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