It Could Only Succeed By Failing
The rise and fall of MoviePass is like a modern twist on the plot of The Producers. The only way the subscription movie app could succeed was by failing. But it couldn’t be an instant flop like Bialystock & Bloom hoped for with Springtime For Hitler. MoviePass had to get a whole lot of new users in the door, get them to subscribe to the service and then, well, it seems like they didn’t think that next part through.
Would they jack up the price and hope users went along for the ride? Offer different tiers for different-level users so the 10-times a month viewers like myself didn’t kill their cash flow? Now it appears they’ve stumbled into their destiny: Being a zombie app on your phone for which they’re hoping you forget you’re paying a monthly fee.
MoviePass had been around in a few iterations since 2011. But until 2017 they were only on the radar of movie-theater junkies who went so often the $50 a month tag made it worth it. Then in August 2017, they announced a $9.95 monthly price to lure in the masses. The move worked. They added 150,000 users in two days, leading their former partner AMC to say, “that price level is unsustainable and only sets up consumers for ultimate disappointment down the road.” They weren’t wrong. The app froze often. It took weeks to get your card in the mail since they way underestimated the demand. The company sent out weird emails and had shoddy customer service. But they smoothed out most of the bumps, the service worked well enough, and by December they’d added millions of users. It was a freeloader’s wet dream.
Getting things for free might be my greatest skill. I made my bones writing about sneaking into music festivals and spent my 20s making a mockery of the phrase ‘there’s no such thing as free lunch” thanks to Costco samples and any festival or South By Southwest party that gave out free anything. There was that MoviePass sweet spot from Fall to Spring where it was too good to be true.
If I felt like seeing for myself if the new Jumanji or Jurassic Park were good or not, it became a free shot. I could walk out of the former and suffer through the latter with no regrets about anything except wasting a little time. And it wasn’t just bad movies. Seemingly everything was free for the taking. The only real catch was you got one ticket a day, and you had to book in person. It made your opening weekend Star Wars ticket near impossible, but most everything else was free game and users took advantage.
Now, it was clear to anyone with any sense of economics that this gravy train couldn’t last forever. If you saw one movie a month you’d already almost broken even. When MoviePass offered last November to drop that price even lower, to under $7 a month if you paid for the full year up front, I jumped. As someone who used to often turn a movie trip into a buy-one-sneak-into-one double feature, I could now legally see a month’s worth of movies for less than the cost of one ticket. So, what would the catch be?
Oh, there were many catches. MoviePass soon announced that they were selling users’ data and tracking them even when they weren’t logged in. They made weird partnerships with places like wine-subscription services and daily fantasy football. They made their own movie, Gotti, starring John Travolta, which notched a truly impressive 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. There was peak pricing and ticket verification and blackouts and disappearing movie times. They changed what was available from morning to night. They sent emails implying their customer service was run by a dog named Chloe. Users had to take a picture of their tickets and submit them or else risk a suspension. The list goes on and on. It got weird. But mostly it got unusable. And you have to wonder if that was the ultimate goal all along.
I heard stories in the news about MoviePass running out of money and changing rules before I’d get any kind of notification from the company. I now (probably) could only see three movies a month. But then again, the rules were different for everyone. Some friends experienced surge pricing seemingly at random. It was a total crapshoot. More and more it was just total crap.
If MoviePass had just decided to make reasonable changes, they could have survived. They could have had different price tiers, made a deal with theaters to encourage more second-run and matinee viewings, any kind of reasonable compromise, really. We’d still all keep our Netflix subscription if nothing changed, but we had to pay two or three times as much, right? But they seemed to prefer that users not go at all. So they made it so bad and unreliable that users would just quit. And a lot did. But a lot also still have subscriptions.
Despite its many failings, with MoviePass I could see a movie I might not have otherwise seen for free with relative ease. A couple weeks ago I found myself on my day off with a three-hour window between a massage and a routine vet appointment for my dog, Scooby. The massage parlor was in the same strip mall as the closest theater and they had a showing of Bohemian Rhapsody at the perfect time. But of course, that wasn’t available on MoviePass anymore. All they had were a few scattered screenings of Suspiria, despite showing a batch of other movies that day. Also, they advertised the movie as being zero minutes long. That’s about as much value as they give users these days.
I tried a couple days later to see what was playing near me and all they offered were two screenings of a Coldplay documentary in which I had no interest. Day after day, I’d open the app and find some combination of options of movies I didn’t care about playing at inconvenient times in theaters in far-off suburbs.
So for the last two months, I finally became the customer MoviePass wanted: Someone who was paying for the app but not using it. They finally started getting some of my money back. I saw about 30-40 movies on my $83 yearly pass, so I more than took them for a ride. But I still wish they could have had a plan in place for step two.
During the final month of my year of MoviePass my wife got me to sign up for a two-week introductory deal at a local Pilates studio. They offered as many classes as you could sign up for in two weeks for $50. I took seven classes in five days. The MoviePass app moved off my front screen. Instead of seeing if I could squeeze in a post-work screening of Widows, I was wondering if I could do Emily’s Reform and Ride class in the same evening and still have time to take Scooby for a walk.
Pilates won. I unsubscribed from MoviePass. My dream of unlimited movies is over, at least until a company emerges from the copy cats and stabilizes the market like MoviePass failed to do. Until then, I’ll be bouncing around free introductory workout classes, reserving Blu Rays from the library, and double-fisting Costco samples.