If you were there, you remember. 2018 was the summer of MoviePass, a glorious period in cinema history where millions said “why not” and took a chance to see nearly any movie thanks to the revolutionary subscription platform.

Switching to an unsustainable $10 a month (or even less, if you paid for a year upfront), MoviePass went from being a niche program for movie fans to the hottest subscription program around. Offering users the chance to see a movie a day at nearly any theater in the country, it was, of course, too good to be true––especially when one ticket in New York City could be as much as $17.

The rise and fall of MoviePass is chronicled in the new HBO documentary MoviePass, MovieCrash, which recently premiered at SXSW, and in co-founder Stacy Spikes’ book Black Founder. Spikes was forced out of the company he co-founded with Hamet Watt by the infamous duo of Mitch Lowe and Ted Farnsworth after questionable data analytics firm Helios and Matherson took a stake in the company. Ultimately, Spikes was able to acquire MoviePass back and announced its return in 2022. According to him, the company (now private) had its first profitable year in 2023 and continues to attract new users.

We checked in with Spikes on MoviePass 2.0, which he equates to Airbnb for movie theaters––a marketplace built on a sustainable credit system––his passion for making movie-going frictionless, and the struggles of relaunching a subscription service in a market that has changed radically (thanks in part to MoviePass) since its initial launch in 2011.

The Film Stage: I was at the first screening of MoviePass, MovieCrash at SXSW and I feel like there’s more to the story, so I’m glad to speak with you.

Stacey Spikes: The funny thing was: the film was commissioned, greenlit, and was shooting before I had bought the company back, so I agree with you––there’s more to the story. The filmmakers did include a chyron at the very end about the sign-ups, but we didn’t really have a chance to get into the next chapter of MoviePass.

Can you walk our readers through the new MoviePass system? By my estimates, if you’re reserving a film that costs the most credits (i.e. opening night in Manhattan) you can see around 3½ movies a month for $40, while going other days, times, and in other markets you can see more films per month.

Sure. It’s a credit-based system in which our incentives align with yours. If you want to go opening weekend, it will cost more credits than going in an off-peak, weekday time, or even a few weeks after the film’s release. We want to provide flexibility for our users, so if they go at a cheaper time they’re going to use less of their credits. Our plans start at $10 for 34 credits outside of New York and Los Angeles, and $20 in New York and Los Angeles. The $40 is our top tier for 200 credits. Unused credits roll over each month to a cap of double your monthly credit allotment.

It’s also valid at pretty much any 2D theater that takes a credit card, like the old system.

Yeah, our goal was to kind of be Switzerland and create a situation where there was an over-the-top player that created value no matter where you wanted to go. If it’s a cinema-specific chain, it’s really just a loyalty program for their circuit. So we want it to be something that thinks the way the consumer thinks.

I know for me, if I want to go see a larger film––let’s say Dune––it could be at Alamo Drafthouse, it could be a Regal, it could be at AMC, it could be iPic. All of those are going to play that film in my area, even some additional theaters, then a few others. So I’m thinking about where I am in the city. What time is it going to start and are there seats available? All of that goes into the decision-making process, and we want people to have the ultimate freedom to make it easier, cheaper, faster, and better to go wherever you want and still save money and be part of a community of people who really love cinema that you subscribe to.

And your subscription does two things. A lot of people think it’s just about saving money, but what they also have to realize is that they’re really helping MoviePass to radically change the industry. Yes, getting you savings, but yes: you’re also investing in a company that’s trying to change Hollywood and how it works. 

I have a memory of seeing the movie Hearts Beat Loud with a friend who called all of her cousins. Suddenly there were about 20 of us that went to see this movie in Buffalo on a Thursday night with MoviePass, and they probably would not have seen that movie at full retail price. Is MoviePass 2.0 a product for those kind of casual moviegoers? Do you see it moving in that direction?

If you don’t go at least once a month on average, then you’re probably not going to sign up for anybody’s loyalty program. That’s kind of the range with: if you don’t do that, we really don’t chase you. We really don’t try and go after them. That’s what the MPAA refers to as frequent moviegoers: those that go twelve times a year, and there are around 40 million of them in the U.S. So that’s what we focus on.

Has that been more difficult, though? MoviePass has led to every large exhibitor launching a subscription service. Is it harder to build a subscriber base outside of the large cities? I know where I’m located (in Northern New Jersey) AMC’s A-List naturally makes most sense due to their market share in this area.

Yeah, I think it’s definitely not an either-or. But in the end, I think what our value is: if you’re in a major city, you are young, you’re 35––or under, on average––you go to the movies. Often it’s a lifestyle choice for you. I’m an AMC A-List and AMC Stubs member and I am a Regal Crown Club member. I’m also a patron at the Film Forum. So I already was doing that with those theaters anyway; I still benefit by using my MoviePass because it’s just a form of payment, and that’s really the big difference. During the Oscar season, I’m going to even more different theaters and I really don’t want to not go because I’m only a member here.

So that’s a segment of the community that we focus on and we just stick to our knitting. That has always been our case, which was: we wanted to create a universal system that anybody can go anywhere you want. Our motto was “any movie, anytime, anywhere,” and we stick to that. And so we can’t beat an exhibitor at its own game. They’re more competing against each other then I’d say competing against us. AMC’s competing against Regal because I’m not a theater and I’m not serving popcorn and I’m not, you know, dealing with soft drinks. If anything, if I weren’t an exhibitor, what difference does it make if I run a restaurant and GrubHub or DoorDash or whoever is driving traffic to my theater? Give me the traffic.

Alamo is a great example. They have their own subscription and we partner with them to drive traffic to their theaters, too, because they understand we’re Switzerland. We’re not in competition, so we’re just an aggregator to drive traffic. 

It was always strange to me that exhibitors were at odds with MoviePass, including AMC’s comments when they launched A-List. They were banking on the company having financial trouble and taking “defectors.” Adam Aron even blocked giving Stubs points on tickets purchased with MoviePass. I never understood why the exhibitors didn’t embrace the program and fight amongst themselves for a bigger share of MoviePass subscribers. 

Yeah, I think in the early days there was a knee-jerk response. [Former AMC CEO] Gerry Lopez, to his credit, was brilliant. Initially the reaction was, “Hey, what is this? We don’t know what this thing is. Stop the presses. Let us figure it out.” But the moment we sat down with Gerry he said, “Great, you’re trying to drive traffic to my theater.” Whether you are a website or whether you are a Fandango or Movietickets.com, he looked at us just like another ticketing service. 

His concern was: did MoviePass take that frequent moviegoer, or not change their behavior and just give them a greater discount than what AMC was willing to offer through its own loyalty programs? So we ran a test, and the test proved that [MoviePass] increased their behavior by 110 percent, and it increased the concession spend by 123 percent. After he saw that data, he’s like, “I don’t care. You’re driving traffic in a beautiful way. You’re increasing traffic in revenue for me more than IMAX is. And I’m all in.” And that was logic driven by data.

Now you see something different that is a residual effect of the poor behavior of Mitch [Lowe] and Ted [Farnsworth] and people still reacting to that. I personally called Adam [Aron], and I emailed him. Amongst the big three theater chains, he’s the only one who didn’t return my call or has been willing to even sit down and talk to me.

And I’m sure you’re aware AMC’s stock price is not doing very well these days. Cinemark and Marcus Corp are in a better position. Is MoviePass going to eventually offer access to premium large formats like IMAX and 4DX?

Yeah. Premium formatting is a roadmap. We’ve built it out and we added in the ability to buy more credit. So let’s say you’re going to go see Dune in 2D, but you decide you want to see it in IMAX. But it’s a middle-of-the-month thing and you don’t have enough credits. You’re going to be able to purchase more if you want and top up. We are in close beta-testing the premium formats right now as we speak. I can say it should be here soon, if not before summer, but it’s nearly done.

What has the reception been amongst indie studios like A24 and NEON? One of the most magical things MoviePass did is remove a big barrier to accessing indie films––like Hearts Beat Loud––that an audience might not otherwise take a chance on.

MoviePass acts as a discovery tool. It is not going to change the life of Dune or a Marvel movie or anything like that. But if you go to the smaller titles, people specifically use MoviePass as a way to expand what they would go see or what they would wait for to come on streaming. Our people use MoviePass to go try those things out like Saltburn or Poor Things, and they’re seeing these additional titles earlier and more often using their MoviePass than other people who are going to wait for the right review, or that they feel like, “Okay, enough people have talked about it, now I’ll go.” MoviePass customers are earlier in the lifecycle and that’s great. There are great buzz machines for when a movie is really good or when it’s bad, giving that feedback to the community. So they’re early adopters. They use it as a discovery tool and they use it as a way to separate themselves from the herd, so to speak. 

What does the next year look like in terms of subscriber growth?

We’ve got some exciting things coming. Everybody here are film lovers, regular moviegoers. We’re building the best product that we would want to have. It needs to be affordable, but yet sustainable. It needs to be a discovery tool, not a discount tool. And it needs to be something that provides value to the whole ecosystem––to the filmmakers, to the theaters, and to shareholders.

Those are our primary drivers, and so we feel that we’re doing that. But also: we want to be that kind of technological upgrade that the movie industry needs. Before we entered it, [the industry] was still dealing with a hundred-year-old business model. So we see ourselves as kind of bringing new technical tools. We don’t have the legacy debt or the structure that we cannot be flexible or we have to move very slowly.

MoviePass is the R&D arm of the industry. That’s fine by us, and we want to help try things and do some innovative things, and we are also open to taking suggestions if people have stuff they want to hear or try. There are some wild ideas that some of our members have proposed that we have up on the whiteboard that [we are thinking] like, “Yeah, maybe we should try that too.”

Does that include doing things that previous management did, like producing films or trying to event-ize the platform in some way?

You know, we see ourselves as kind of like a marketplace, like an Airbnb. So if we can help in building better community and increase awareness… moviegoing is the #1 entertainment activity in the world. More than sporting events, people go to the movies ten times more. When we’re all watching a game, we feel like we’re watching a game together; when we go to movies, we feel like we’re with people in the theater. But what we don’t realize is there’s 50 or 60,000 people watching the same movie at the same time.

For us, MoviePass is for movie people. I went to New Zealand just a few days ago. I got invited to Peter Jackson’s conference there and I was wearing my MoviePass [gear] that people were like, “Where did you get that?” And so one of the things is, like, people are asking us for merchandise. They want to know, “Are there hats?” And so that’s another thing that’s really different is people were never asking us, “Where’s merch?”

I do want to talk about your book, Black Founder. You have had an incredible story as a young executive at Miramax and October Films. You were early to thinking about subscription, first trying to launch it as part of the Urbanworld Film Festival and later coming close to trying with Loews Theaters in 2005 before they were bought by AMC. What lessons have you taken from this experience as you re-launch the company you’ve founded, lost control of, and have bought back?

Have you seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi?  You know how he was so obsessed with making the ultimate sushi? I have this obsession with making moviegoing as easy as they make, you know, Instagram. Like, it’s just to make it easier for people. Let’s make it simple, let’s celebrate it.

The death of cinema has been predicted four times––when television came, when VHS came, when DVD came, and when streaming came. And it’s still here and there’s still nothing like it! When I was sitting in the theater––sure, Dune is an obvious one. But when I was sitting there watching Godzilla Minus One, then Godzilla Minus One/Minus Color, it was like, “Here you go into something. I’ve heard this before. I’ve seen all of the Godzilla movies. I know what they’re going to do. I know what Godzilla is going to do. I know he’s going to bring this fire.” And yet it was like I’d never seen a Godzilla movie before. I’m watching a Japanese film and there I am in the audience making history with the highest-grossing Japanese film in history [in the United States].

I sat there on opening weekend and then seeing it in black-and-white and going, “That’s a totally different-feeling movie.” And then I felt the same way when we saw Parasite: I’m sitting in an audience and everyone is Korean and I’m at an AMC and I’m in a huge auditorium. It’s sold-out. It’s two in the afternoon. What is going on? Right? 

And to be able to know no art form on the planet can do that. Moviegoing is the live event of the movie industry, kind of like what concerts are to the music industry. It’s one thing seeing it by yourself, and so I’d say the thing that I learned is: nothing beats a person who has passion for something.

Since I was a little boy and I saw Blade Runner, I have loved what directors have done to my life. I’ve loved the stories and the when the lights go down and you have no idea what’s going to happen and you leave the theater a different person than you were when you went in. That is, for me, like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and an obsession to make it better and better and better so that our grandkids and great-grandkids, when they’re walking around on Mars, they make sure that they’re going to build a movie theater. That’s what I’ve learned.

I certainly felt that way sitting at the Austin Paramount with over a thousand people for movie premieres last week during SXSW. 

Yeah, it’s extraordinary. I even have a VR headset and I watch movies there. It still is never going to take the place of seeing Nope in a theater with a bunch of people. I think it’s no different than people who love snowboarding or surfing or soccer or whatever that hobby is. There’s a lot of people in the world that like going to movies, and we’re building products for them and that’s all we care about. It doesn’t matter what Adam says; it doesn’t matter what anyone says.

At the end, our hearts are in it. Some executives in exhibition haven’t worked in the film business. They’ve come from other large companies, so it’s a transaction to them. I was born in it and it’s what we love and we’re obsessed with it.

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