September 14—mark it down as the day (going to see bad) movies died.
On Friday afternoon, MoviePass’s parent company Helios and Matheson informed subscribers—apparently, there were still subscribers!—that the service would be shutting down because its “efforts to recapitalize MoviePass have not been successful to date.” It’s unclear what will happen to the movie theater subscription service next: Helios could sell off the company and its assets—including MovieFone and MoviePass Films, which, incredibly and fittingly, had a hand in financing John Travolta’s sublimely good bad film Gotti—or it could simply shutter the service and hang on to the user data it harvested over the past three years.
This day has been a long time coming. To be more specific, this day has more or less been coming since July 27, 2018, the day of Mission: Impossible—Fallout’s release, when thousands of users were unable to access the service. Up until that point, MoviePass had been the key to unlocking a moviegoing utopia—a cheat code of sorts that, at its peak, cost only $9.95 a month to see an unlimited amount of movies in theaters. But the service failure of July 27 laid bare many of the company’s flaws, and confirmed what basically everyone suspected but had quelled with an endless amount of ticket stubs and popcorn: that MoviePass was too good to be true. As the company’s Twitter account assured users that the app was simply “experiencing technical issues,” in reality, MoviePass had been locked out of using its line of credit by its bank.
“That weekend was a realization that we can’t necessarily provide the service we had been providing, which was unlimited, every movie all the time,” MoviePass’s then–executive vice president Khalid Itum told me in January (Itum left the company in March).
Despite multiple relaunches, restructuring of payment plans, and rebrands—shout-out the Director of Barketing—the company never recovered after that day. Subscriber numbers plummeted, competitors like AMC Stubs A-List emerged, and MoviePass continued to falter and face criticism: over allegedly barring users from canceling their subscriptions, and over leaving thousands of credit card numbers exposed because a critical server wasn’t password protected. That the service is officially ending is less surprising than the fact that it made it this far into 2019.
But while MoviePass’s legacy will undoubtedly be colored by these grand failures, it’s hard not to take this shuttering the same way you would your dumbest but most loyal and idealistic friend moving away. MoviePass’s business plan made zero sense—literally: “It was like a bank giving you a dollar for every 25 cents you deposit,” was how Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter explained it to me in January—but it also created a brief moment in time when using it felt like getting away with a crime, and a sense of community amongst users; just a bunch of low-rent criminals going to see The Snowman.
And more importantly, it raised real questions about the efficacy of the theatergoing business—whether the system we currently have, the system that won out, is really best for consumers. MoviePass’s success—which quickly hit a level that threatened to put them out of business—is evidence theatergoers are interested in a different model than what traditional exhibitors like AMC offer. And the company’s effects on the industry can be seen during both its swell and decline. In 2018, the year of MoviePass’s explosion, box office sales were up 7 percent for a record-breaking total of $11.9 billion. This year, the box office is currently off that pace by 6.3 percent, despite record-breaking gains by movies like Avengers: Endgame and The Lion King. In a January interview, MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe claimed that the company had accounted for 6 percent of all ticket sales in the first half of 2018—and while MoviePass clearly didn’t have the capital to be purchasing that many tickets (and then selling them back to users at an extreme discount), it was at least on to something. As far as industry disruptors go, the first ones to do it are rarely the last ones (Sinemia, one of MoviePass’s first competitors, also folded this year). Some company may figure out how to do the movie ticket subscription service in the future—but it will be on the back of MoviePass’s successes—and its failures.
Two weeks ago—15 days before the death of MoviePass—The Fanatic was released, a movie directed by Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit in which John Travolta plays a deranged stalker with a bad haircut. It looked horrible. By all accounts, it was horrible. But I wouldn’t know. The only way I would’ve seen that thing is if a tech company gone wrong had basically paid me to.