MoviePass has changed moviegoing – will it last?

MoviePass made a huge splash in August 2017 when it lowered its monthly unlimited rate to $9.95. Observers are unsure if it's sustainable, but it's already disrupted the movie theater industry.

Orlin Wagner/AP/File
AMC’s Studio 30 theater in Olathe, Kan.

For almost a year, Chris Manna has been seeing 20 movies a month in what he describes as "a way bigger living room." In other words, he’s been frequenting movie theaters a lot more recently.

[Editor's note: A source was removed from the story because it was later discovered that he had a vested interest in the success of Moviepass.]

Mr. Manna is one of many moviegoers who have been convinced to swap their couch and TV for the theater's big screen. While movie theater attendance in the United States has declined since peaking in 2002, according to the National Association of Theater Owners, people still crave the movie theater experience – just not at its current price tag. Enter subscription service MoviePass.

“We do want to go out,” says Curtis Medina, who lives in Missoula, Mont., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., and is a MoviePass subscriber. “We do want to see [movies]. We just needed a better business model.... [MoviePass] cuts out the question of whether or not it’s going to be worth it to go out.” Mr. Medina describes the monthly pass as “movie insurance” against rising prices.

People can often feel as if they are wasting their time or money on collective experiences like going to the movies or sporting events, says Shira Gabriel, a psychology professor at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. But “people 100 percent should let that go,” she says, as these experiences foster feelings of belonging, meaning, and companionship, and lower anxiety. 

“At the heart of it is this desire, that we’re not always aware of, to feel connected to other people, to be in the same moment as other people,” says Professor Gabriel.

And with MoviePass, that feeling of wasting money on a collective experience may be less of a concern. MoviePass made a huge splash in August 2017 when it lowered its monthly unlimited rate to $9.95. Its base grew from around 20,000 at the end of 2016 to more than 3 million as of last month.

SOURCE: National Association Of Theatre Owners (NATO)
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Karen Norris/Staff

MoviePass has announced a slew of changes, including peak pricing, bring-a-friend options, and premium showings such as those at IMAX theaters, as shares of MoviePass parent company Helios and Matheson reached an all-time low earlier this month. The company has also been plagued by complaints about bad customer service.

Is MoviePass sustainable? “I don’t know, [and] to be perfectly honest, I think most of us don’t,” says BoxOffice Pro editorial director Daniel Loria. “But ‘I don’t know’ isn’t the answer you want when you have an offering like a subscription.” 

MoviePass pays full price for tickets, a model that industry experts say can’t last. Meanwhile, AMC announced it would be offering its own subscription service, Stubs A-List, which costs about $20 a month for three AMC movies per week. Cinemark’s Movie Club service and Sinemia’s European subscription import are two other subscription services.

Medina and Manna both said the price of movies meant that before MoviePass, they only went to “tentpole” movies. Now they’re seeing classic films, independent films – even films they know nothing about.

“There are so few things left in our life where there is a sense of community, especially among strangers.... [T]o be in a place and experience it with a crowd is just different. to hear them laugh at the same type of jokes or be shocked at the same surprises,” says Ahrens, who lives in California’s Orange County.

For Medina, who has friends and family who are subscribers, the movies have become a renewed place to bond without worrying “about breaking the bank.” 

Even if MoviePass does not survive, it has been good because of its disruption, says Medina. He hopes it will force the movie industry to change the way it does business and do more than “rehash sequels and remakes.” “It’s a revolution for moviegoers,” he says. “They have a power that they didn’t realize they had.”

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