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May 9, 2018

Will Subscription-Based Moviegoing Survive the Death of MoviePass?

With dwindling cash reserves and growing alarm among its users, MoviePass may not live to see the success of own attempts at industry disruption.

With the revelation this week that MoviePass is quickly exhausting its cash reserves – and the subsequent collapse in stock prices for parent company Helios & Matheson – it seems the writing is on the wall for America’s favorite theatrical subscription service. Oh sure, Helios & Matheson CEO Ted Farnsworth is saying all the right things about capital markets and cash flow to the press, but the numbers don’t lie: as Variety noted in yesterday’s article, stock prices have tumbled from $38.86 a share in October 2017 to $0.78 a share on Wednesday. Even if what Farnsworth suggests is true, consumer confidence in MoviePass is nonexistent, and when it comes to technology companies, perception is often the same as reality. Barring some kind of miracle, it seems that MoviePass is headed for a cliff. Time to churn your way through as many films as possible.

Then again, this is not a eulogy for MoviePass specifically so much as a thought exercise in how much it has truly moved the needle in America’s moviegoing habits. Vulture recently published a piece exploring MoviePass’s chances at surviving the summer; in that article, several MoviePass partners and competitors spoke to the idea that the subscription service has adjusted the relationship Americans have with their local theaters and multiplexes. This was a major theme pushed by the company as it expanded in the past few months. MoviePass has claimed in the past that they can play a major part in funneling users to specific titles; in a January interview with Wired, for example, executives claimed that the targeted promotion of individual titles by MoviePass could lead to 10% of all domestic ticket sales for a given title being purchased through their platform. As such, MoviePass has often positioned itself as the heroic little guy, fighting against the decline of American cinemas.

All of which raises a big question: will subscription moviegoing survive the death of MoviePass? Most experts seem to agree that ticket sales are in decline and that inflated box office prices are the biggest obstacle towards getting people to see more movies in theaters, but the underlying fear is that audiences have been given too many at-home options to ever consider multiplexes seriously again. The MoviePass price-point works because it is obviously, blatantly, suspiciously cheap; what the company sees as a reversion of years of theatrical attendance trends could just as well be a sizable chunk of people trying to have as much fun as possible before the whole thing goes under. A pessimist might look at the MoviePass debacle as the last gasp of a dying industry; should the service die in the next month or two, the next round of MPAA industry statistics could be very revealing as to how impermanent those new habits truly were.

Still, some aspects of the MoviePass model will stick around. For $8.99 a month, Cinemark’s Movie Club will give you access to one 2D screening of your choosing, a price-point that does nothing for dedicated cinephiles but ensures the infrequent attendees pick Cinemark instead of their local AMC or Regal. If you’re one of the vast majority of Americans who only hit up the multiplex a handful of times a year, the value in four or five extra films for a theater chain is substantial; Cinemark is making a tactical decision to target this pool of moviegoers rather than the people who already hit up the multiplex several times a month. As noted by local news outlets, movie theater chain Alamo Drafthouse has also toyed with the prospect of developing in its own subscription service in the past year, using email surveys to gauge interest among its customers. Much like we’ve seen with Netflix, if the model is proven to be successful, it won’t be long before the major players create an in-house option.

The idea that subscription models are the future of the industry is one shared by Vox critic Alissa Wilkinson, who recently wrote an entire article explaining why core pieces of MoviePass will survive far beyond the company itself. Her argument – and it is a convincing one – is that the subscription model has become too ingrained as part of millennial culture to ever be anything else. Wilkinson quotes research that suggests “more than 70 percent of millennials have a product subscription and 89 percent a service subscription,” a number that “far outpaces boomers and Gen-Xers.” If there is salvation in the wings for movie theaters, then, it may be that the mode of consumption – even more than the product itself – is a selling point for audiences. In a world where people like myself simultaneously justify subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, FilmStruck, Shudder, and god knows what else, the freedom that comes with a movie theater subscription might be enough to offset the cost.

My ten cents? I think that MoviePass is preparing us for a decidedly more difficult truth: a time where local movie theaters exist only through the regular financial support and membership of their communities. The best money I ever spent as a former resident of New York City was my annual subscription to the Museum of the Moving Image; for one annual cost, I would gain access to unlimited general screenings of new and reparatory cinema and discounts on some of the Museum’s more premium fare. This, more than anything, seems like the future of cinema for all but the biggest conglomerations. Audiences will need to maintain subscriptions to local theaters just to ensure their year-round operation; the success or failure of individual titles will be secondary to generating enough subscriptions to keep the entire business afloat. It’s a model that continues to work in the non-profit and exhibition spaces, and as movies continue to be edged out of the limelight by emerging technologies, it’s a model that may ensure that the theatrical experience as we know it continues to thrive.

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