The Re-Birth and Impending Re-Death of MoviePass

Happy New Year everyone! Whether this is your first time here or you’ve been a frequent reader, thank you for being here!

Between keeping up with the release radar every week, trying to stay current during NFL season, recording, editing, producing, and promoting multiple podcasts, networking on social media, launching and running an international online film club with weekly discussions, starting a new job, and getting hitched…writing has taken a back seat.

If you’re a longtime reader of the site, you’ll know movie reviews were how I buttered my bread for a long time. And my apologies if that’s something you looked forward to. I looked forward to it as well. I miss it. That was the reason for starting the site in the first place. There have even been some outlines for pieces in 2023 that I simply couldn’t dedicate time to. However, a big part of what I want to focus on this year is returning to my roots.

While I was very busy and didn’t get a chance to write about the vast majority of films that I saw that doesn’t mean I stopped going to the movies. In fact, as of now, I’ve seen 150 releases from 2023 which is on par with the low end of the range that I have maintained over the years. And, I probably saw more movies in total than I had in the previous years (but that’s part of another project piece for the not-too-distant future).

A valuable part of getting to see so many movies in theaters was the return of MoviePass in September of 2022. However, throughout the year, there were numerous technical issues, and the structure of things kept (and keeps) fluctuating which eventually led to me canceling my subscription, again, in December of 2023.

How MoviePass Managed to Come Back and Make All the Same Mistakes, Again

Back when MoviePass launched in 2011, it was groundbreaking. It went to beta with the offer that you could see one movie a day for one monthly subscription fee. I wasn’t a subscriber back then, so I don’t know what the subscription cost was during the beta run but that’s a great way to drum up interest and get some buzz.

They were eventually acquired by Helios and Matheson Analytics in 2017 and the subscription price was lowered. That is when I started to hear about them. I was writing for a friend’s website that year, doing film reviews. Between seeing movies for that purpose and my personal enjoyment, when I tallied up all the receipts at the end of the year, the total cost was in the thousands. At that price point, being an incredibly frequent moviegoer was not sustainable. So, when I heard rumors of a subscription service with the promise of unlimited movie tickets, you can bet I was all ears.

If memory serves, I signed up in late 2017 or early 2018. Back when it was $9.95 per month. It was a dream come true for someone like myself. I could go to the movies as often as I wanted, see whatever I wanted, and do it for a fraction of the cost. It opened some new doors for me as a fan and a film writer because I was willing to take more risks on things outside of my general purview or interests. I was grateful for that. I am grateful. However, when something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

I was flying high, enjoying the perks, and didn’t want to ask questions. But I’m also a curious person and knew there was no way it was sustainable long-term. By the summer of 2018, big problems were brewing. As I started to piece together the structure and learn about Helios and Matheson, I realized that moviegoers like myself were a big problem for MoviePass.

In 2018, the average movie ticket in the US was $9.11 according to Statista. However, the price in Los Angeles is always higher than the national average. So, let’s call it $10 for this point. For my $9.95 MoviePass subscription, I was costing them at least $100 worth of movie tickets or more each month because they were paying full price for my tickets. Their whole model banked on the average moviegoer simply not going to the movies. However, they would need 10 subscribers to not go to the movies monthly just to break even on my account. By May of ’18, they were $40-million in the hole and they were scrambling.

New surge pricing fees came into place and they even started selling merch. Then there was the service outage on July 26th, 2018 that made everyone aware MoviePass was out of money. It borrowed $5-million to stay afloat and blackouts of popular films followed that, the “unlimited” language was replaced with three movies per month for all customers, the monthly cost was discounted but only if paid up front as an annual fee, and if you wanted to leave the service you couldn’t come back for nine months. All to stop the bleeding. None of that worked.

To make things even worse, Variety reported that there was a class action lawsuit filed against MoviePass in San Francisco in November of 2018 for those blackouts mentioned above. Then, in February 2019, another class action suit was filed against them in New York for using bait-and-switch tactics. As you might expect, by April, the subscriptions were down 90%. On September 14th, 2019 MoviePass announced its closure, and the CEO, Ted Farnsworth, resigned a few days later.

The idea for a subscription-based model, however, is a good one. It was so good that AMC introduced its own, AMC Stubs A-List, in the summer of 2018 which put added pressure on MoviePass. AMC theaters have the benefit of vertical integration and getting to watch MoviePass make all the mistakes beforehand while assuming none of the risks. Naturally, like many others, I made the jump over to A-List in late 2018, canceled my MoviePass subscription, and didn’t look back.

However, in November of 2021, CNBC reported that a bankruptcy judge allowed the sale of the company back to Stacy Spikes, one of the original founders. And in the late summer of 2022, Spikes announced MoviePass was relaunching as a beta again in limited markets.

As a previous account holder, I was able to join the early waitlist before the new version of the app was available in Los Angeles. Obviously, I was skeptical. Not just because of that whole history I just laid out, but because the “invitation” included a link to buy Spikes’ autobiography. It kind of felt like, ‘here, sign up for this service again even though we screwed you the first time and to help me financially buy the book I wrote about how we screwed you.” I didn’t buy the book, but I did entertain the offer to rejoin and signed up for the waitlist in LA.

My movie-going volume is even higher than it was in 2018 and even with A-List there are a lot of independent films I want to see that tend to fall through the cracks at AMC, at least the three chain theaters close to me. I understand. It’s a business and dedicating an entire auditorium to a movie where I might be the only one in the theater isn’t good for the bottom line. However, that means I have to seriously consider any option that may give me the advantage there.

Once LA was officially brought into the fold, I crunched the numbers and it turned out that the “new” MoviePass was a smart decision for me. So, I signed back up. At the time, the sales pitch was: “see up to three movies a month” for the lowest subscription tier.” That low tier was $20/month but it would allow me to see approximately $30-$40 worth of movies. A fair enough trade while keeping me from really getting to the 10-to-1 exchange I was getting before. However, it wasn’t a straight-line deal because this time there was a “credits” system in place.

For the price of my $20, I would get 63 credits per month with rollover for unused credits (up to two months, I think). When I first signed up, a matinee ticket price at my local indie theater was worth 15 credits. I was thrilled because that meant I would get to use MoviePass specifically to chip away at those indies and get an extra movie out of the deal each month. Those matinee tickets were $9 so in essence, I was trading $20 for $36. That didn’t last long.

The credit value of those matinees jumped from 15 to 24 to 30 to 36 to 40 to 50+ during the holiday season. As I looked just now, the matinee ticket costs 42 credits. However, that number doesn’t change depending on theaters. So a $9 ticket at my local theater and one that is $14.19 at the AMC closest to me are both 42 credits. How? Why? To make matters worse, AMC theaters, my local Laemmle, and many other theater chains offer discounted ticket prices on Tuesdays. So, a ticket that would cost me $5-$7 if I paid out of pocket is actually costing me more through MoviePass. Please, make it make sense.

Okay, let’s break it down. My $20 per month was worth 68 credits. That’s roughly $0.29 per credit. So, when I went to the movies over the Christmas holiday and my $7 matinee ticket cost me 50 credits, the actual credit value of that ticket was $15.87. That’s more than double the real ticket cost! Additionally, it used up about 75% of my total available credits so I couldn’t see another movie that same month even if I wanted to. That meant that my $20 wasn’t even worth $20 anymore! I had seen the end coming for a while but that was the final straw.

But wait, there’s more! MoviePass was well aware of this because they started selling additional add-on credits. However, those additional credits were being sold starting at $0.38 per credit, or $0.36 per credit if you bought their highest bundle for $25. So, for $5 more than the cost of your monthly subscription, you get one whole extra credit that doesn’t even have any applicable value.

I understand that they were probably hemorrhaging cash again but when you combine that with the ever-changing credit pricing structure, and “high-demand” rate adjustments, these predatory business practices on their part and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them staring down some more class action lawsuits in the not-too-distant future.

The only good news is that they streamlined their cancellation process because when my wife tried to cancel through the app, it would result in an error and she had to reach out to through their inadequate email customer service system to cancel her plan. Here’s how to cancel your plan if you need it. And you better believe I used all 250 characters in that comment form.

I want to clearly state that this was my experience. Things may be different in other markets with smaller populations with less movie theater infrastructure, but this is what it was like for me (and my wife). I did the math on all the numbers I provided regarding credits and dollar value using the app right in front of me and the numbers provided within.

Thanks for reading! Word of mouth is still the best way to help, so if you enjoy what I’m doing, please tell somebody. And if you have a comment, I’d love to hear it! Liking, subscribing, and sharing go a long way too. As usual, be well, be safe, and have fun no matter how you get your movies!