clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Great MoviePass Debate: Is It the Future or a Venture Capital Fantasy?

Our entertainment lifestyles are determined by on-demand subscription services. None has been more controversial than MoviePass. Two Ringer staffers examine the pros and cons of the new diversion economy.

Ringer illustration

In the 2010s, web-based subscription services have redefined the entertainment market—Netflix and Hulu; Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal; and now MoviePass.

Unfortunately, MoviePass—the app that charges users a monthly fee, currently $9.95, to see however many movies they want to see in theaters—seems to be suffering a slow and spastic death. In a short span, MoviePass has raised its monthly subscription fee, capped its monthly usage for each user, and added restrictions regarding popular titles, such as the latest Mission: Impossible movie. But some MoviePass loyalists, including several Ringer staffers, insist that MoviePass is still a great deal. Here, Ringer staff writers Justin Charity and Kate Knibbs—the cohosts of Damage Control on Channel 33—argue the merits of MoviePass. More broadly, Justin and Kate grapple with the web-based subscription marketplace that serves all our entertainment needs in the 21st century.

Justin Charity: Kate, what’s your personal relationship with MoviePass? I would describe you as a MoviePass stan—is that a fair and honorable characterization?

Kate Knibbs: I’ve had MoviePass since last fall, and for most of my time using it, I’ve been delighted. I love going to the movies, and it allowed me to see so many more movies than I could normally afford. I felt like I was getting away with a fantastic prank on venture capitalists because I was seeing two movies a week and paying $10 a month instead of around $130.

Charity: Kate, that’s too many movies—$130?! Start a film blog, why don’t you?

Knibbs: I love flicks, what can I say? However, in the past month, I’ve been very sad, because MoviePass keeps telling me there aren’t any available screenings at the theaters near me. I hope MoviePass fixes itself so I can go back to spending absurd amounts of time in movie theaters.

Charity: My MoviePass account is similarly tragic, though I’m far less patient.

I joined MoviePass a year ago exactly—August 2017—but then I canceled my account less than a month after subscribing and without using the app to see a single movie. I’d downloaded the app and immediately had misgivings about the design and the responsiveness; the MoviePass app seemed like a shady storefront, especially once I tried chatting with customer service about certain glitches—namely the dysfunction of the menu options that, only theoretically, would’ve allowed the MoviePass user to unsubscribe. The flakiness of the customer service reps in the chat room was the red flag that alerted me to the company’s fundamental mischief. I rushed an email to customer support. “I have been trying to cancel my account for weeks, and the app prevents me from doing this,” I wrote. They did get back to me within a few hours, same day, and promise to cancel my account before the next billing cycle. Still, the app felt like a trap. I recall having this exact thought: “MoviePass is a scam.”

Still, it’s a cheap monthly subscription to attend relatively overpriced movie screenings. So who’s getting scammed, exactly?

Knibbs: MoviePass’s investors are getting scammed. The business model makes no sense. On the consumer end, I don’t understand the criticism that the app is a trap. How is getting a fat-ass discount a trap?

Charity: I don’t know! It definitely feels like a trap though!

Knibbs: I agree that they should’ve made it easier to cancel, but as long as you’re not getting forced into using it, I don’t see how you should be anything but GRATEFUL FOR THE HUGE SAVINGS.

Charity: OK. Well, now, see—MoviePass has spent the past couple of months rolling out a price hike (from $9.95 to $14.95), a usage cap (three movies per month), and blackout titles (users couldn’t use MoviePass to see BlacKkKlansman or Mission: Impossible—Fallout on opening night). What do you think about that shit?

Knibbs: I hate it. I tried to go see a movie on Friday afternoon in Brooklyn Heights, where there are four theaters in walking distance, and nothing I wanted to see was available on the app. The blackouts suck. And so does the usage cap, because now I’m going to have to be pickier about what I see. But as long as the app saves me money, I’m going to use it.

Charity: But now the app is wasting your time and forcing you to make all sorts of considerations that undermine the fundamental value of the app to some degree, if not totally.

Knibbs: It’s not really wasting my time; it’s just a lot more frustrating to use. I’m hoping that the new pricing scheme and cap stop all the unexpected blackouts. Obviously I wish that I could still see whatever movie I want, but as long as I can save money, I’m happy. I should also say that I’m not a huge action movie or superhero movie person, so I didn’t really care about blackouts for the blockbusters. If I was an MCU die-hard, I might be more ticked off. The main thing I’ve been annoyed about is that I couldn’t use MoviePass to see Sorry to Bother You 1,000 times.

Charity: Meanwhile, MoviePass is facing emergent competitors. There’s AMC Stubs A-List and Sinemia, the latter app offering tiered monthly prices based on usage. I don’t really like AMC Theaters, and AMC Stubs is the most expensive monthly subscription, so I’d pass on AMC Stubs, too. But Sinemia seems interesting—$15 per month for three screenings in any format. Which at this point puts it even with MoviePass but without all the dishonesty and instability that’s come to define MoviePass.

What would it take to get you to switch?

Knibbs: I don’t live or work near many AMC theaters, so I wouldn’t do AMC Stubs. I’m probably going to wait to hear more about Sinemia, because if it’s the same value as MoviePass, I’d rather not go through the hassle of switching. If it turns out to be a better experience, I’m not a MoviePass loyalist; I’m just a loyalist to sweet, sweet deals.

Charity: What other monthly web subscriptions do you use? What other sweet deals? The only sub I keep running consistently is Spotify for music streaming. I’ll activate Netflix, Hulu, or Crunchyroll for a month if there’s a TV series that I’m specifically interested in streaming, but otherwise I keep those subscriptions dormant.

Knibbs: I use Spotify, Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Now. I should probably do that Spotify-Hulu bundle, but I haven’t figured out what I need to do to set it up.

Charity: It’s taken more than a decade, but web-based subscriptions are finally starting to feel like a properly developed and integrated marketplace for entertainment. Three years ago, the Norwegian music streaming service Tidal relaunched under Jay-Z’s ownership. In the United States, Tidal is largely defined by its struggle to compete with Spotify and Apple Music—two similarly priced music-streaming services with less distinction between them than, say, that between MoviePass and AMC or Netflix and Hulu. Among the major music-streaming services, the main differences are the supplementary functions (e.g., playlists, liner notes, exclusives) and, more importantly, the branding. If Apple Music is an avatar of Silicon Valley, and Spotify is an avatar of the music industry, then Tidal presents itself as an “artist-owned” enterprise that—very much unlike Spotify—represents the interests of working musicians.

These competitions are interesting because they’ve occasionally graduated from basic consumer loyalty to fandom; it’s Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola, but without the multimillion dollar ad wars that formalized that rivalry; though, occasionally, there are tweets. Hell, Kanye West and Beyoncé—two crucial Tidal headliners when the service relaunched three years ago—have effectively abandoned the service with their most recent nonexclusive music releases. The enduring enthusiastic consumer loyalty to these services is a mystery to me.

Knibbs: I use Spotify only because of inertia; I don’t care about its extra features, and I’m pretty sure I would like Tidal or Apple Music just as much. When I did the trial of Tidal so I could listen to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, I found it to be indistinguishable in terms of quality. But Spotify has all my music saved, and it makes me a fun Discover Weekly playlist every week, and why switch up something I like?

Charity: To my mind, the problem with MoviePass—regardless of its cheap price point—is that it’s unreliable. Whenever I talk to you or Alyssa about MoviePass, you compare the monthly cost of your MoviePass subscription to the standard cost of movie theater tickets. But web-based entertainment subscriptions are a common, competitive market now, so I think it makes way more sense to compare MoviePass to other monthly subscription services—Spotify, Netflix, etc.—offering similar price points. In the competitive context, MoviePass is offering an obviously janky, dysfunctional service that aggressively defies the trend that most of these services follow—expanding access and improving usability at a stable price point. MoviePass is hustling backward. If, suddenly, Spotify started behaving like MoviePass, users would defect to Apple Music without blinking.

Knibbs: Charity, I feel like you might just not care about going to the movies! I don’t think MoviePass is similar to web-based stuff because I find the experience of seeing a movie in the theater to be completely different than streaming something at my house. It’s not just entertainment; it’s an activity. It’d be more like if there were a subscription service to go see concerts at a highly reduced rate competing with Spotify. The reason why I put up with MoviePass’s growing pains is because it makes an activity that I love to do way more affordable. Tell me the truth—do you just loathe the cinema?

Charity: I don’t love cinema enough to spend $130 per month on moviegoing—the life you once lived. But I did initially think of MoviePass as a gateway to casual moviegoing. But now the dream of casual moviegoing, courtesy of MoviePass, seems very nearly dead. That’s what’s so frustrating to me! MoviePass looks like a commercial mirage.

Knibbs: It’s probably going to completely run out of business soon. But until it does, I will always love MoviePass for letting me treat the movie theater like a low-cost place to hang out instead of as a luxury.