For months, a friend has been touting to me the benefits of MoviePass. I’ve heard quite a bit about this service, which for a small monthly fee, allows you to see a movie every day. It used to cost $50 a month — still a bargain for someone like me, who might go to the movies 10 to 20 times in that span — but last summer, the company lowered the monthly fee to just $9.95, and suddenly its membership exploded. Just last week, it was announced that over a million subscribers had signed up in the last four months. That’s a lot of people taking advantage of what appears to be a can’t-miss deal. Seriously, $10 bucks a month (or $84 for the whole year, if you pay all at once) and I get to go see a movie every day if I want? Sounds great!
But if we’ve learned anything about the guy who writes the words in this space, it’s that I tend to look right in a gift horse’s mouth, especially when it comes to my moviegoing. In other words, I wasn’t going to sign up for something like this until I researched it and decided for myself whether MoviePass is a service, a scam, or, perhaps, a little bit of both.
First, the pros: MoviePass is clearly a fantastic deal. There are no blackout dates, and most theaters accept it — even AMC, which hasn’t been shy about its contempt for the service (more on that below). The movie theaters and the studios that stock them still get full price for the ticket you purchase with your MoviePass debit card because the company pays them directly, regardless of how much the ticket costs.
Now, the cons: IMAX and 3D movies aren’t included, and you can’t buy more than one ticket at a time, so if you’re going to the movies with a friend or a date and only one of you has MoviePass, then it won’t cover the second person and you’d have to buy their ticket onsite rather than from a remote location like you normally could with Fandango, etc. Oh, and premium theater chains like ArcLight and Landmark don’t accept it.
Straightforward stuff, generally, but of course, it’s more complicated than that. For one thing, in doing some poking around, I saw an alarming number of complaints from paid subscribers who either did not receive their cards in a timely fashion, or received inoperable cards. I’ve also heard stories about theaters that have turned MoviePass subscribers away, even though that’s technically illegal. On top of that, there is the customer service issue with MoviePass, in that it appears to be basically nonexistent. Getting a straight answer from the service about these concerning issues seems to be difficult, and the rants that people have posted online about all this would be hilarious if I couldn’t relate to their frustration. On top of that, I’ve heard several stories about people who have struggled to cancel their subscriptions, despite the fact that the MoviePass website claims it couldn’t be easier.
Moving away from a consumer’s perspective, there’s also the belief that MoviePass is a threat to the already precarious survival of movie industry, in that it starts to train subscribers to expect a lower rate to see a movie in a theater. If people get used to paying $10 bucks per month for the privilege of seeing one movie every day, then what happens if and when this service no longer exists? It’s entirely possible that MoviePass could go broke before it starts to monetize, in which case, will people willingly go back to paying $10 to $17 dollars per movie, like they did before, and some of us still do? Meanwhile, is MoviePass actually driving ticket sales and encouraging people to go to the movies more than before, or does it not have any real, tangible effect on the box office? An NPR piece in October quoted a Dallas theater owner who insisted that attendance had increased, but the aforementioned AMC (where I actually see most movies) is doing everything it can to combat the service on the grounds that it’s bad for business. It’s possible that’s because AMC has plans to launch a service of its own, but still, it’s odd that a service like MoviePass that purports to boost attendance at theaters (and thus, concession sales) would be seen as such an anathema to one of the movie business’ largest chains.
And what about that monetization? That’s actually something I found fascinating and had to look into, because I couldn’t understand how a company like this was actually going to make any money by doing nothing but spending it. Seriously, even with a million and a half subscribers, that’s about $15 million per month in membership fees. Less if you factor in people who pay for the full year in one fell swoop. Meanwhile, let’s say that the average member doesn’t go to the movies once a day, but rather once a week. That’s four movies per month, and at an average cost of about $10 per ticket, that would be $60 million in fees the company is paying out. Now, I’m not exactly a trained economist, but I don’t think it takes an MBA or a PhD to see that this kind of math doesn’t exactly lead to a sustainable business model.
Unless, of course, the information about the customers starts to pay that bill. One of the reasons the membership fee dropped so precipitously was that a data analytics firm bought a big chunk of MoviePass, which means that data mining and advertising comes into play here. The app on your phone keeps track of the movies you see, and you are targeted accordingly. This isn’t new, obviously, as pretty much any app in your phone is going to do that, and if you’re on Facebook, then you know that’s been a reality since you signed up. Still, it’s a wee bit unsettling to know that you’re paying a company to essentially spy on you.
Factoring all that in, I’m going to give MoviePass a try, and expect that, should I find myself dissatisfied, I’ll figure out a way to cancel the service. But since I’m a glass-half-full sort of guy, I won’t concern myself with that until I need to do so. It feels to me like this is, in the long term, getting more people into movie theaters, and however that happens, it’s a good thing. On top of that, there’s the fact that, unlike the other apps on my phone that are spying on me, this one appears to let me in on the action and reap its financial benefits.
I’m still not totally comfortable with some of the more nebulous aspects of MoviePass, and there is definitely something slightly sinister about it, no matter how much people try to reassure me. But on the flip side of that coin, I could save a buttload of money, and if there was ever a perfect tiebreaker, that would be it.