From great deal to blazing dumpster fire: A MoviePass timeline

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Once described as the Netflix of movie theaters, the subscription-based movie ticket service MoviePass blew up the industry with its 2017 price drop, which promised the ability for subscribers to go to the movies every day for less than $10 per month.

At the time, it sounded too good to be true, and in the months that followed, millions of subscribers would learn how correct that initial assessment was, as one problem after another plagued the popular service. Lately, not a week — and sometimes, not even a day — goes by without some new twist in the MoviePass saga, painting a portrait of a clever idea that is, sadly, unsustainable in its current iteration.

In the interest of keeping track of all the events as they transpire, we’ve put together a timeline of key moments in the brief but fascinating evolution (and potential demise) of MoviePass, which will be updated as the saga unfolds. (Note: Scroll to the bottom for the latest updates.)

June 2011: MoviePass tests its service for the first time in San Francisco, offering subscribers the opportunity to see one movie each day for a monthly fee. After 19,000 people sign up, theater chains not only take notice but refuse to cooperate with the fledgling third-party system MoviePass uses to purchase tickets. The service is quickly revamped to require subscribers to print out vouchers for each movie ticket at home, but subscribers complain that the system is too cumbersome. Meanwhile, theaters balk at the time it takes to redeem the vouchers in the ticketing system.

October 2012: A national beta test for MoviePass launches, with subscribers paying between $29 and $34 each month, depending on their location. Instead of requiring subscribers to print out vouchers, the new system uses a mobile app and electronically loaded debit card that unlocks when a movie and screening time is selected for that day. Despite assurances that the card will be accepted at all major theaters, AMC and other chains resist participating in the service.

From great deal to blazing dumpster fire: A MoviePass timeline
AMC

December 2014: Dwindling ticket sales for the year prompt AMC to finally agree to a partnership with MoviePass, acknowledging that the future of the theater industry could lie in Netflix-style subscription services. The formal partnership between AMC and MoviePass begins with a test phase in Boston and Denver theater markets for $45 and $35 monthly fees, respectively.

June 2016: The arrival of former Netflix and Redbox executive Mitch Lowe as the new CEO of MoviePass brings more changes, with the service testing different subscription plans in certain regions for users based on how many movies they watch. A $50 monthly fee allows for six movies each month, while a $99 plan gives subscribers unlimited movies — with both plans now allowing 3-D films as part of the deal.

July 2016: A new, tier-based plan for MoviePass is officially announced, with subscribers paying between $15 and $21 for two movies per month, depending on the region. (Subscribers located in larger markets pay more for their monthly subscription.) Unlimited monthly movie plans are still available, but with costs ranging from $40 to $50 each month.

December 2016: While announcing a new partnership with Studio Movie Grill, MoviePass confirms that it has 20,000 subscribers.

August 2017: Analytics firm Helios and Matheson purchases a majority stake in MoviePass as the service announces a major price drop to $10 per month for unlimited movies, one per day. The company hopes to subsidize the service by increasing membership to a level at which it can sell targeted advertising based on users’ movie interests, in much the same way Google and Facebook support their free services. The resulting surge in subscribers causes the MoviePass website to crash, and AMC to declare that the “unsustainable” MoviePass and its subscribers are “not welcome” at its theaters.

September 2017: One month after dropping its monthly fee to $10, MoviePass reaches 400,000 subscribers. The company struggles to keep up with demand, however, as MoviePass card shipments are delayed and customer service is overtaxed. Analysts question the company’s ability to remain solvent due to the loss it takes from subscribers who see more than one movie in a month.

December 2017: MoviePass announces that it now has more than one million subscribers.

February 2018: Two months after crossing the one-million subscriber mark, MoviePass announces that it now has two million subscribers. A promotional price drop brings the monthly subscription fee down to $8 for new customers who pay for an entire year of the service up front.

March 2018: MoviePass temporarily drops its monthly fee to a mere $7, just a month after its last price reduction.

April 2018: The company’s financial statements indicate that MoviePass is losing $20 million each month due to the low subscription costs, large subscriber base, and the cost of paying for even moderate users’ monthly movie tickets. The unlimited plan for $10 per month is removed from the service for new subscribers and replaced with a plan that limits them to three movies each month, while subscribers are restricted from purchasing multiple tickets to certain, high-demand films.

May 2018: The $10 unlimited plan returns, but MoviePass continues to make the three-movies-per-month plan available for a $8 monthly fee. Restrictions on multiple tickets for certain films remain in place, however, with MoviePass citing misuse of the service by subscribers as the reason for the new rules. The company reports losses over $40 million during the month, the worst month in its history up to this point.

June 2018: MoviePass moves past three million subscribers, but also rolls out new fees for the service. Uber-style “surge” pricing for popular movies and showtimes adds between $2 and $6 per ticket for subscribers, with users allowed to skip one additional fee per month.

AMC also announces its own, subscription-based movie ticket service, AMC Stubs A-List. The service allows subscribers to see three movies each week at AMC theaters for a $20 monthly fee. MoviePass responds to the announcement on Twitter with derision.

July 2018: Website outages early in the month prompt widespread criticism from subscribers, who suggest the issues could be tied to the release of popular films. MoviePass indicates that it plans to reimburse subscribers who purchased tickets out-of-pocket during the outage.

Later that month, an incident described as a “service interruption” renders MoviePass unusable. In the wake of the July 26 outage, MoviePass borrows an additional $5 million in order to keep the lights on and maintain operations.

A week after the service went offline, MoviePass users report that Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the weekend’s most popular movie, is unavailable on the service. The company subsequently announces that tickets for major new releases won’t be available on the service initially — only after a blackout period — and that it plans to raise its monthly subscription fee to $15.

August 2018: Following a series of website crashes occurring each weekend throughout the end of July and into August, MoviePass began limiting subscribers to just two movies as it enters what it calls a “transition period.” On August 10, the service forced users to choose between Slender Man and Mission: Impossible – Fallout as the only movies available, with the latter, more popular film only available at two off-peak showtimes.

Many subscribers who attempted to cancel the service were also automatically re-enrolled in the new MoviePass service announced later in the month, prompting a public outcry.

Under the new plan announced August 16, MoviePass walked back some of the changes it announced the prior month, bringing the monthly subscription fee back to down to $10. At time of publication, however, subscribers are limited to three movies each month, preselected from up to six films and showtimes. The pool of eligible films includes both independent movies and major releases, with the list changing periodically.

The service also announced an end to its controversial surge pricing for popular movies and showtimes.

The company went a step further later in the month, informing members with annual subscriptions — which had remained generally unchanged up to that point amid all of the shifting rules — that their plans would be changed to monthly subscriptions, and they would now be limited to three movies each month instead of one per day. Anyone wishing to cancel their subscription would have the remainder of their annual fee refunded, according to an email sent to subscribers.

A few days after the annual subscriptions were eliminated, a member of the board of directors for MoviePass’ parent company, Helios and Matheson Analytics, resigned, citing concerns about corporate management.

Over the last two months, the company’s management “has made a number of important corporate decisions and executed significant transactions either without board knowledge or approval, or in board meetings initiated with only a few hours of advance notice by email,” explained Carl Schramm in a letter filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

September 2018: Variety confirmed that MoviePass Chief Product Officer Mike Berkley left the company. Berkley had been on the job for about six months before resigning. Berkley did not provide any details regarding his decision to leave.

Later in the month, more complaints began circulating (see above) — this time from former MoviePass subscribers — regarding the company’s decision to re-enroll lapsed subscribers in a new plan that would once again give them unlimited movies each month, but only from the limited selection of screenings available. Former subscribers who thought they were done with MoviePass suddenly found themselves re-enrolled in a new plan with little notice and just a few weeks to opt out of the new subscription.

October 2018: Controversy and scandal continued to surround MoviePass with the news that New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood opened an investigation into MoviePass parent company Helios and Matheson to determine whether the company misled investors regarding its assets. The investigation was initiated under the Martin Act, a statute created to investigate potential fraud.

“We are aware of the New York Attorney General’s inquiry and are fully cooperating,” Helios and Matheson said in a statement to CNBC. “We believe our public disclosures have been complete, timely, and truthful and we have not misled investors. We look forward to the opportunity to demonstrate that to the New York Attorney General.”

January 2019: In what is either a new beginning for MoviePass or possibly the company’s last gasp before dying entirely, a new marketing campaign was launched with the tag line, “Let’s go to the movies.” MoviePass plans to reintroduce some sort of unlimited program that would enable users to see as many movies as they wanted each month, according to an interview with Variety.

Executive Vice President Khalid Itum didn’t offer details on the pricing of this return-to-unlimited viewing, but it’s easy to infer it will be nowhere near as cheap as that deal once was. The evidence: MoviePass’ plans, which include location-specific offers such as Select, a $10 per month/three-movie pass; Red Carpet, that increases the price to $20, but adds IMAX, 3D, and other premium formats as viewing options. These prices reflect the costs of providing screenings in locations in the middle of the country. In major cities, however, you can expect a $5 premium added to each of these plans, to account for the more expensive ticket prices.

The company is also looking to bury the hatchet with movie theaters. Commercial exhibitors had previously seen red over MoviePass’s plans to take big cuts on concession sales, as well as make theaters offer discounted tickets to MoviePass subscribers. Now, with a “red label” solution for exhibitors, theaters could launch their own subscription programs using MoviePass’s platform and technology.

March 2019: Four months after launching its tiered plan, MoviePass announced yet another change to its service — this time, reverting back to an unlimited plan, but with a long list of caveats and restrictions.

The new service, dubbed MoviePass Uncapped, offered an unlimited amount of movies each month, starting at a $10 monthly fee. In order to qualify for that monthly rate, however, subscribers must pay for all 12 months upfront. Screenings are also subject to somewhat vaguely defined restrictions, with the MoviePass site indicating that your movie choices “may be restricted due to excessive individual usage which negatively impacts system-wide capacity.”

The new plan also requires subscribers reserve seats at least three hours in advance and check in during a set period of time before the film begins, while also issuing a relatively ambiguous disclaimer about the service’s right to suspend your account for a variety of reasons.

July 2019: On July 4th — right in the middle of the summer blockbuster season, at the very beginning of a four-day weekend, and just a few days after one of the summer’s biggest movies, Spider-Man: Far From Home hit theaters — MoviePass suspended its service for all subscribers, with no date specified for its return.

According to MoviePass, the service outage had less to do with the company’s ongoing financial troubles, and more with the need to update MoviePass’ tech. In an email to subscribers, Mike Lowe, MoviePass CEO, acknowledged “the frustrations of our subscribers” and promised to do better. “We plan to make this improvement by utilizing an enhanced technology platform, which is in the final stages of completion,” Lowe wrote. 

The MoviePass updates will include additional features, an improved user interface, and “more useful information,” but the exact nature of the improvements wasn’t specified.

MoviePass promised to credit customers for any time that they miss during the outage, and new customers were prevented from signing up while MoviePass is down. Still, for MoviePass’ long-suffering subscribers, unexpectedly losing access to the service during what should be one of its busiest weekends of the year couldn’t sit well, especially after all of MoviePass’ other blunders.

We’ll be updating this post as the saga (and controversy) continues, so stay tuned.

Updated on July 5, 2019: Added news regarding MoviePass’ indefinite suspension

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