Saturday, August 18, 2018

You Shall Not (Movie) Pass!

As long-time readers of Bob Canada's BlogWorld know, I see a LOT of movies in the theater. In fact my Movie-Going Pal and I see around fifty or so a year, which is WAY more than the average person. As such, those ticket prices add up over the course of twelve months.

In an effort to defray that cost, earlier this year my Movie-Going Pal signed up for MoviePass. A week or two later he began breathlessly touting the service, telling me how awesome it was and badgering me to join as well. He said for the low, low price of just $10 a month, I could see a movie a day for free! Well, technically not free, but you know what I mean. He said I'd be an idiot NOT to sign up.

I was extreeeeeeemely skeptical about the whole operation, as it sounded like some kind of scam. How could it be anything but? It just didn't make any sense. Thirty movies a month for only $10? How the hell could MoviePass possibly make any money if I saw $240 worth of films but only paid them $10? There had to be a catch somewhere.

See, when you get to the theater, you open the MoviePass phone app, and they beam the amount of the ticket directly onto your card, which you then use to pay the theater. So you don't pay a dime, and the theater still gets its money. The only one who's out any money then is MoviePass itself. And therein lies the problem.

Eventually though my Movie-Going Pal wore me down, and in April of 2018 I tentatively signed up for a MoviePass card. I figured I might as well try it, and if it did turn out to be a con I could always cancel.

I got my card in the mail at the beginning of May, and headed right for the cineplex. I assumed the ticket girl would laugh in my face when I tried to use it, or worse, call the cops. Amazingly she didn't even blink. I slid the card through the reader and she handed me a movie ticket, completely free (sort of) of charge! Amazing!

I ended up seeing five films on MoviePass' dime that month, which worked out to $2 apiece (five flicks divided by the $10 monthly fee)! A pretty good deal, and a far cry from the usual $8 or so that a ticket costs around here. I even saw movies I wouldn't have bothered with if I'd had to pay full price, and went to a couple of evening showings— something I normally never do due to the increased cost.

After that I became a huge MoviePass evangelist, giddily telling everyone within earshot about the service and urging them to sign up pronto. Most were just as skeptical about it as I'd been, but I assured them I was living proof that it was legit.

Annnnnnd then all hell broke loose.

First there were ominous news stories detailing the alarming amount of cash that MoviePass was burning through each month, and how their business model just wasn't sustainable. Then the company began adding all sorts of annoying restrictions to the card, like charging extra for tickets or blacking out certain movies. Such tactics are always a brilliant idea, as nothing pleases customers more than giving them less for their money.

Then in July the floodgates opened wide, as each day brought a whole new batch of increasingly bad news for MoviePass. The company ran out of money, the cards stopped working, they were de-listed from the stock exchange and on and on. Things got so bad I was embarrassed that I'd been going around recommending the fakakte company, and apologized profusely to everyone!

Seriously, seeing MoviePass' daily struggles is like watching a man carrying a big box of musical instruments trip and fall down a long flight of stairs— in slow motion. EVERY single decision they've made in the past two months has been the absolute wrong one. It really does feel like they're doing everything in their power to fail. 
It's actually quite fascinating to watch.

To try and make sense of how we got to this point, here's a brief rundown of MoviePass' history, with emphasis on the tumultuous recent months:

June 30, 2011
Believe it or not, MoviePass actually originated seven years ago in the San Francisco area! Their initial plan cost $50 a month, and required users to print out their tickets at home and bring them to the theater. Convenient!

Unfortunately few theaters were willing to participate in the service, and Deadline called MoviePass "One of the most boneheaded stillborn launches in recent entertainment history." They had no idea just how prophetic they were...

December 2014
MoviePass partners with AMC Theaters, offering subscriptions at $30 and $45 a month.

I was surprised to learn this, as the two companies are currently mortal enemies, and neither will rest until the other one dies.

June 2016
Former Netflix and Redbox exec Mitch Lowe becomes the CEO of MoviePass. Oh, so HE'S the one to blame.

August 2017
MoviePass lowers the price of a monthly subscription to $9.95, and allows customers to see one movie per day.*

This price drop generates a HUGE uptick in new subscriptions, and all seems right with the world.

*OK, a word or two about this "30 Movies A Month" deal. Even though it's their big selling point, it's nothing but a bunch of MarketSpeak® bullsh*t. I don't know how things are in major metros like New York and LA, but here in Indiana there simply aren't thirty DIFFERENT movies playing in a given month. Every cineplex shows the same ten or twelve films. So even if I had unlimited time, it's unlikely I'd be able to find thirty movies to see.

November 2017
For a limited time, MoviePass begins offering an $89.95 yearly subscription, which works out to $7.50 a month.

Again, a good deal, and things are moving along swimmingly for the company.

January 2018
Suddenly cracks begin showing in the foundation. Just a few barely perceptible ones at first, but they soon widen and threaten to bring down the entire operation.

On January 26th, MoviePass approaches AMC with a revenue-sharing program on tickets & concessions. When AMC balks, MoviePass blocks them from their service, hoping to bring them to their knees and force them to play along. Instead, AMC simply launches their OWN movie subscription service! Ouch!

February 2018
MoviePass announces they now have 2 million subscribers. To celebrate, they lower the monthly price to $7.95. It's another great deal, but most people (myself included) are puzzled by their business model, and can't fathom how they can possibly survive for long.

March 2018
MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe accidentally reveals that the company's app is secretly spying on customers, recording where they go after they leave the theater. WHOOPS! This sparks a wave of justified concern among subscribers, many of whom immediately cancel their memberships.

In an effort to distract the public from this debacle, the monthly price is lowered to $6.95 per month.

April 2018
If MoviePass was the Titanic, this month marks the point where it hits the iceberg and begins to sink.

First of all, MoviePass alters its subscription plan from one movie per day to four per month, which is a pretty major change.

Also, MoviePass begins blocking subscribers from seeing movies more than once. Mitch Lowe tries to put a positive spin on this restriction by saying, "We hope this will encourage customers to see new movies and enjoy something different." 

I'm sure it was just a coincidence that this odd change coincided with the release of the massively successful blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War. It couldn't possibly have had anything to do with the fact that Marvel fans were seeing the film four and five times, which threatened to bankrupt MoviePass even faster.

May 2018
Facing a huge backlash and the loss of subscribers, MoviePass reinstates the One Movie A Day plan.

One week later, MoviePass' holding company reports they have just $15 million in cash, but are burning through $21 million per month. Yikes! I ain't good at math, but I think that's what you call "screwed", er, I mean a deficit.

June 2018
MoviePass announces they now have 3 million subscribers. For some reason, Mitch Lowe believes that if the company can reach the arbitrary magical number of 5 million users, they'll finally begin making a profit and their troubles will be over.

At this point MoviePass' business model is identical to that of a gym— sign up as many people as possible, then hope most of them never use their memberships.

In their attempt to see just how fast they can go out of business, MoviePass then attempts to enter the world of original film production, just like Amazon and Netflix. They do this by bankrolling the movie Gotti. As you might expect, it's a biopic about Gambino crime family boss John Gotti, and stars John Travolta in the titular role (uh-oh). The experiment is NOT a success. The movie receives a 0% Rotten Tomatoes score (!) and grosses an embarrassing $4.3 million against its $10 million dollar budget.

Wait a minute, let me get this straight... MoviePass made its own movie. But whenever someone uses their card to see a film, MoviePass subsidizes the theater by paying the customer's ticket price. That means MoviePass was basically PAYING people to see their own film! How the hell did they expect to make any money on THAT deal?

(thanks to my Movie-Going Pal for pointing out the flaw in the Gotti debacle)

Meanwhile, shots are fired over MoviePass' bow when AMC unveils its AMC Stubs A-List plan, which allows subscribers to see up to three movies a week for $19.95 per month.

MoviePass' plan to piss off their subscribers is now in full effect, as CEO Mitch Lowe announces the implementation of "Surge Pricing." This means subscribers will have to pay and extra $3 (or more!) to see popular, high-demand movies— on top of the $10 a month they're already paying of course. In some larger cities, this surcharge amounts to an extra $10 to $12, meaning it would cost MORE to use MoviePass than it would to just buy a ticket the normal way!

Lowe touts Surge Pricing as a good thing by claiming it will "enhance the customers movie-going experience." Just how he figures that is left to our imaginations.

July 2018
The MoviePass ship begins going under fast.

On Thursday, July 26, a massive nationwide outage hits the MoviePass phone app, preventing customers from using the service. MoviePass releases a statement their app suffered a "technical glitch," and apologizes for any inconvenience. The next day, Business Insider reports that the outage was actually due to MoviePass running out of cash. This meant they couldn't pay theaters their ticket prices, and had to temporarily shut down. MoviePass borrows $5 million in emergency cash just to stay afloat.

One day later, Mission: Impossible— Fallout premieres. The following day, MoviePass blocks the film from its app, preventing subscribers from using their cards to see the highly anticipated movie. They also announce that upcoming films Christopher Robin and The Meg will be blacked out as well. 

Customers are now basically paying $9.95 a month for a movie subscription service that doesn't allow them to see any movies. Brilliant!

On July 30, MoviePass suffers ANOTHER outage, presumably due to more cash flow woes.

The next day, MoviePass announces they're making even MORE changes. The price of their monthly plan will be raised to $14.95, and brand new movies will be blacked out for their first two weeks in theaters (!). Subscribers begin canceling in droves, as they realize they're paying for a service they can't use.

August 2018
Just when we thought things couldn't get any worse, MoviePass doubles down on the crazy and surprises us all. 
To paraphrase George Costanza's mom, "Every day it's something new with you!"

Starting the first weekend of August, MoviePass blacks out all but two films on their app. The titles apparently vary by city, so no one knows just what movie they'll be allowed to see. And to make things even worse, there are only a limited number of tickets available during the weekend, and when they're gone, that's it! The card's useless once they're all sold.

On August 6, MoviePass announces they've decided not to raise their price after all, and will keep it at $9.95 per month. BUT, users will now be limited to just THREE movies a month— a far cry from the previous thirty. Surge Pricing will also be eliminated, but blackouts will still be in effect for select films.

On August 12, MoviePass once again offers just two films— The Meg and watered-down PG-13 horror film Slender Man. What a cornucopia of choices!

On August 14, angry customers who've recently canceled their subscriptions find they've been mysteriously re-enrolled. MoviePass is now sneakily and most likely illegally preventing people from canceling!

On August 16, they change their goddamned minds yet AGAIN. In addition to only being allowed to see three movies a month, customers can only choose from six movies on any given day. The lineup of films will change each day.

It honestly feels like MoviePass has a "Wheel Of Terrible Business Decisions" in their executive board room. Every morning they spin it, and whatever it lands on, that's the company's direction for that day.

For the record, I haven't canceled my card yet, as I'm hoping they'll eventually settle on a plan I can live with. I ain't getting my hopes up though.

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