It’s finally time to admit that MoviePass is fumbling around like a wounded golden goose that needs to be put out of its misery. It may still give up the gift of “free” movies every now and then, but this weekend’s latest service changes and screwups show the free ride is coming to an end.
Social media has been filled with complaints over the last three days from MoviePass subscribers, and it all began with the app becoming unusable on Friday. When the service came back online, users in some markets found that they could only choose between seeing Slender Man and Mission: Impossible- Fallout. In previous weeks, when the latest Mission: Impossible was the hottest ticket, MoviePass didn’t offer it. And it told customers it would begin delaying the availability of the hottest blockbusters for their first two weeks. That was fine, people can wait, and it just gives viewers an incentive to be more adventurous with their choices. But narrowing the selection down to two films is ridiculous and not what users signed up for.
From the beginning, MoviePass’s business model of one movie theater ticket per day for $9.99 per month didn’t make a lot of sense. The service, first launched in 2011, initially offered various packages for hardcore movie fans that ranged from $25-40 per month. The new model, launched last year under fresh leadership, was to offer something no one could resist with a startup-style plan to muscle the film industry into a new way of thinking by shelling out tons of money, building customer data for targeted promotions, and focusing on growth above anything else. It seemed doomed, but who cares when you’re getting all the movie tickets you want for less than the cost of one?
That’s been our position on the company for the last year, at least. No matter how many times MoviePass tweaked its model, reversed the tweak, or stuck its foot in its mouth, it still seemed like a good deal that was worth the trouble. This weekend, users experienced the company’s third app outage in as many weeks and most frustratingly, many users found that they only had two film options being offered. Later this week, the company will abandon the “unlimited” model in favor of three films per month for the same price. It’s no longer an unequivocal fact that MoviePass will save you money if you like going to the theater. If you don’t like the two movie options you’re being given or the app doesn’t work, you may not see any movies at all. And it’s absolutely clear that it will be a time-suck trying to keep up with the latest issues that are plaguing the service. Not only that, but its flailing maneuvers could damage the possible future of a better theater-going experience MoviePass itself helped create.
MoviePass seemed to indicate in its FAQ that these limits will be an ongoing part of the process while it changes its plan. “Popular showtimes may continue to be limited for a short period, but we will continue to add additional seating availability as our users migrate their plans,” the company wrote.
MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe confirmed to the New York Post that an unspecified number of users were having their options severely limited as the company “[rights] the ship as far as the amount of money we were burning.” He said, “to stay financially stable we’ve had to curtail the service.” Another way of saying that is: The only way to keep operating is to only operate sometimes.
SEC filings showed the company losing an estimated $85 million in May and June of this year, a number that will only grow larger as MoviePass takes its user base from 3 million customers to what it says is the break even point of 5 million users. This was all supposed to work in a way that’s similar to Netflix, a company that Lowe worked at in the late ‘90s. MoviePass would pay full price for tickets for a while as it proved people loved it, it would burn through venture capital money in the meantime, and eventually, it would rule the world.
But rather than being perceived as the new Uber, as the company characterized itself, it’s been more like the New York City subway system. It constantly changes how it functions, charges the same monthly price whether it works or not, plunges into debt, no one knows who to hold accountable, and no one sees a light at the end of the tunnel. Well, there is a group of college kids with a modest venture fund who’d reportedly like to take over the company, they might at least think they see the light at the end of the tunnel.
But all of this money business is not getting you cheap movie tickets any faster. Before this week, I would’ve argued that MoviePass staying in the game is good for the whole theater subscription business popping up in its wake. Even with only three films a month, its price was in line with its competitors. But severely limiting the movie options kills its value. And the pattern over the last year has been clear: When MoviePass floats a trial balloon, it will likely be a sign of things to come.
The nerve of this company to announce that it’s producing a new Bruce Willis movie in the same week that it can’t perform its basic duties is appalling, but it could very well point toward another pivot. Imagine a movie theater subscription that’s more like a book club. Each week, you get a blockbuster, an indie, a kids movie, and the MoviePass-produced film of the season to choose from. Oh, that sounds like hot garbage? Yeah, it does.
We reached out to MoviePass for comment on this story and to ask, at this point, what does MoviePass offer that its competitors do not? We did not receive a reply.
We’ll make this very simple. Many subscription services have popped up over the last year, and most are tied to single theater chain. That might be the way the industry is headed. But the closest thing to MoviePass is Sinemia. At the moment, it offers three movies per month for $14.99. Sometimes it’s cheaper, but that’s the biggest change we’ve seen over the last several months. It has slowly expanded in a few countries around the world as it takes a more sober approach to the business, and it requires an annual signup, which gives it a little more certainty about its own financial future.
As soon as MoviePass announced its plan almost exactly one year ago, AMC Theaters started complaining that it would devalue the price of a movie ticket in the minds of consumers. For many, it’s reminded them why they loved going to the movies in the first place. Now, AMC has its own subscription service that’s pretty reasonable, and MoviePass runs the risk of giving the whole model a bad name. The company has opened our eyes to how great a theater subscription can be, and also reminded us how insane Silicon Valley disruption has permeated our economy at every level. Now, its time for MoviePass to bow out gracefully before it damages the new industry it’s helped to create.