MoviePass, the unwieldy utopian subscription service that has captivated casual theatergoers and confounded economists for the past year, has entered its GoFundMe stage. Which is to say, in all probability, its terminal stage. Here, from Friday, is a headline: “MoviePass Temporarily Shut Down Last Night Because They Ran Out of Money.” Here is a movie that you almost certainly did not see via MoviePass this past weekend: Mission: Impossible — Fallout. Here, as always, is a robust hashtag: #moviepassfail. Here is the reality: This was not sustainable. At least not in its current form. But somebody really ought to find a way to sustain it.
It was a rough weekend for everyone’s favorite “$9.95 a month for unlimited movie tickets” experience, an experience that gets less unlimited by the hour. Following a host of “technical issues” that rendered the app nigh-unusable Thursday night, reports surfaced that MoviePass had rushed to borrow $5 million in cash just to keep the service’s lights on this weekend. Here is a very complex economic term for that sort of maneuver: “payday loan.”
But the lights were barely on. Mission: Impossible — Fallout, easily the biggest movie to open Friday, was blocked on the service all weekend. And when I browsed the app Sunday morning in northeast Ohio, virtually every showing of every other film was subject to the app’s nefarious new “peak pricing” policy, which adds a hefty surcharge to see specific films at specific times. This is ostensibly to reflect demand, but it often results in angry peak-priced customers tweeting photos of their nearly empty theaters. I love this guy.
We have reached the point in the movie Titanic when the ship is fully vertical. (Titanic definitely would’ve been subjected to peak pricing at all times.) MoviePass has always been a unicorn, less in the billion-dollar Silicon Valley sense than in the sense that a financially tenable version of this service doesn’t exist no matter how much we wish it existed. Yet. Since the data firm Helios and Matheson Analytics Inc. bought the company in August 2017 and first unveiled the $9.95-a-month price point, industry onlookers have both reveled in the app’s potential to revitalize the theatergoing experience and cautioned that the math just doesn’t work.
It was always too good to be true. MoviePass assumed that a grateful movie industry, thrilled at all the new customers the app brought in, would shower it with profit-sharing and favorable deals and free popcorn. What it got instead was outright hostility, particularly from the monolithic theater chain AMC, which in summer 2017 greeted the $9.95 price point—down from as high as $50 a month, which underscores how bonkers that gambit was—with a derisive press release titled, “AMC Theatres Statement about MoviePass Announcement: ‘Not Welcome Here.’” (Quote: “It is not yet known how to turn lead into gold.”) In January, MoviePass retaliated by blacking out some of AMC’s most popular theaters, further enraging customers who’d long railed against the app’s myriad technical snafus. “They all wish they had done this themselves,” MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe told The Ringer earlier this year, further sassing the theater owners who’d spurned him. “It’s kind of like how United Airlines or Marriott Hotels wishes that Expedia and Orbitz and Travelocity didn’t exist.”
It is tempting to revel in the schadenfreude here. As CEO, Lowe’s rosy pronouncements about his company’s future have gotten sweatier as summer has gone on, from “We knew all along that this was going to take a lot of capital” to “consumers and the industry will be very surprised by how well we’ll do here over the next six months.” Gone are the halcyon days of 2017, when he could leverage his corporate history at Netflix and Redbox as evidence that this, too, was an idea so absurd it was guaranteed to work. As he told Vulture, “When we launched Netflix, Blockbuster said, ‘This is a ridiculous idea. You’re going to create confusion in the market. You’re never going to make it.’” His personal clumsiness peaked in March, at a Los Angeles industry panel titled, “Data Is the New Oil: How Will MoviePass Monetize It?,” in which he bragged about all the dirt he had on his customers now, including where they went after the movie was over: “We know all about you.” (Lowe profusely apologized and clarified his remarks about the app’s collection of location data.)
It is likewise tempting to track all the ways MoviePass has degraded in the past few months. Now your favorite theater is gone, thanks to the AMC wars. Now you have to upload your ticket stub. Now you can’t see the same movie twice. Now there’s a peak-pricing surcharge. Now, per the Mission: Impossible fiasco, any given week’s most popular movies might not be available at all. (The app had toyed with this notion before, blacking out some showings of Red Sparrow during opening weekend.) But the far more important question is, can the theater-subscription model be saved? All the irritants and outages aside, MoviePass has been glorious for the casual theatergoer, an absurdly cheap and unfathomably great deal that makes you feel like a genius even when you’re using the app to see an objectively terrible movie. (MoviePass even invested in a few individual films, most notably the woefully childish Gambino saga Gotti, in one of its many bids to find a new revenue source.) At worst, in hindsight, this is a wayward execution of a genuinely wonderful idea. And ideally, going forward, someone else will just do it better.
Perhaps that means AMC itself. In June, the theater chain announced its own subscription service, which for $19.95 a month gets you up to three movies a week, with 3D and IMAX showings back in play (unlike MoviePass), plus concession discounts and other restored perks. (You can see Gotti multiple times, for example.) (Don’t do that.) The most devout MoviePass customers have spent a full year reveling in the $10-a-month model (or as low as $6.95 a month, if you prepaid for 12 months), and they will likely be reluctant to quit this behavior cold turkey. Would you pay twice as much for a much better user experience and a much more sustainable model? Aren’t you dying to see Gotti in 3D? (Note: Gotti is not available in 3D.) It is entirely possible that despite all the tech-support catastrophes and PR debacles, MoviePass has revolutionized the way we go to the movies and ensured that five years from now, we’ll still be going to the movies at all.
Which is to say, if MoviePass is truly dead, it may die so that the theater-subscription revolution can live. If all goes well, you won’t miss it 12 months from now, but only because it will have inspired something even better. In June, the cineaste-friendly Alamo Drafthouse chain likewise announced plans for its own subscription service. The specifics—including the price point, and the technical aspects, and the movie-biz diplomatic measures—are negotiable, depending on who’s negotiating. But the idea—pay X per month to see Y movies—is still wonderful, and still worth defending. Spotify was not the first music-subscription service, after all, just the most profitable. (Uh, not really, but you get the point.) Someone, somewhere, is gonna get this right. His exasperation aside, this is the face of a man who just wants somebody to take his money to see a ton of movies at a reasonable monthly rate. So who’s gonna take it?