With its $10-a-month service, MoviePass has totally changed my relationship to movie theatres

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It’s been a busy two months for MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe, but he’s relaxed and friendly as we discuss what it’s like to be thrust into the spotlight after a single price change.

In August, his startup caused a frenzy by dropping the price of its subscription, which lets you see one film per day in theatres, to $US9.95 a month.

The public went nuts, MoviePass struggled to keep up with over 100,000 new subscribers, and theatre giant AMC began squawking in the press, vaguely implying it might take legal action.

The $US9.95 price point had captured people’s imagination. But critics questioned whether the MoviePass model, which relies on MoviePass paying theatres the full price for tickets, would collapse under its own weight (even after $US27 million in fresh capital).

That critique still hangs in the air. But as someone who signed up on the day of that price drop, and who has been using MoviePass for a few weeks, I can confidently say it has already changed how I think about movie theatres — in a fundamental way.

“Mother!” versus “Good Time”

MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe told me that when people first sign up, they go through a bit of a high. They are excited, and see a bunch of movies before settling into a regular pattern. That was certainly the case with me.

But there was another, more important area Lowe mentioned that rings true in my experience: MoviePass customers are generally more likely to see smaller movies — to take chances, if you will. And it makes sense. They aren’t paying an extra fee for each movie, so why not?

Let me give you an example. On a recent weekend, I saw two movies: “Good Time,” an indie heist-gone-wrong movie starring Robert Pattinson, and “Mother!,” Jennifer Lawrence’s allegorical horror film.

Without MoviePass, I likely would have only seen one of those, and it probably would have been “Mother!” given that I’ve liked director Darren Aronofsky’s previous work. But I hated “Mother!” It’s really hard to understate how much I detested it. (And I wasn’t the only one.)

So in this MoviePass-free world, I would have watched “Mother!,” which I hated, and missed out on “Good Time,” which I loved.

‘It’s bad movie insurance,” Lowe joked. But that has an element of truth to it. Not only would I have not seen “Good Time,” but I probably would have felt burned by “Mother!” and not gone to a movie for a few weeks (unless there was something I really wanted to see).

But I had MoviePass. And because I didn’t feel like I paid anything extra to see”Mother!,” at the end of that weekend it didn’t bother me that I’d seen a dud. I was mostly just remembered how much I liked “Good Time,” and looked for how I could watch other Safdie brothers films.

By myself

The other big way MoviePass has changed my habits is that it’s made me more likely to go to movies by myself. Before MoviePass, I had done this maybe three times in my entire life.

But now, I’ll make the spontaneous decision to go to a movie if I have a few hours to kill. New York City makes this especially easy since there are a bunch of movies theatres scattered around the city.

And MoviePass has also changed the times I might go. Twice I’ve gone to movies by myself on the weekend, at around 4 to 5 p.m., right before my dinner plans.

Lowe said he hasn’t been tracking whether people are more likely to go to movies by themselves, but that they certainly alter their time patterns. He said particularly he’s seen that people go more often during the week.

Seeing a movie in theatres has become an option for me to kill time now, as opposed to an event. Sure, there are some movies that I want to go with other people to see, but generally movies are fitting into my schedule in a different way now.

I also bought popcorn at one movie, which I never do. (Lowe said in yearlong, third-party study conducted with AMC and MoviePass, concession sales went up 123%.) Truthfully, buying popcorn still felt extravagant, and I probably won’t do it regularly — but that’s up from zero.

Breaking even

There are still big questions around the MoviePass model of paying theatres outright for the tickets. Lowe admitted that it will be a challenge to raise money to pay for the influx of new customers (remember, people tend to go to movies more often when they first get MoviePass).

But there are things the MoviePass team is doing to try and make it more manageable. 6% of theatres now allow you to buy tickets within the MoviePass app. That means you don’t have go to the theatre in-person and buy the ticket with your MoviePass debit card. That fixes the most annoying thing about MoviePass: that it’s hard to buy tickets ahead of time. Theatres in the program give MoviePass a 20% discount on tickets, and in exchange see a boost in the number of people choosing their theatre, especially because MoviePass touts them in the app, according to Lowe.

That’s just the first step, however.

The larger idea is to connect the MoviePass app to concessions and even nearby restaurants, with MoviePass taking a cut. Lowe also wants to use the app to promote certain movies, which will presumably pay MoviePass for the privilege as well.

“We are just trying to break even on subscription,” Lowe said. All the other facets are where MoviePass thinks the real money can be made.

The path forward

Perhaps Lowe’s dream will fail.

AMC is whispered to be launching its own subscription service this fall — one likely reason its relationship with MoviePass soured recently — and as Lowe admits, MoviePass needs a lot of money (to pay to theatres).

Maybe $US9.95 per month is too low, and MoviePass will never quite be able to find a price point that is sustainable long-term. Or maybe young people simply aren’t as interested in going out to a movie, with luxurious big-screen TVs at home and smartphones in their pocket.

Still, from my experience, the answer to whether MoviePass can change the way you think about going to the movies is a resounding “yes.” How I go to movies, and the type of movies I go to, has changed. Full stop. That’s not conjecture any longer.

And I like it.

Lowe, who was part of Netflix’s founding team, is adamant that young people have become used to entertainment subscriptions like Spotify, Netflix, and Hulu. There is something about the pay-for-unlimited-access model that is appealing.

And the real heartening aspect, for a movie lover like me, is that being a MoviePass subscriber has made me more likely to go to smaller films. My hope is that this could spark a change in behaviour more broadly, to push back — a bit — against the trend of risk-averse movies from big studios.

If you think that’s far fetched, think about how Netflix has changed the market for documentaries. If you’re browsing a Blockbuster aisle looking for something to rent, a documentary likely isn’t what you reach for. But when it’s one click away, and no incremental cost to you, all of a sudden it seems more palatable. And voila, documentaries have become huge on Netflix.

I’m not suggesting suddenly we’ll be seeing documentaries in a bunch of theatres because of MoviePass, but rather that a change to a subscription model can have an effect on what we watch.

And if MoviePass can find a firm footing financially, I’m eager to see how it could change what kinds of movies we see on the big screen.

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