I’ve had MoviePass since September, right after the company dropped the price of its one-movie-per-day subscription to the too-good-to-be-true cost of $10 a month. Since then, dozens of friends, colleagues, and even random strangers I’ve run into at movie theaters have asked if it’s really a good deal, and if they should sign up. My answer has always been yes, because for the right kind of moviegoer, the service offers a tremendous value.
I’ve always known that the free ride wouldn’t last forever, though. The company’s business model, which has MoviePass losing money on pretty much every ticket sold, seems too unsustainable. Two changes the company has begun toying with recently make it seem as if MoviePass is gutting the core value of the service. In other words, the moment when MoviePass stops being worth it is feeling closer than ever.
We learned earlier this week that for new subscribers, MoviePass is no longer allowing customers to see one movie per day. Instead, the $9.95 subscription will allow customers to purchase only four tickets per month, with MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe admitting that he doesn’t know if the “unlimited” plan will ever return. To help ease the blow, MoviePass is throwing in a three-month trial of iHeartRadio’s All Access subscription, though it’s not exactly clear why a three-month trial for an audio service is supposed to be a decent stand-in for movie tickets. The new plan also bills customers quarterly, so you have to pay for MoviePass in three-month chunks. That’s a far cry from the annual plan I switched over to back in November of last year, when I paid $89.95 upfront — or just $7.50 a month — for a full year of MoviePass’ unlimited access plan. That plan is no longer available, either.
The other change is a modification to the company’s terms of service that prohibits MoviePass customers from buying tickets to “select” movies more than once. We’ve reached out to MoviePass for further comment, but a support ticket explaining the change justifies it by saying, “We hope this will encourage you to see new movies and enjoy something different!” That’s an even more distasteful change, because the company is offering zero guidance or transparency about what films will be impacted. What has made MoviePass great for consumers is the ability to see films whenever you like, knowing that if your friends want to see something in the future, you can always go a second time. For tentpole blockbusters — movies like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Black Panther, or The Avengers: Infinity War — repeat viewings are a cornerstone of the fan experience. MoviePass used to enable that.
Now, the service is asking for three months of subscription fees upfront, with no guarantee that a given movie won’t be impacted by its latest, unannounced change. In addition to that, many users are now reporting an expanded test from MoviePass, one we first heard about earlier this year, in which users in certain markets are being asked to upload photos of their ticket stubs. The stub verification is ostensibly to test for “fraudulent activity” and “to ensure that MoviePass is sustainable for the entire community.” An email from MoviePass reads, “Please note that failure to cooperate with the below safeguards could result in irreversible termination of your subscription.”
“We recently made some updates to our Terms of Service, including the policy that MoviePass subscribers are only permitted to see any movie in the theaters once with their MoviePass. This falls within our continued effort to limit fraud on our app and has been effective in doing so in the past,” MoviePass spokersperson said in a statement. “We’re continually testing various promotions with different partners, and the current iHeartRadio deal is consistent with that approach. This does not mean that our unlimited subscription will not be offered in the future.”
MoviePass has used these kind of bait-and-switch tactics before, usually as part of selective market tests as a way to see what its subscriber base is willing to put up with. We’ve seen the company play hardball with AMC by blacklisting popular theaters in major markets like New York City, and play fast and loose with math in order to inflate the amount of revenue it drives in ticket sales. Some of the moves have been ways to bring major theater chains to the bargaining table, in MoviePass’ bid for a possible cut on concessions or ticket sales.
We’ve also seen the company cut deals with smaller studios to promote movies like I, Tonya and Death Wish, while simultaneously prohibiting MoviePass customers from buying tickets to competing movies. That test seemed to be designed to show how MoviePass could direct audiences toward the movies it was being paid to promote. But as is the case with almost all of MoviePass’ tactics, it’s the company’s paying subscribers that are left in the dark, as the basic value of their subscription is undermined or stripped out without any notification or explanation.
On the business side, all of these tests seem designed to cut corners, save cash, and determine how little the company can get away with offering while it tries to figure out a more sustainable business model. For a while, the working assumption was that MoviePass would monetize its users’ viewing habits, and Lowe has said the grand plan is to cut deals with restaurants, bars, and other services to create a holistic, all-in-one night out that starts when a person leaves their home.
But Lowe’s admission that MoviePass would track user location data to do so kicked up a privacy controversy, and MoviePass has since disabled the mobile app’s location-tracking ability, which it says it never used. An independent auditor compounded the issues earlier this month when it said it had “substantial doubt” about the ability of MoviePass’ parent company to stay in business in the face of the service’s ongoing losses.
But those concerns are ultimately inside baseball for the average moviegoer. The only thing that matters for potential consumers is whether MoviePass as a service is worth the cost — and all the corner-cutting, tests, and secret changes have undermined the core service to the point where it’s almost not worth the trouble. Over the last seven and a half months, I’ve seen 25 films through MoviePass, for an average of around 3 films per month. I’ve had some repeat viewings here and there — the new Star Wars and Bladerunner 2049, to name a couple — and I’ve fortunately not run into any of the above-mentioned issues. Not yet, at least.
But there was a moment last night when I went to see Avengers: Infinity War at my local AMC theater, and I couldn’t find the venue on the app. I jumped into the movie selection portion of the app to see if it showed up there; still nothing. For a moment, I wondered if my theater was subject to yet another MoviePass blackout, for reasons that would never be honestly explained to me as a paying customer.
Thankfully, when I zoomed into the map I finally found the theater, and was able to use the subscription plan I’d already paid a year upfront for. Yet the anxiety of that moment — of knowing that the ease and freedom I get from the service could likely be taken away at any moment — does make me rethink what I’ll tell people about MoviePass. The time of it being too good to be true has already passed. Now, the question is how long will MoviePass survive in its current state, and what changes will its customers have to put up with next?
Update 4/27, 5:37PM ET: Added that MoviePass is now asking users to upload photos of ticket stubs to verify purchases.