It’s no wonder MoviePass is in trouble. The service — which offers subscribers the chance to see a movie a day, in theaters, for just $9.95 a month — never really made sense as a business model.
I mean that simply as a mathematical proposition. The company paid the cost of each ticket without any apparent subsidy from theaters or movie studios. But the average movie ticket in the United States costs more than $9, according to theater owners, which means that subscribers need see no more than 14 movies per year for MoviePass to lose money on the deal. Meanwhile, in California and New York, two of our three most heavily populated states, the average ticket costs north of $15: A theatergoer could buy one ticket to one movie or save money by buying a pass that lets them see 30 movies a month.
Even with tweaks like subscription cost increases, surge pricing and limits on repeat viewings, MoviePass’s plan could hardly have been sillier. Imagine a third party offering a deal that allows you one burger per day at Five Guys for $8 per month, but without Five Guys giving the third party a kickback for the added business on soda and french fries, and you’re close. Or, as Slate’s Sam Adam joked on Twitter, “this doesn’t bode well for my start-up MoviePassPass, which gets you a MoviePass subscription for only $3.99 a month.”
But, like the Batman in Gotham City, there’s no going back: MoviePass has changed things, forever. Today’s customers expect to pay a low, flat fee for services that provide them unlimited entertainment options. Hence Spotify’s dominance of the music scene. Hence Netflix’s penetration into more than 55 million American homes. Hence the sharp decline in cable subscriptions, which are expensive and relatively easily replaced by premium video services such as Amazon Prime. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Post.)
AMC has already rolled out its own MoviePass-like plan, Stubs A-list. It’s more expensive than MoviePass, at $19.95 a month, and is limited to three movies a week, but allows customers to enjoy 3D, Imax and other premium viewing options. As a result, one purchase — say, a ticket to a Tuesday evening Dolby Cinema presentation of “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” at AMC’s Georgetown location, which runs $18.99 — can make the subscription worthwhile. CNN’s Frank Pallotta reports AMC has 175,000 subscribers for the service after just a month and hopes to have a million by June 2020.
For AMC, the bargain makes sense in a way that it never did for MoviePass. The chain already keeps some percentage of each ticket sold anyway. And by tying moviegoers to AMC, the product deprives rivals like Regal and Cinemark of potential customers. Most important, though, AMC gets people through the door, gets customers lined up for popcorn, gets adults looking to relax before the show into AMC’s in-theater bar, MacGuffins.
On the one hand, I am prone to cheer anything that gets people into theaters, even if the ordinary customer is an ill-mannered lout. On the other, though, I worry that reorienting the theatrical business further from movie-watching and toward snack-consumption can only have a deleterious effect on the theatrical experience.
Leave aside the fact that such a shift would degrade the quality of the actual viewing experience — already in a precarious state — by shifting manpower away from projectors and masking curtains and toward soda-jerking and cocktail mixing. Consider instead what such a model will do to customers already inclined to scroll through their Instagram and shoot off text messages rather than pay attention to what’s on the screen.
If you teach people that movies aren’t worth individual purchases — if you suggest to them that movies are all part of the same river of content and dipping a toe here is no different than jumping in up there — you are implicitly teaching them to disrespect the product on the big screen and encouraging them to reach for the small screen in their pocket. Eh, this movie is boring, who cares, it’s all part of the package, what’s the score in the Nationals game, oh wow I can’t believe Elon Musk tweeted that, hey why did Michael Fassbender’s character just shoot a snowman, I thought Val Kilmer was in this, where did he, oh look puppies on Snapchat!
MoviePass may have come up with a way to save movies; we’ll see how AMC’s adaptation of the business model works. But it could very well have destroyed any reason to see movies on the big screen with groups of people, as God and Irving G. Thalberg intended.