Few consumer experiences set the head and the heart at odds like MoviePass. As omens of the ticketing startup’s demise become impossible to ignore, proponents have rightly likened the service to an uncapped fire hydrant in a heatwave, though it may be more accurate to say it feels, well, a lot like sneaking into the movies. Since last August, when the company radically slashed its subscription prices, the exhilaration of using MoviePass has existed in direct relation to its unsustainability, the looming awareness that this precious privilege will soon be revoked.
Subscribers felt this exact sense of dread as recently as last week, when MoviePass literally ran out of money and took out a $5 million payday loan to stay operational. And yet, the only thing shocking about the outage was that it hadn’t happened sooner. Once, all good things came to an end; now, they never appear in the first place. We should be appreciating every second of MoviePass while it lasts.
By now, it is safe to assume we are living in the last days of MoviePass — even the most optimistic of projections make it difficult to envision the startup surviving the summer, if not the week. The financial math behind its business model has been questionable since the company’s beta launch, in 2011, but it was able to operate for years at a higher, albeit less scalable price. That changed last August, when MoviePass was purchased by Helios and Matheson Analytics, a data firm that greatly prioritized expansion over profit. At its cheapest price point, moviegoers could purchase an annual unlimited subscription — 30 movies per 30 days — for a little more than $80, or $6.95 a month.
That was March of 2018. In April, MoviePass abruptly eliminated the unlimited package for new customers, before reinstating it two weeks later, after a wide public outcry. The beginning of June saw the introduction of “surge fees,” extra charges for popular films in peak time slots, as a response to the competition from AMC’s Stub’s A-List, which offers three movies a week at $20 a month.
The long-foreseen cracks in the MoviePass facade had begun to show. By the end of June, Helios and Matheson Analytics was initiating a $164 million bond sale.
July brought more telltale signs of collapse, the end no longer impending but imminent. Early in the month, Helios and Matheson filed to raise $1.2 billion in VC funding to keep the company solvent, a figure that may not materialize before MoviePass shutters its doors. Once incapable of attracting a sufficient number of users, the company had suddenly become too-big-not-to-fail. Now, the resigned conversation that attends MoviePass recalls a young person’s wake, or a corporate obituary written too early, the talk of unlimited potential extinguished before it could be fully realized. It’s the talk of good things lost forever.
Here’s the thing, though: In its current form, MoviePass deserves to fail. It isn’t the best of all possible subscription-based movie ticketing platforms, and if it isn’t insolvent by the time you’re reading this, you should be doing everything in your power to continue killing it. You should be seeing as many movies as possible, in as many participating theaters as possible. The reason MoviePass has always seemed too-good-to-be-true is that consumers have been trained to perceive too-goodness through a very specific lens, the defeatist lens of a market that conditions most of its participants to accept an insufficient, exploited existence as more than enough. Smashing that lens can begin with the end of MoviePass.
We should let the privately owned MoviePass die, so a nationalized, public MoviePass can live.
Unless your economic philosophy falls to the right of libraries, universal access to art programs are neither novel nor radical. In 1731, Benjamin Franklin founded The Library Company, the first public library, in response to cultural conditions that haven’t much improved: a high cost for books coupled with a severe lack of bookstores. Today, the 9,000-plus public library systems in the United States aren’t alone in carrying on Franklin’s egalitarian vision. Museums like The Smithsonian, in D.C., and The Getty Center, in Los Angeles, are free for anyone to enter, while community events, like New York City’s Free Summer Concert Series, let concertgoers hear live music without a price-tag.
At the same time, the art world is more exclusionary than at any time in modern history, its shrinking borders drawn along class lines in ever-darkening ink. Who can afford to spend $30 on Lauren Groff’s latest indelible work of fiction? What parents are willing to drop $100 to take their kids to the Met? What lonely souls would ever go on a date to the Arclight, where two tickets and parking can set you back $50? It’s the aimlessly wealthy and the highly educated, the financial and cultural elite that has come to dominate metropolitan demographics from Seattle to Miami. It’s precisely the type of consumer who, either by virtue of disposable income or social pressures, spends a lot of money at the movies.
One of the strengths of a publicly owned MoviePass would be the scope of its appeal, the ability to elicit support from the radical leftists at Sorry To Bother You as well as the corporate fascists at Avengers: Infinity War. Since 2000, the price of the average movie ticket has risen 60 percent in the United States; lowering those costs wouldn’t be a partisan issue. A nationalized MoviePass would greatly reduce entertainment expenditure for consumers, granting them one free movie a day while eliminating the growing uncertainty shared by movie theaters and studios.
If, for example, every registered American taxpayer (a pool of nearly 140 million taxpayers as of 2014, according to the Tax Foundation) paid the equivalent of a $120 yearly MoviePass subscription — or more fairly, if the rates were adjusted dependent on one’s tax bracket, with the 1 percent subsidizing lower income citizens — the generated tax revenue would be $16.7 billion, $5.6 billion more than the total domestic box office in 2017. That money could be redistributed to studios and theaters in accordance with attendance figures, while theaters would presumably earn more from concessions. With the excess funds, underserved communities could receive grants to erect new movie houses or, better yet, to restore abandoned theaters to their former glory.
However implausible a public MoviePass may look politically, it’s far more sound than the private MoviePass financially. If President Trump felt so inclined, he could institute the program tomorrow, simply by reducing current military spending by a mere 2 percent. That a fractional reduction to our psychotically inflated military budget seems like an impossibility says less about the dream of a nationalized MoviePass than the nightmares our government has already nationalized: perpetual war, environmental destruction, a devaluation of the arts and, with it, human life in general. We spent an estimated $11 billion on F-35 fighter jets in 2016. Burning the money would have been a more noble expenditure.
The need to nationalize MoviePass is part of a larger problem with the modern American economy. The business of disruptive tech is the private capitalization of services that would, in any sane society, be publicly owned and transparently regulated. MoviePass is, in this respect, no different than Facebook, Google, Airbnb, Uber, et al., corporations whose massive beneficial potentials are undone and undermined by the profit motive.
There should be free online platforms for citizens to express their opinions, and search engines to help them cultivate those opinions, and logistical shipping systems that offer free two-day shipping on every imaginable commodity. The problem is that the profits from those services are funneled into the pockets of a handful of creatively bankrupt psychopaths. That money should belong to the users who generate the content on those platforms, the Lyft drivers, the Amazon pickers, the scoopers of movie theater popcorn. And if complete worker ownership of every major corporation is too much of an ask, we should at the very least get to see more movies while we wait.
Earlier this month, New York City began an initiative in which a library card would grant its holder access to more than 30 of the city’s museums and cultural institutions. As the stupefying horrors of our shared reality mount, our collective need for art rises along with it. Whether one turns to movies for escapist entertainment or intellectual edification, the experience of going to the movie theater, the cherished place of this communal activity in American culture, deserves the same venerations and protections that library media has received for centuries. MoviePass has proven the feasibility of a national moviegoing program, a future in which a single card could grant citizens access not just to multiplexes, but to libraries, concert venues, museums, the entirety of recorded music, the best and worst of public opinion. Let all good things come to an end. Replace them with something better.