The Service Died as it Lived: Out of Money
One evening last October I met up with a new friend of mine to go see Thor: Ragnarok while it was still playing in theaters. I was living in downtown Boston and, despite it being a weekday, ticket prices were anything but cheap. This wasn’t anything new to me and, admittedly, I’m lucky enough to be able to afford a movie ticket every now and then without much of a problem. What was new to me however was the little red MasterCard my friend pulled out of her wallet as she was buying her ticket.
MoviePass. Written in the top left corner of the otherwise innocuous card was a name that I had heard before, whether floating around in pop culture Facebook groups or on the lips of university film students, but never paid much attention to. But as my friend swiped her card, picked her seat, and entered the theater like a normal customer, a new type of movie-going was about to be introduced to me.
The program, as it was sold to me eight months ago, essentially worked like this. For $10 a month, I can see one movie every calendar day. One movie a day, in theaters, for free, no questions asked. As my friend explained this to me, I thought the same thing that nearly everyone who I would later tell about the service would think. How? I mean, there’s no way that this isn’t a scam, right? Things that sound too good to be true almost always are, but my friend had just walked into the theater nearly $15 richer than I had. I couldn’t deny that.
And so, for the next month or so, I did fairly extensive research on both MoviePass and its parent company Helios and Matheson. I learned that the service used to cost upwards of $30 and that they had just recently lowered the price, receiving an enormous influx of customers as a result. I discovered just exactly how the service worked, about how MoviePass buys the tickets directly from the theaters and passes them on to their users, eating the charge and operating at a loss. I learned how they hoped to make money, how they were making any money now, and much more. Essentially, I became enough of a expert on MoviePass to justify purchasing one. And so, right around Thanksgiving of last year, I did.
My card arrived in less than two weeks. Even this, from what I could tell from a number of fellow customers online, was rare. One other thing that I had learned in my month of research was that the customer service for the company was virtually non-existent. The first film I used my MoviePass for was Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and to be honest, I was blown away when it actually worked. A few days later, when I decided to see the new Pixar film Coco by myself, I was just as amazed. Over the next seven months and 36 movies, that amazement hardly faded. Each time that I swiped my little red card and saw my ticket dispense from the self serve kiosk I would feel a twinge of excitement in my chest. It was almost as if I was getting away with something.
And, in a way, I was. Perhaps it’s obvious, but I’m not writing this piece because MoviePass is still working great and I’m still loving it. No, as I write this, at least twice in the last 48 hours the company has completely run out of money and shut its users out. From the time I conceived this piece to the point where I’m writing this paragraph, the company has made a number of last-minute scrambles to save the service. None seem to be working too well. As it stands now, if you’re lucky to have any showtimes even pop up on the app, they’re inaccessible or uncharged, and the online community surrounding the service has resorted to enjoying the music as the boat sinks. The writing’s been on the wall since the beginning, yes, but the fun is over. Who would’ve thought Mission Impossible would be the one to do us in.
Now, to be clear, this isn’t a typical “rise and fall of MoviePass” article. There’s plenty of those online, written by people with a far more nuanced and informed understanding of business and the industry than I will probably ever have. This also isn’t intended as “where MoviePass went wrong” piece. While I have some gripes with how the company handled itself, especially in these last few months, my experience with MoviePass experience was, on the whole, incredibly positive. No, this story is personal. However, I don’t think it’s unique in any way
In no small way, MoviePass changed the way I watch movies. Before it, the only films that I made a point of seeing in theaters were ones just like Thor: Ragnarok–major blockbuster releases, usually of the comic-book variety. Don’t get me wrong, I watched plenty of other types of films, I just never went out of my way to pay money for them while they were in theaters. With MoviePass, I saw every 2017 Best Picture nominee, including Lady Bird, a film that very quickly became one of my favorites of all time. Later on, I saw films like Tully, a small, independent movie with little press that’s been one of the best I’ve seen all of this year. I used MoviePass to see films like Rampage or Tag which, while not masterpieces by any stretch, were still incredibly enjoyable theater-going experiences.
MoviePass fostered a love for movies in me that I didn’t know I had. As I saw more and more movies over these past few months I began to take more and more university classes on film. I began to read more about film, write more about film, watch more about film. A passion and a prospective career in film writing opened up before me, and MoviePass may have had the biggest role to play in that.
All it had to do was make theater films as accessible as the rest of our entertainment. In a way, it makes complete sense. We’re in the height of binge-watching culture, of filling every second of our time at home with more and more media. Our at-home entertainment options are so extensive and full of choice right now that traditional theaters had to catch up at some point. MoviePass saw a need, fulfilled it, and catalyzed that change. That’s the legacy I hope it gets remembered for. The story of how the service affected my relationships with movies is not the only one. Beneath all the angry comments on Facebook and Reddit is a community full of people with stories very similar to mine. Stories that, at their core, consist of a service that allowed more people to discover more art. Anything that facilitates that is doing some kind of good in my book.