“It’s not been a fun morning,” Stacy Spikes told me today from New York, where he’s been prepping the new and (hopefully!) improved MoviePass. The waitlist for the subscription ticket service relaunch received 30,000 sign-ups in its first five minutes, causing a crash that lasted two and a half hours. Not ideal for a company that became a punchline after signing up millions of movie fans in 2017 and 2018—and then swiftly going bankrupt. “But you know what, that just shows people are really interested,” continued Spikes, the company’s co-founder and recently returned C.E.O.
He’s right. MoviePass may have become an avatar of failed tech interlopers in Hollywood, and it allowed many traditionalists who predicted its demise to feel good about themselves, but it also encompassed the great narratives of the past few years. A nimble start-up vs. entrenched players that were forced to innovate. Subscription vs. one-off sales. A customer-first strategy vs. a proven yet declining business model. Moviegoing as a service.
Spikes, unfortunately, sat on the sideline for most of that rise and fall. A former music and film marketing executive, he launched MoviePass with Hamet Watt in 2011, initially charging about $30 a month, and later experimenting with various models. But when the platform was bought in 2017 by Helios and Matheson, a data analytics company, Spikes was fired via email as its new leaders, Ted Farnsworth and Mitch Lowe, launched an insane gambit: Charge just $10 a month for a movie ticket every day, pay the theaters full price for those tickets (with the studios taking their usual 50 percent or so cut), and figure out the business model later. It was a dollars-for-dimes strategy, a money-incinerating suicide mission for scale that only the most risk-tolerant Silicon Valley investor could love.
Within two days, subscriptions went from 20,000 to 100,000, according to Business Insider. Theater chains like AMC and Regal distanced themselves from the service and its radical pricing plan, and studios were nervous about screwing with the value of their movies, but in less than a year, MoviePass boasted more than 3 million subscribers. With the average U.S. ticket price then at $9.38, ten bucks a month paid for itself fast, and members could experiment with movies they might not have seen in theaters at full freight. People f-ing loved it.
Deep down, we all knew MoviePass was a ridiculously unsustainable business—literally too good to be true, even as many in the tech world cheered and Helios attempted one comically desperate pivot after another. Still, the frenzy revealed huge consumer demand for a subscription model, and the major exhibitors basically had to launch their own. At its peak, MoviePass was buying 6 percent of all movie tickets, according to a Helios filing with the S.E.C. I remember noticing the “MoviePass bounce,” wherein certain types of films—genre, documentary, comedies—benefited greatly from subscription. MoviePass represented 12 percent of the entire $14 million theatrical haul of RBG, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg doc that probably shouldn’t have grossed that much in theaters. Blindspotting, a tiny dramedy directed by Carlos López Estrada, saw MoviePass account for 22.7 percent of its opening weekend domestic gross. Yes, MoviePass members were going to the Marvel movies, just like regular people, but they were also trying out other types of movies. And in a market where it was increasingly difficult for non-tentpoles to find an audience, the studios certainly didn’t return the extra cash. “For the 150 seat and below auditorium, the Oscar movies and the independents, we gave discovery to a lot of titles,” Spikes told me today. Importantly, about half of MoviePass subscribers said they were seeing movies they wouldn’t normally see in theaters, and they were recommending more movies to friends, according to an NRG survey. The beneficiaries were clearly the smaller films, the kind that the studios often no longer consider “theatrical.” That, and bigger popcorn sales.
So, was anyone asking for MoviePass to come back? I get it, the world has changed, there’s competition now, and streaming movies at home is much more popular than even four years ago, so many around town are skeptical about a revamped MoviePass. But Spikes and C.O.O. Gretchen McCourt, an exhibition veteran, have come up with a more realistic model that they hope people will still f-ing love. The new plan is credits-driven, meaning you get a certain number in your account each month based on your price point—$10, $20, $30—with no unlimited movies option. The screenings are valued differently at peak times, just like the chains do these days, and the theaters can “partner” with MoviePass to set the level of demand. So while your $10 a month once got you basically all-you-can-see, now it could get you just one peak-time showing of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Or, if you’re willing to attend mid-week or sample a smaller film, you can see a few screenings for your $10.
It’s not exactly the ridiculous value proposition of the old MoviePass, but it’s pretty good if you’re flexible, a twist on the dynamic pricing model that has taken over the live music industry. It’s also valid across chains, which is great if you live somewhere like L.A. where there are many theater options. And it’s much more sustainable as a business, especially if the theaters and studios play along.
But that’s a big if. MoviePass doesn’t need permission to do what it does, of course. Thanks to its deal with MasterCard to power its member card, the theater chains can’t stop Spikes from buying tickets and distributing them however he wants. But he would very much like to partner with the theaters on pricing and other details, and he says he’s signed up about 25 percent of them already. That doesn’t include the big three U.S. chains—AMC, Regal, Cinemark. For that reason, the service will re-launch in markets based in part on demand from the wait-list signups and in part on where there is greater cooperation from partner theaters, likely Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Kansas City.
I heard from one top theater executive this week, who basically said “Eff these guys.” That’s because A) the theaters are basically dinosaurs and hate anything new, and B) the previous MoviePass leaders tried to leverage its popularity to extract concessions like cheaper tickets and a cut of concession sales, something they think Spikes will also try, and C) as I noted, the chains now “compete” with their own subscription programs, and they very much want to control that customer relationship. AMC’s Stubs A-list program, for instance, charges $20 a month or more, depending on location (it’s $24 in L.A. and New York), for up to three movies a week. That’s a pretty good deal, and while the subscriber number isn’t known, my buddy Adam Aron, the AMC C.E.O., said at the end of 2019 that it enjoyed close to one million members. Cinemark similarly said in June it has one million active members to its $10 a month plan that offers one ticket per month, with credits and discounts elsewhere. And Regal’s Unlimited plan, which lets people go to as many screenings as they want, starts at $18 a month. Like I said, there’s tough competition.
None of the major theater chains want to talk about the MoviePass relaunch—likely, I told Spikes, because they don’t want to give him more attention when he’s trying to take over that customer relationship. “Well, you don’t have a relationship if people aren’t going [to your theater],” Spikes responded. A good point. This is all potentially additive for these theaters. “I don’t think it’s an either/or universe,” he told me. “If I own a theater, how many agents do I want helping to sell my tickets? And what we found before was 75 percent of our customers went to three or more circuits.” Meaning MoviePass can act as a kind of Hotels Tonight for theaters, helping fill all those empty seats, even as the theaters also use their own platforms and all the various traditional ticket sellers. In that way, he’s positioning MoviePass as more like a software solution, something theaters can use to fix a market inefficiency. That may be why the National Association of Theatre Owners, the lobbying group for the chains, wasn’t openly hostile when I reached out. “We welcome any company that is willing to work with exhibition to grow moviegoing,” a NATO rep told me. “We look forward to seeing how MoviePass plans to accomplish that.”
Still, there’s that whole devaluation question, something the theaters and the studios are concerned about. At the height of MoviePass frenzy, its members were going to so many movies for such a low price that the entire perception of theaters started to change—and that’s super scary. I talked to one studio distributor this week who said the nightmare scenario is training movie fans that unless it’s basically “free,” it’s not worth going to see. Spikes shook his head when I told him that. “I have real numbers. They have emotional numbers,” he countered. “We took the average person who went to the movies 12 times a year, and we got them to go 24 times a year. That’s a fact. The average spend of that person was $114. They increased their overall spend to $400 a year on MoviePass. And we disproportionately changed the dynamics of films that were in the art house.”
I do get the fear of studios and theaters, but the “devaluing” ship has already sailed. It’s called the S.S. Netflix. We’re in desperate times. These theaters are teetering financially, with Regal owner Cineworld likely headed toward bankruptcy, AMC doing whatever it can to keep the meme stock magic alive, and all the others facing toilet-swirling stock prices and what I recently called a “movie desert” from early August through at least mid-October. It’s grim, and MoviePass is asking to help movie theaters fill that funnel with customers that are younger and more engaged than typical moviegoers these days. “About 75 percent of our members are under the age of 35,” Spikes told me. “Our median age is 26 for males and 24 for females.”
That seems worth giving up some of that customer relationship. This is an uphill battle for Spikes, the disruptor now competing from scratch with the formerly disrupted. But he does have a brand, and it seems like there might be a lane here with the non-major chains and superfans who don’t want to be tied to one theater company. Spikes is pitching MoviePass as a responsible partner—he says he’s got a big new backer in the online gaming sector, with an investment round set to close in September—a big pivot from the old MoviePass. If priced and managed properly, he thinks about 30 percent of moviegoers will join MoviePass or one of the others, or many. “I believe 50 to 70 million people would sign up to some subscription service, and they would double the revenue of the movie industry.”