I joined MoviePass in June 2015. Three years later, I’m witnessing the death of a service that changed the way I watch movies.
“Technically missing, soon to be presumed dead. Gone.” That line from Gone Girl has been popping into my head a lot lately as I read the news about MoviePass outages and the company’s seemingly imminent demise. When it was announced yesterday that showtimes from several major movie chains had disappeared from MoviePass, it called into question again: how much time does MoviePass have left?
As a long term subscriber, I have some thoughts on the company’s tumultuous experiment.
How it started (for me)
In June 2015, I’d just graduated college, I was working at a terrible and terribly paying job, and most of my friends had moved away. It was a very strange, very transitory time when a lot of things were changing for me. For one thing, I had free time in a way I hadn’t had since I started high school! I didn’t have homework or extracurricular activities to occupy myself – I was free.
Naturally, I sought out to fill that free time with things I loved, especially those things I’d neglected or put aside while in school.
I had always, always loved going to the movies. I think, maybe, because it was something I rarely ever did. I grew up in rural Vermont, where my family had to literally leave the state (cross the border into New Hampshire) to find the nearest movie theater. As is true for lots of things in life – the rarity of the act of seeing a movie in a theater made it special, made it important.
So, in the months after graduation when I heard about a subscription service that allowed you to pay a monthly fee in exchange for unlimited access to movie tickets, I jumped aboard.
When I first joined MoviePass, I paid (gladly, I should add!) $40 a month. My membership allowed me to see one movie per calendar day with two caveats at that time: First, “calendar day” really meant every 24 hours. So, after you checked in for a movie, the app literally had a timer counting down to when you could check in again.
Second, you could only see movies once. This wasn’t a huge issue for me, especially when I found out I could check in for another movie, but still buy a ticket for the movie I wanted to see.
For a year, that’s how I watched movies and I loved it. Sure, the 24-hour rule was annoying, but most of the time you could plan around it. Yeah, I wished I could see movies twice without the hassle, but it seemed like a logical rule.
During that time, I was living in the Washington D.C. suburbs and had easy access to three different theaters. I knew maybe four other people who used the service and none of them lived in D.C. Theater employees would ask about it, confused and surprised. My MoviePass card was a novelty – now I wish it had stayed that way.
It’s important to call out the fact that, from the very beginning when I signed up for MoviePass in 2015, I had no expectations it would last. The phrase, “living on borrowed time” always comes to mind when I talk about MoviePass. No one I knew that used it at the beginning thought it would last, but we were more than happy to use it while we could.
It has always been, “too good to be true” and the fact that I’ve gotten away with it for more than three years is genuinely surprising to me. What’s more notable, however, is the impact being an active MoviePass user has had on the way I watch movies in a theater.
When I was young, going to the movies was a lot like Christmas morning. It was an event to be excited about, not even because of the movie you were seeing, but because you were seeing it in a theater. To watch a movie in the theater meant I was watching a good movie; I have no memory of disliking a movie I saw in a theater as a kid.
Much of my excitement for going to the movie theater came from how unfamiliar and foreign it felt. MoviePass changed that. It turned a place that was once felt a part of a strange world separate from my own into a place I felt at home. By removing the burden of spending twenty bucks every single time you go to a movie theater, thereby reducing how often you go, MoviePass turned my local theaters into places where I was “a regular.”
The peace of mind and feeling of home that I get when I go to a movie theater is a pretty strange thing when I stop to think about plenty of these theater chains seem to only have profits in mind. MoviePass, whatever their intentions may be, offered a service that made movies – and the places we come together to watch them – more accessible for me. That’s not nothing and it’s why I’ve not cracked jokes about the company’s slow demise.
Why die like this?
With that said, as a long term subscriber, the exact manner in which MoviePass has seemingly chosen to die is disappointing. The announcement that MoviePass would reduce its monthly fee to $10…then $9.95…then for a time $6.95…set off huge alarms in my head. If I already considered their business model to be unsustainable at $40, how in the world could $10 work for them?
I’m diplomatic enough to understand that they saw an opportunity to grow by lowering their price to $10. They weren’t wrong – they grew! They’ve grown so large that I regularly see other patrons holding MoviePass cards, standing outside the theater checking into their show time on their phone. Unfortunately, there is a clear connection between the company’s choice to lower their price to $10 and their rapid decline.
I wish, oh how I wish, MoviePass would raise their subscription price again. I understand that for more casual users, $40 or even $50 might seem a high price, but I wouldn’t blink.
When I moved to Los Angeles – a city with theater chairs regularly charging $17 for a matinee – I continued to applaud MoviePass for what it could save active subscribers. I’m not exaggerating when I say that MoviePass saved me thousands of dollars. A $40 or $50 price point would still cover the cost of 2 or 3 movies a month! For someone that sees at least double that many movies, that’s a huge savings.
MoviePass’ choice to cling such an obviously unsustainable price is frustrating and I’m afraid that their (almost certain) failure will only embolden theater chains to reject any possibility of services like this – giving them free reign to gouge audiences.
We had a great run
In an announcement this morning after their latest crash, MoviePass announced that it would limit users from seeing blockbuster films, but still make smaller, independent movies available to audiences. This change will coincide with a raise in the monthly subscription to $14.95.
While some users will balk at these changes, this choice may actually help keep MoviePass alive, at least in the short term future. I consider this a win. In many respects, this decision reflects the evolving mission of the company, which – as their statement reads – is, “to empower smaller artistic film communities.”
MoviePass seeks (I won’t say “sought” since they aren’t technically dead yet) to make going to the movies more accessible and to give a chance to those movies that you might normally pass on (you know the ones that don’t bill themselves as “the most ambitious crossover event in history”).
As I refuse to end on a negative note, I’ll say this: We’ve had a great run, MoviePass. You and I are a perfect match, but life just keeps getting in the way – and by life, I guess I mean corporate enterprises that seek to commodify everything in sight.
I remain very, very passionate about the movie-going experience. It should be special, but it should not and need not be a rarity. Even if I think $17 is too much for a ticket, I’m willing to admit that’s still less, and in some circumstances way less, than you would pay for any other popular form of entertainment including sports games, stage performances, and concerts.
Ultimately, for me, MoviePass helped reclaim the movie theater as a place where I go, not only to see a movie, but to feel at home.