MoviePass apparently fucked up yet again over the weekend after complaints began pouring in that the app wouldn’t let users buy tickets to the new Mission: Impossible flick. But as analysts dog the much-hyped film’s box office performance, it’s becoming clear exactly why we need MoviePass to survive.
The death of MoviePass has seemed like an inevitability from the beginning, and everyone has just been counting down the days until the gravy train ends. Arguably, the death watch has been great publicity for the company, keeping it fresh in the minds of moviegoers every time it makes a desperate change or really pulls a boner. It has to be one of the only companies in the world that manages to remind customers that it offers a great deal every time bad news is reported.
MoviePass users get to see a movie a day in theaters for just $10 a month while the company pays out full price. It’s an insane gamble that’s made less insane by Silicon Valley startup culture pulling the same crap for years. Big businesses that want to disrupt the competition often intend to lose money at first while they prove their worth or hollow out the industry. MoviePass set out to be a data company that offers Groupon-like deals for businesses around theaters, drives business to underdog films, increases spending at concession stands, and generally encourages more people to forego a night of Netflix in favor of heading out to the big screen.
Few companies, however, have been willing to partner with MoviePass to help curb its costs. Even though the service claims its customers see more movies, make more adventurous choices in the films they do see, and have outings to the theater at random times during the week, the Hollywood establishment has mostly been willing to wait and see how it all shakes out.
The thing is, theatre attendance hit its lowest point in 25 years in 2017. Without a willingness to work with MoviePass, theaters will never be able to see what MoviePass can do. But it might be able to get an idea of what happens without it. The company has already cut off some theaters in the past just to demonstrate the impact it can have when it’s not available. This weekend, it may have pulled another power move by not offering tickets to the biggest film of the week, Mission: Impossible - Fallout.
Multiple reports rounded up user complaints that the new Tom Cruise film wasn’t available for ticketing in the app. Many readers wrote to me as well saying that it wasn’t available, or that all the films in their area were carrying a surge price charge as high as $8 for all films. MoviePass sometimes claimed that it was having technical difficulties, while other times it simply told customers that it was only available in the limited number of theaters that offer e-ticketing. We asked MoviePass for comment on exactly what went wrong this weekend but didn’t yet receive a reply.
Meanwhile, the domestic box office for Mission: Impossible – Fallout was either a disappointment, just okay, or fantastic, depending on who’s doing the analysis. It made $61.5 million in the U.S. after projections that it would hit $70 million. There’s no way to say if the absence of a MoviePass option kept some people home, but it’s worth looking at the action franchise’s performance over the years as an indicator of an overall box office trend.
Film School Rejects crunched the numbers for the six M:I films, and though it had its best weekend opening yet with its most recent outing, attendance has steadily declined since the second film. (The fourth film isn’t a great representation because it was in limited release its first weekend and was the only film in the series to not debut in the summer.) You can still see the pattern when you look at the gross and number of tickets sold per film:
Mission: Impossible - $56.8 million, 10.3 million tickets
Mission: Impossible 2 - $57.8 million, 10.7 million tickets
Mission: Impossible 3 - $47.7 million, 7.3 million tickets
Mission: Impossible 4 - $42.3 million, 5.4 million tickets (two weekends in December combined.)
Mission: Impossible 5 - $55.5 million, 6.7 million tickets
Mission: Impossible 6 - $61.5 million, 6.6 million tickets
Theaters have jacked up prices to keep finances steady while attendance declines, but when you adjust for inflation, the first M:I made $89.9 million back when the average movie ticket cost $4.42.
The biggest savior for studios comes from the growth of the international box office where star-driven franchises like M:I tend to clean up. But that does nothing for domestic theaters and means putting huge marketing budgets behind huge production budgets in the bet that you’ll have a huge hit. This leads to films like Batman vs. Superman being deemed a flop after making $855 million worldwide.
I really can’t imagine MoviePass surviving much longer, and neither can financial experts. After some shuffling in its accounting last week, its parent company’s shares rose to $22.50—on Monday morning, they were down to $1.10 a piece. Ever since June, it has made it clear that it needs to raise a lot of money to sustain itself on the way to 5 million users, a number it claims would statistically put it at a break-even point.
But that doesn’t mean MoviePass’s model has to die when it goes. Yes, similar plans are being pushed by Sinemia and AMC theaters, but they just don’t have the go-for-broke excitement of the original. MoviePass has claimed that when it uses its resources to push an individual film, it raises the box office by 10 percent. Rather than focus on blockbuster films that are already going to get attendance, it’s bragged about raising the numbers for smaller films that people wouldn’t normally take a chance on like Call Me By Your Name and The Shape of Water. A service like Sinemia will get you a discount on the two or three big films you’ll see any way, but it doesn’t necessarily encourage you to try something out. If a film is just highly-praised or vaguely intriguing, a lot of people will likely just wait to watch it on Netflix.
What’s interesting is the possibility that MoviePass lovers are waiting until a movie is available on MoviePass. Did people just avoid the theater over the weekend when M:I wasn’t available, or did they give something niche like Sorry to Bother You a try instead? That raises another point that the company has pushed: It could help films stay in theaters for longer. The first M:I was in theaters for 212 days compared to the 91-day run for the last one.
All of this is to say that MoviePass is on to something. I have no idea what the balance needs to be to make this model work, but people like it. MoviePass wanted to be the next Netflix, and that no longer seems likely, but whoever figures it all out almost certainly will. And unlike Netflix, they’ll be giving people a reason to leave their homes for once, something almost no disruptor is doing.