Thursday, June 30, 2011

Jason shares his thoughts on the aborted MoviePass beta

A little background: earlier this week the movie-watching community in general and the SF Bay Area movie-watching community was all atwitter (pun intended) on a brand new "Netflix-for-theaters" service launching called MoviePass. It was supposed to go live (bay area only, invite only) yesterday, but today after protests by exhibitors and distributors they pulled the plug. I have to stress, I don't know what happened. This is not meant to be some definitive story or sage judgement on the situation (of course, judgement will be made, I'm just too ignorant to be sage). More than anything, I'm writing in hopes that people more in the know (or at least with different insights) will respond.

Let me start by saying I more or less like the MoviePass idea, as far as I understand it, and I'm pretty much the target customer cinephile. I have some quibbles (limit 1 movie per day, no repeats viewings), but no deal breakers. And now let me explain the service as best as I can understand. For $49.99 per month, you get a subscription that allows you to see as many movies as you like. There are some restrictions--it's subject to availability, and as I mentioned above you can only see one movie per day and you can't see the same movie twice. Although I can understand the last two restrictions, particularly from a fraud prevention standpoint, I experience plenty of legitimate situations where I would want to violate one of those rules--particularly the more than one movie a day rule (heck, I've averaged over one movie a day for the last four years, and seen as many as 10 a day). They announced a rather limited selection of theaters at first, but since it included Landmark Theatres and Camera Cinemas, it would include a pretty good selection of "indie" movies.

Some other technical features. In order to use the service, you must have an Iphone or Android-powered smartphone. The tickets are only delivered to your phone (I don't know if you can order through a web browser or only your phone). There are no tickets you can print at home. When you get near the theater (presumably as determined by your phones position tracking?) the ticket you ordered appears and is scanned at the theater.

Too bad the theaters apparently didn't know about this. Apparently they used a third party ticket service to act as a "broker." Specifically, they used And it strikes me that if they just treated all the MoviePass tickets as ordinary tickets (i.e., process the order with no charge as if you had won a free ticket) then it would've been practically invisible to the theaters and things may have gone rather smoothly. It seems (again, from the outside looking in) like they were so much in love with the "tickets on your smartphone" model that they passed up an easier implementation.

So now let me look at the exhibitors complaints, and address them. As far as I can tell, there are two main complaints. First, we just don't like this ticketing model. Second, they didn't consult with us so we can't make sure it's done well.

As for the first complaint,...well I do like this model--and I'm your customer. Not that the customer is always right or anything (heck, the model I'd really prefer is "free movies for me all the time"), but I definitely see how this can work. Although I'd also point out that I'm more likely to buy concessions if I'm staying for more than one movie, so I think it would be in your best interest to actually allow multiple movies in the same day. In any case, I implore you to work with MoviePass (or frankly, someone else) to implement this model--or something similar--the right way. Most importantly, I don't understand the overall objection to this model. I know I'm not in your shoes and there's probably something important I don't understand, but can you answer me a couple of questions:

1. Is the model of a monthly subscription based, all-you-can-watch movie service inherently unworkable?
2. Perhaps this is the same question, but are the obstacles/objections to such a service insurmountable? I've been told they use this system in France, so what keeps us from using it here? What would it take?

And that gets me to the second point. I agree, MoviePass trying to do this without the exhibitors on board seems rude and unprofessional. Now, according the the article I read (and I reiterate I have now special knowledge of this), "MoviePass coordinated its ticketing with online ticket sellers, instead of cinemas, after not being able to get exhibitors to sign on." If they really tried to sell you on this and you rebuffed them, maybe some of the blame goes on you. Whatever happened, I still implore you--now that they have your attention--work with them (or someone else) to get this model right.

Now, let me address MoviePass. I like your idea, but it seems to me you have pathologically weak communication skills. As I've said, I don't know what went on in your attempts to get buy-in from exhibitors, but I'm already biased against you. Mostly that's because I spent a good portion of this morning reading the terms and conditions on your website. Although that page is now down (currently redirects to the splash screen), I managed to save the page and convert it to PDF while it was up. And I've posted it here. My personal favorite part is under the cancellation policy (bottom half of the third page), where your office phone number is listed as "###-###-####". There's also a whole section on DVD purchases, which I saw nowhere in any press articles about your service. And finally, although news articles (and a tweet you sent me--BTW, I love the white text on white background in your twitter pattern. Highlight to read it) mentioned the 1 movie per day rule, I couldn't find that anywhere in terms and conditions. Maybe I just have poor reading comprehension, and I love for anyone to point out where it says that. And while we're at it, what does this mean (two lines before the Cancellation Policy)?
MoviePass® is only valid for one movie at any one time and cannot be used to obtain a ticket for another movie before the film presentation for which it has been used comes to an end.
I read that and was scratching my head. I was wondering if that meant once you've booked a movie you can't book another movie that starts before your first movie ends, or if it meant you can't even go through the process of booking your second movie until after the first one ends. E.g., Imaging you were seeing one movie at 1:00, and it was 2 hours long (i.e., it ends at 3:00). And say you had two choices of a second movie you wanted to see--one that started at 2:55 and one that started at 3:15. I took it to mean that under no circumstances could you see the 2:55 movie. Even though I could decide to run out during the end credits and I didn't care if I missed the trailers before the second film, if I want to see the 2:55 movie I'd have to buy a ticket normally, I couldn't MoviePass it. But I could see the 3:15 movie, since it starts after the 1:00 movie ended. It's just a question of whether I could book it earlier or if I had to book it in the 15 minute window between when the first movie ended and the second one started. Now I understand that's not true, I can only see one movie per day with MoviePass. But I'll be damned if I could figure that out from your terms and conditions.

So to summarize, MoviePass, you're not ready for prime time so please get your shit together and try again. And I do mean try again, don't give up. I want* this service! If you get it together, implement it right, have the exhibitors on board, and it works smoothly I will be your biggest customer and I'll proselytize you to the ends of the earth (or as far as your service covers).

*As an alternative, the service I really want is a "day pass" to a theater. Something allowing you to see as many (not sold out) movies as you want in the same theater on a single day. Priced maybe slightly above 2 regular tickets, so it would only be worth your money if you saw at least three movies in one day. Plus it would give you the freedom to check out the first part of a movie you're not sure of, and possibly walk out and see something better if it's not grabbing you. I figure there would be hassles with reporting box office receipts to distributors, but I don't see that as insurmountable. And it could be implemented by any single enterprising, adventurous exhibitor.


ray said...

nice writeup!

Adam & Nick said...

Hey Jason,

When moviepass does get their shit together you'll have to let me know if it's worth the money before I join.

As far as day pass goes, I like to do the whole movie-hop thing, or bunny-hop if you will. I'm surprised you don't do this, knowing how much you love the little fury creatures.

puppymeat said...

If I did imitate a furry little bunny and "hop" from one movie to another, I certainly wouldn't admit it in public.