Elegy to MoviePass or MoviePass, MovieCrash

MoviePass, MovieCrash
June 3rd 2024

Sometime around when the dueling Netflix and Hulu Fyre Festival documentaries came out, the streaming industry decided there was good profit to be made off bad businesses. The ZIRP Era gave us no shortage of poorly conceived and worse-run companies that nonetheless raised tens or hundreds of millions before losing even more and collapsing. The appeal of such stories is obvious; if ever-later capitalism is going to keep making things harder on us, at least we can rubberneck at its failures. This trend has now intersected with something close to home for cinephiles via HBO Documentary Films’ MoviePass, MovieCrash (2024), a look at the theatrical subscription service’s heyday.

What’s your favorite Big Tech crash and burn? Mine remains the Juicero, both because of the purity of its stupidity (a juice pack subscription attached to a superfluous $400 device) and the fact that I kept passing a billboard for it while driving La Brea Avenue in LA for many months after the company closed. It always brightened my day a little. But the corporate misadventure closest to my heart will always be MoviePass and I know many others feel similarly. (I would estimate that approximately 102% of Screen Slate’s readership used the service at some point.)

The dream was beautiful: quick admission to any movie at any participating theater. It took years for the company, co-founded by Stacy Spikes, to pull together basic necessities like “using an app instead of printed vouchers” and “ensuring theaters were actually amenable to participating.” But if you could use it to see enough movies each month to make the cost pay for itself, it was incredible. Were I to look at my Letterboxd ledger, I could still pick out the significant number of films I saw from 2016 through 2018 with MoviePass. That was the golden age, when the company introduced an affordable tier to see one movie per day, with the apex coming during the stretch starting in August 2017, when that plan was offered for just $10 a month.

Increasing ticket prices and the comparative convenience of streaming remain the top-cited reasons people don’t go out to theaters. MoviePass pulled more people into cinemas by shifting their cost-benefit analyses. But, if I performed that Letterboxd audit, I wouldn’t just be thinking about the money I saved. Being able to go out to the theater more often means being able to take more chances on titles you might otherwise have not bothered with. Thanks to MoviePass, I saw my first features from filmmakers ranging from Radu Jude (Aferim!, 2015) to Albert Serra (The Death of Louis XIV, 2016).

More than that, the access the app afforded could turn theaters into viable third spaces. One of my friends disclosed that they had used MoviePass to check into IFC Center just to use the bathroom, while another recalled using it to take a nap in a theater while killing time in Midtown. It was a rare example of a misaimed attempt at disruption that worked out 100% in favor of consumers. MoviePass remains one of the best case studies for letting Americans get things cheaply, at least before the Covid stimulus checks.

You would not know any of this from MovieCrash, which is atrocious even by the basement-depth standards of these direct-to-streaming business docs. The narrative centers Spikes and behind-the-scenes corporate mismanagement, but these business maneuverings aren’t all that flashy or outrageous, as far as corporate flops go. Spikes is not an uninteresting fellow, but the film admires him as a Black entrepreneur rather than recognize him as one of many hustle-grindset bullshitters who thrived in the aftermath of the ’08 economic crisis. This is the kind of man who has very clearly edited his own Wikipedia page. It's understandable that director Muta’Ali would be drawn to a story about a Black leader in the start-up universe, but the lesson this film pulls from MoviePass is essentially that bad Black businessmen should be allowed to fail upward the same as any white ones.

The lack of scrutiny toward Spikes is stunning. MovieCrash allows him to claim, unchallenged, that his Urbanworld Film Festival is “one of the largest film festivals in the world” and has "premiered more #1 films than any North American film festival.” The doc’s angle is that MoviePass failed because white executives wrested control of it from a Black creator, rather than because it was a concept that simply could not work in the long term. Not a single friend or colleague that I spoke to about MoviePass during its heyday was under any illusion that the good times could last. The only possible way this business model could make money was if millions of customers never used their subscriptions. Under Spikes’s leadership, MoviePass struggled for more than six years, as only dedicated weirdos bothered to use it.

It wasn’t until outside equity took control in the form of Helios and Matheson Analytics that the company saw success, thanks to the aforementioned $10 promotional price in 2017. Membership exploded from the tens of thousands to the millions within months. This was completely unsustainable, and Spikes was removed from the company not long after for arguing against it. But the Monday morning quarterbacking that MovieCrash lets Spikes perform for the year and a half between his expulsion and the company’s collapse in the summer of 2019 suggests there was some scenario in which it could have succeeded—which, again, there absolutely was not. This angle means that some of the wilder parts of the story, like MoviePass’s brief and disastrous foray into theatrical distribution with the likes of Gotti (2018), warrant little more than passing mentions.

The film puts a happy capper on these events by repeating Spikes’s assertion that, after he regained control of the company and relaunched it in 2022, it saw its first profitable year in 2023. (I find this dubious. Among other things, the company vaguely alludes to AI-based “enhancements” and cites the Netflix-like metric of “1 million movies seen through the app” as if that means anything.) Never mind that there’s still plenty of room for MoviePass to fail yet again; if it was indeed profitable last year, it’s likely because the relaunched service’s unintuitive, alienating system of membership tiers and in-app credits has effectively obfuscated just how much value users are actually getting for their subscriptions. The fact is that MoviePass tried to disrupt the film industry in the same way that streaming was already accomplishing, and its legacy comes in the form of all the theaters and chains that have incorporated memberships into their business models. But an aggregation of subscriptions to different venues doesn’t have the same appeal MoviePass did for those beautiful few years, that convenience of going nearly anywhere with the same app. The true lesson of MoviePass is that, despite all the rumblings about the downfall of the theatrical experience, if you make it easier and cheaper for people to see movies in a theater, they will.