the people they brought into the theater. They claimed, maybe even believed, that they had become indispensable. That they called the shots.

And maybe something like that could have been possible with the lesser-known theaters. A MoviePass E-Ticket from the Cinepolis in Manhattan shows that the company only pays $12 for a ticket that costs the rest of us $16, so there were deals being cut somewhere up the supply chain.

But AMC, the titan-iest titan of them all, called their bluff. The largest theater company in America introduced a 3-a-week subscription, one that costs double what MoviePass did but adds IMAX, 3D, etc. to the mix. An IMAX ticket in New York City is $26. For me, the value propositions are pretty much equal.

For the companies, though, it’s something else entirely. Investor Mike Maples Jr, on an episode of the excellent podcast Converge with Casey Newton, unknowingly made the economic case for A-List when he was presented with the idea of MoviePass. To whit:

When I think about movie theaters, it’s a high-fixed-cost, low-variable-cost business, right? So, once the movie starts, you can never fill that seat again that you didn’t fill. And so, when you have a business like that – the airline business is like this too – the cost of filling that seat is almost zero (variable cost). So, if you have a business that fills the seats in the theater – fills the seats in the planes – sometimes you can charge what seems to be really low prices, but because the marginal cost to them serving that customer is low, it can work.

AMC A-List has hit 175,000 subscribers in two months, and it’s likely that there’s some similar logic underlying their push for it. Before a (sold out) screening of Crazy Rich Asians this past weekend (Eight Point Seven Out of Ten), there were two separate pitches for the service, and signs were up everywhere. It’s a big deal.

Outliers like Cinepolis excepted, MoviePass pays retail prices on every ticket their subscribers select. AMC, on the other hand, gets things wholesale. And even more than that, AMC is able to somewhat arbitrarily decide how much studios make on the deal. A Wall Street Journal article says that AMC is basing the amount they pay to studios on a theoretical ticket price – specifically $8.99 for a 2D film, lower than the average AMC actual ticket price for such a movie, meaning they pay studios less for an A-List “ticket” than a MoviePass one. This improves their already safer margins, so if the majority of theater-goers do indeed only see three movies a month, as MoviePass has claimed, AMC will make money where MoviePass always lost it.

And they get the full benefit of folks more willing to spend $6 on a soda since hey, the movie was free!

Anecdotally, that in particular has worked out for theaters from all of these services. My movie-going companions often get concessions they never would before. I don’t join them in that, though.

The last time I bought concessions was in 2010, when an employee at the IMAX theater in the Providence Place Mall in Providence, RI made me pay $4.50 for a cup of water, shortly after which I run-jumped down some stairs trying to get to the bathroom before the movie started only to miss a step, sprain my ankle, and spend the next month on crutches and the following two with a cane, something I was told would make me desirable to the opposite sex but most assuredly did not.

I still haven’t watched Tron Legacy.

But even if the economics work, it’s hard to imagine that AMC would have implemented A-List on the timeline it did without MoviePass, or perhaps even without the big public spat between the two companies when MoviePass cut off access to certain AMC theaters. I know that for the duration of that conflict, I went to other theaters when I might have considered the AMC.

That whole event was a sign of things to come. Ever since, it’s been a string of increasingly bizarre or frustrating headlines: from the acquisition of the by-all-accounts atrocious Gotti (even free, I wouldn’t dare) and the subsequent anti-media campaign they waged to the introduction of peak pricing and the removal of blockbusters in the midst of summer, being a subscriber has been… odd.

I have found the flailing attempts to stay afloat kind of funny, to be honest, where most people have just been frustrated. The whole thing is so dramatic that I can’t help be at least a little amused. I mean, forcing people to see only one of two movies at a handful of inconvenient times and the majority of theaters are shut out entirely? Un-canceling subscriptions? Then limiting options to only a handful of ever-changing movie options each day during a “transition” period? And that’s just the past week!

They’re trying to cauterize the wound with a flamethrower, and everything is burning.

For a while, that fire was glorious. The near-daily headlines, thinkpieces, podcasts, YouTube videos – 2018 was the year of MoviePass. And that fact built it up on a rickety structure that had no choice but to collapse. When the last embers finally burn out and the news cycle moves on, MoviePass won’t matter anymore.

But it did once.

Five-Point-Zero out of Ten

Review 1.1: Creating a YouTube Channel

If somebody – inevitably over 40 – asked me to explain YouTube, I would instead tell them why I decided to start a YouTube channel.

That decision, immediate and immutable, to answer with a personal anecdote instead of some fully reasoned Theory of Content, I think, is central to what such a Theory would ultimately be.

Welcome to that YouTube channel, by the way, all shiny and new. It’s called The Week I Review, and it is – of course – a review show. But it’s a not a typical review show, focused on one medium or technology. Instead, its reach is broad, driven solely by what I, Alec Kubas-Meyer – nice to meet you, find interesting. Unfortunately for any chance I might have had to find a consistent audience, that’s a pretty wide net.

I have some experience with this, having written about video games and tech for publications like The Daily Beast and Destructoid as well as film for Filmmaker Magazine(‘s website), Indiewire, and Flixist. This thing I’m doing right now I cut my teeth on briefly for the latter a few years back.

I have also directed short films ranging from drama to martial arts psychodrama – with more in the works – and two one-man shows that had a collective audience of thirteen – think I’m done with those. Oh, there was the time I was writing rap songs that wouldn’t have gone anywhere but had novelty long since passed on and honestly it would just make me seem more wanna be than I gotta be considering, well, just look at me, so it’s something I turned my back on.

And now I’m on YouTube. Because it’s the next step.

The inevitable result of our collective obsession with social media is a shift towards platforms – YouTube, Twitch, Instagram – that let us literally scream into the void. On YouTube, more than any other, there is an expectation that the scream be packaged, auto-tuned.

Life, sponsored by Adobe Premiere Pro.

From July 2014 through the end of 2017, I used an app called 1 Second Everyday. The TED talk given by its creator, which I will link in the description below, convinced me to put down $1 and capture a moment from each day for three and a half years. Its two goals:

  • Remind you of the life you have lived
  • Remind you to go live a life

The first one is obvious. The second, important. When you have to record a second of your life every single day, knowing that you will look back on – and subsequently share – it, you feel a compulsion to something. You don’t want that girl who broke your heart in middle school to think your life is less interesting than hers, do you? So you go to a concert, a party, another country, anything to give your life… meaning? I dunno. But the secret is that you only need to be there for one second; once the footage is on your phone, you may as well have been there all night.

It becomes a habit, and there is some comfort in that habit, but it nags at you any time you think about just being lazy: Hey, Alec, this isn’t fun. You don’t look cool and interesting and unique.

That pressure to perform the daily ritual of Something Interesting eventually wore me down. I’m grateful for the experiences that the app forced me to have, though, and for someone who needs some motivation to get up and do, I recommend it. (Four-point-seven-five out of five.)

This channel will not feature daily videos, nor is it intended to be a complete catalogue of my life’s events. But it follows the same impulse. Each Monday, I will review the most interesting thing I did, saw, played, or otherwise experienced in the previous seven days. Maybe it’s new. Maybe it isn’t. But it will be the thing on my mind that week.

“Interesting,” of course, does not necessarily mean “good.” Some things are interesting precisely because they aren’t good – how a thing fails is often more interesting than how it succeeds, or so says the cynic in me.

A friend who heard the pitch asked if the reviews were going to be serious or if it was some kind of ironic meta-joke. And: they will be serious insofar as I will seriously be approaching each week with a critical eye and scoring things on an alarmingly precise 100-point scale. But I’m a deeply sarcastic person, so, ya know, that’ll be there too.

Much – if not most – of the time, the videos will be a lot of me here talking into the camera; if you don’t like my face, you’re going to hate this channel. Also, you’re so mean. 🙁

Some things lend themselves to more – B-roll, media footage, etc. – and when I have the ability to do more I will, but I’m committing to a posting schedule and have long since committed to the day job that funds this, so there’s only so much I can guarantee.

Actually, while we’re at it, set all your expectations low but one: I will never to lie to you. I might joke about things, maybe even regret them down the line, but it’s going to be real.

I have a fundamental aversion to dishonesty that has caused, um, complications in my life. If I were to lie to you in a YouTube video, I’d be unable to sleep for several days and then have to post a follow-up video detailing the lie. Some folks might find click value in that, but I think all of us would hate it – so let’s just not.

It’s important to me that I be realistic and honest. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it properly – in a way I can feel good about. This whole channel is a legit-in-the-economics-101-sense-of-the-word investment for me.

People aren’t wrong when they say that the barrier to entry on YouTube is approaching zero. Channel creation is free, and if you shoot videos on a smartphone, I guess that might be considered “free” as well.

But I’m not shooting on a smartphone, and the equipment I’m using wasn’t free. Some I had already owned. Much of it I did not. Also new: This website. This all costs money. Perhaps not much in the grand scheme of things, but enough that I feel it in my bank account.

And even if I never make that money back, at least as likely as not, it’s important that I spent it. It proves to me – if not to you – that I take this thing seriously. Plus, while money does not guarantee quality, it helps.

If you’re going to be staring at my dumb face until it haunts your nightmares, the barest minimum I can do is make that scene look kind of interesting – to have a background other than an empty wall, put some light and depth in there. The teleprompter means I can speak quickly without jump cuts – unless I want them for specific effect.

Plus, because this is pre-written, I won’t ever waste your time asking questions I should have just looked up beforehand. I’ll do the research and, if necessary, link to my sources.

I write the way I talk, something that can come off poorly in professional emails and even social texts. Audio ensures my inflections are adequately expressed. The video adds my overly animated demeanor – one that literally half my life ago caused a girl I once called beautiful in a language I didn’t know to make fun of me.

I talk with my hands, my eyebrows; I emote and express and probably look silly, but this is YouTube. Everything is silly.

Increasingly, though, it’s silly in the most serious of ways. YouTube is an equalizer, a place where anyone can find an audience. People all over the world are making their livelihoods here. I am not. I don’t expect to ever be.

Hundreds of hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. It’s entirely possible there are dozens of shows just like this one that neither I nor anyone else has ever heard of. Nothing makes mine particularly special, but it’s mine.

When I was a teenager, I would look at all the celebrities in their twenties. Though I knew that they had started out younger than I was at the time, I felt some solace in the fact that I had a few years to go before their success made me feel “old” and “purposeless.” Now, the rising stars are all younger, and there’s no way to intellectualize it. I needed to stop complaining and start doing.

To be clear: I’m not looking for celebrity, and maybe that fact alone means I’ll never achieve it. That’s fine. What I, like so many others, created a YouTube channel for was to have this thing that I can pour my creative energy into on my terms and mine alone. I needed to have an outlet – this outlet.

So here I am.

Eight-Point-Five out of Ten