It is possible that one day an excellent narrative feature in the vein of The Big Short, BlackBerry, Dumb Money or Margin Call will be made about MoviePass, a company built––and destroyed––by several larger-than-life figures. For now, we have Muta’Ali’s documentary MoviePass, MovieCrash, which provides a broad overview of the deal everyone knew was too good to be true: a company that, for about a year, was so obsessed with subscriber growth that they offered customers the chance to see one movie per day for only $9.95 month.

Inspired by a series of Business Insider articles, MoviePass, MovieCrash features interviews with the company’s founders Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt along with other company––insiders including Mitch Lowe, the man who would ultimately take Spikes’ position. In a bit of good luck, Muta’Ali gets the interview with Lowe just weeks before he’s indicted on securities fraud alongside Ted Farnsworth, the former CEO of MoviePass’ parent company Helios & Matherson.

While the film enjoys insider access, interviewing longtime employees and advocates (such as former AMC CEO Gerry Lopez) it never quite captures the humor and irony of a company that has come to symbolize the quintessential “growth at any cost” business story. It’s a story I’m in some way part of as someone in the first wave of subscribers (at around $35 per month in 2011). I’ve also reported on MoviePass at The Film Stage (including an interview with Lowe) and attended their lavish party at the Roxy Hotel, which featured a musical performance by then-rising star Daya.

Unpacked by Muta’Ali, this telling feels a bit dry and lacks the energy that a good narrative film (e.g. the aforementioned BlackBerry) might have brought to the screen. For the full story from the perspective of co-founder Spikes––a guy from Houston who worked his way up the music industry before becoming a young executive at Miramax and October Films and then founded the groundbreaking Urbanworld Film Festival––I recommend his autobiography Black Founder.

For those unfamiliar with the glory days of MoviePass, Spikes and Watt created it as a movie-subscription program that originally relied on vouchers that could be rejected by a box office before moving to a frictionless card network. The duo authored the patent for a system that automatically loaded funds onto a debit MasterCard once a moviegoer authenticated their location in the MoviePass app. The problem? Their app required your phone to be within 100 feet of the theater entrance––in a large complex like a shopping mall, possibly difficult to pinpoint based on address alone. The company eventually fixed this issue.

Featuring interviews with customer-service agents and engineers, the film rapidly unpacks what is alleged to be fraud as the company aimed to bring in 5 million subscribers at the $9.95 price point in 2017, once the “data analytics”-driven Helios & Materson takes a stake in the company, replacing Spikes with Lowe. Burning through $30 million per month at its peak, the company could sustain itself and became a pump-and-dump stock scheme, at one point planning to expand into movie production (it helped release two films: Lionsgate’s Gotti and the Sundance hit American Animals) and even a charter air service that, pun intended, did not get off the ground.

What emerges is the portrait of an innovative company and two Black founders who were pushed out in favor of two white, gray-haired men they were told could raise more cash from other white, gray-haired men. Spikes, of course, had the last laugh, buying the assets of MoviePass back in bankruptcy and recently relaunching the program with a credit-system model that he claims is profitable. (Speaking from experience, while it’s not upwards of $400 value for $10 a month, it does save a frequent moviegoer a few dollars in more expensive markets like New York and New Jersey.)

MoviePass’ fatal flaw––as documented in the writings of Felix Salmon in Axios and Kevin Roose in the New York Times––is they could not achieve any positive margins without the help of their suppliers. They have no control over the cost of movie tickets nationwide and an infrequent frequent user at an AMC in Kansas can never offset a heavy user in Los Angeles or New York. Studios and movie theaters were unwilling to budge or offer a kick-back; they had the upper hand while, as Salmon argues, millennials might actually save money going to a movie with MoviePass rather than staying in and ordering Uber Eats, uncorking a bottle of wine, and watching Netflix.

While MoviePass, MovieCrash is a comprehensive film with several of the key players (minus Farnsworth and executive Khalid Itum, who was found guilty of embezzlement from the company), what’s missing is the analysis of how companies like WeWork and MoviePass have come to symbolize the pre-pandemic era: growth at all costs no matter how much cash you burn. Like Adam Neumann at WeWork, MoviePass threw lavish parties at Coachella, Sundance, and the aforementioned event in Tribeca with stars and influencers. It’s fitting the ultimate descent for MoviePass came upon the release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, with one of the company’s engineers admitting the company installed tripwires to prevent access that Lowe still defends to this day.

What’s missing here are some of the more colorful egos like Bob Ellis, Farnsworth’s confidant who was removed for inappropriate behavior but still continued to have a presence at the company, and Adam Aron, AMC’s controversial CEO who told analysts on a call announcing their own subscription program (AMC Stubs A-List) that they were banking on bringing “MoviePass defectors” into the AMC Theaters network. MoviePass has kicked open the door to something movie theaters should have done all along: compete for their best customers. Now virtually every large chain––AMC, Regal, Cinemark, Cineplex, Marcus, and Alamo––offers some form of movie-going subscription service.

MoviePass, MovieCrash provides a detailed overview that is at times a little too dry to find the irony and injustice at the core of this story––precisely because the story is not over just yet. Spikes has reimagined MoviePass and is starting a new chapter while Farnsworth and Lowe are about to go on trial for securities fraud. In the wake of COVID, movie theaters are fighting to stay afloat with some declaring bankruptcy and others (e.g. AMC) diluting shareholders via stock maneuvering (such as splits and reverse splits) to stay. In trying to capture the current state of the exhibition industry, there’s simply too much left unsaid, either for legal reasons or editorial choices.

MoviePass, MovieCrash premiered at SXSW 2024 and will be released on HBO.

Grade: C+

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