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Monday, June 17, 2024

MoviePass Has Stumbled Repeatedly. Why Does It Still Have Fans?

Recently, I got an email from MoviePass, the movie ticket subscription service that infamously went bust. It was a promo message announcing MoviePass’ return. It was signed by the company’s CEO, Stacy Spikes, and was a celebration of the service’s imperial phase. “So many of you have called, emailed, and even stopped me on the street to show that you still had your original MoviePass card,” Spikes wrote.

Still had your original MoviePass card? It sounded like a bit of silly corporate mythmaking. Except I have reason to believe Spikes didn’t invent that detail. Because I still have my original MoviePass card. In my wallet. Right now. Why?

The long answer is that between 2017 and 2018 MoviePass cost $9.95 per month for a movie a day, which was a ridiculously low fee, and I, like literally millions of other people, became obsessed with maxing out my MoviePass subscription before the obvious endpoint came. At some point during my obsession, I genuinely felt the presence of a collective MoviePass cult that celebrated it as both a service and an idea so beautifully dumb it had to die.

The short answer, then, is that I get happy when I look at it.

In April, Time’s Eliana Dockterman wrote a profile of Spikes that explained what the hell happened at MoviePass. Unbeknownst to me, and presumably to many of its latter-day followers, Spikes founded MoviePass way back in 2011 and originally charged a much more sensible $30 to $50 a month while “struggling for years to secure funding, which he attributes at least in part to racial discrimination.” As the profile points out, in 2021, the share of total VC funding given to Black entrepreneurs was barely more than 1 percent.

In 2017, a company called Helios and Matheson Analytics bought a controlling share of MoviePass, then came up with the idea of promoting the service by temporarily dropping the price to the iconic $9.95. Spikes says he reluctantly agreed as long as they brought the price back up after 100,00 sign-ups. “It happened in literally 48 hours,” Spikes told Time. “I was like, ‘Great, turn it off.’ And they were like, ‘No, no, leave it on. See what happens.’”

What happened is the MoviePass era we remember so fondly. At one point, the company had more than 3 million subscribers. Lots of people were using it, all the time, way more than Helios and Matheson had bargained for. So it collapsed, crushed by its own impossible promise. In 2018, Helios and Matheson reported a net loss of nearly $400 million. Spikes got pushed out. In 2019 MoviePass ceased operations, and in 2020 Helios and Matheson filed for bankruptcy.

Effectively, that MoviePass imperial phase was created by a decision that counteracted its founder’s wishes. Now pardon the indulgence here, but is that not also the process behind the miracle that is a great movie? Someone bold has a vision and ceaselessly pushes it forward through countless compromise points—infinitesimal and massive, creative and financial—until their vision is executed. Which is a way of saying that I don’t think any of the messiness of MoviePass should take away from what, all too briefly, we had.

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After reading Spikes’ quote, I reached out to friends and online acquaintances to find other MoviePass cardholders. I got back genuine emotion.

Garrett Casey, 29, says he’s held on to his card “as a fond reminder of the glories. With MoviePass my friends and I started going twice, three times a week—seeing anything and everything that came out. It was a lot of fun, a whole era of our early twenties. And most of us were still in school or not making a lot of money, so we couldn't have afforded all that moviegoing without the pass. It was absurd, and we were obsessed. We even got matching MoviePass caps.”

David Rosenfeld, 32, a talent booker, said holding on to his card all this time “was a passive conscious decision. I’d come across it in my wallet and couldn’t bear to part ways with it.” As for his MoviePass tenure, he says, “There was a shared experience with friends who were also members, where you simultaneously felt like the smartest people in the room and the biggest suckers alive. It was a badge that gave you permission to see the worst that Hollywood had to offer while creating a buffer to feel like you were a Mystery Science Theater-esque participant. It was the perfect marriage of highbrow and lowbrow. I don’t think there are any other services that I share the same fondness for.”

Daniel Joyaux, a 40-year-old film journalist and MP cardholder, echoed those sentiments. “The thing I miss the most about MoviePass: watching bad movies. During the glorious few years of MoviePass, I regularly went to movies that I was just morbidly curious about. Stuff like Justice League or The Mountain Between Us. I never watch bad movies anymore. I kinda miss it sometimes.”

Samuel Ujdak, 31, a grants manager at a domestic violence nonprofit, added “I have the card in an old wallet I retired a couple years ago and will always keep as a souvenir of a Wild West period. There’s a version of consuming movies we don’t really engage with anymore where you see whatever’s playing because it’s playing. MoviePass brought back the ‘I have 3 hours to kill, I guess I'll see a movie’ experience of American life. I don’t think I can be loyal to a service like that ever again. One of those things where you know something is too good to last so you buy the ticket and take the ride until one too many kids falls off the water slide and the park gets shut down. My hope would be MoviePass inspires a number of other competitors and theater attendance goes back and mid-budget movies have more of a chance of succeeding. I know that future is long gone, but we can always hope.”

Anecdotally, then, this wasn’t just about saving money. It was also about a collective feeling that certain people can only get from going to the movies. Any movie.

After MoviePass went bankrupt, Spikes bought the assets back for $140,000 and, heartwarmingly, plotted this comeback. It must be said that this comeback has been a tad cagey and confusing. Potential subscribers were invited to a waitlist that’s now been closed. The company has announced it’s rolling out in only three test markets: Chicago, Kansas City, and Dallas. It has yet to announce any deals with major movie theater chains, or any pricing plans.

And yet Spikes is a true believer in movie theaters. And it feels like we are at an inflection point. Theaters were rocked by the pandemic and are continuously battered by the streamers and corporate shill siblings. We as a culture-loving society have to decide: Should we rescue the movie theater? Who’s to say whether Stacy Spikes is the person to do it? But to the larger question, for me and my fellow MoviePass diehards, the answer is obvious. Let’s all keep going to the movies. Forever.

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