Film reviews and more since 2009

MoviePass, MovieCrash (2024) review

Dir. Muta’Ali

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

I can read countless stories and watch the documentary on the infamously dangerous New Jersey amusement park known as Action Park, but I’ll never get the opportunity to experience it. I can watch the Blue Angels fly planes with expert precision and execution, and I am thrilled by it in part because I don’t have nearly what it takes to get off the ground.

Now, here is MoviePass, MovieCrash, a documentary on something I experienced first-hand and enjoyed wholeheartedly like millions of others. The new Max documentary, directed by Muta’Ali, chronicles the creation, rise, and subsequent fall of a subscription service that made going to the movies such a cost-effective opportunity that you were almost foolish not to sign up. And yet, like so many stories involving businesses, ventures, or ideas crashing and burning, there’s a good chance you only know half of MoviePass’ story.

It was 2017 when MoviePass announced an unbeatable deal for their subscription-based moviegoing model. For the unfathomably low price of $9.95/month, users would be able to see up to one movie, every single day, at any theater in the country. All it took was downloading an app, purchasing the ticket on said app, and giving the movie theater cashier your bright-red MoviePass debit card (onto which the funds would load). For my final year in college, MoviePass made my livelihood a hell of a lot cheaper, and it provided me and the cohosts of my then-radio show Sleepless with Steve a weekly talking-point.

Subscribers came in droves, the company’s stock price ballooned, and everything was going well. Then, reality, like many skeptics predicted, prevailed; the concept was too good to be true. MoviePass lost $150 million in 2017, and eventually went belly-up in 2019. It would be easy to accept the idea that MoviePass simply stuck with a loss-leader-type business model way too long, but MoviePass, MovieCrash makes you realize, in a briskly paced 96 minutes, you’ve only seen half of this movie so far.

MoviePass was the brain child of Black entrepreneur Stacy Spikes, who previously worked as a VP of marketing for Miramax and created the Urbanworld Film Festival. He teamed up with fellow visionary Hamet Watt to continue to develop their subscription-based platform geared to “disrupt” conventional moviegoing. The one thing they lacked was financing. Unable to get it from the old (white) guard who holds the majority of capital in this country, Spikes and Watt went to Mitch Lowe and Ted Farnsworth in 2016. Lowe, a former executive at Netflix, and Farnsworth, known for allegedly growing startups, joined the MoviePass team in a move that would hopefully facilitate growth.

It definitely facilitated growth, all of it unsustainable, however. It was Lowe and Farnsworth’s idea to low the price to $9.95/month in effort to push the company’s subscriber base beyond the 20,000 plateau. Farnsworth received even more financial backing from Helios and Matheson Analytics, as the stock price continued to climb with everyone from news outlets to social media users boasting about what an amazing deal MoviePass was. Muta’Ali compiles several archival news clips of Lowe and Farnsworth talking about MoviePass on just about every cable network. Funny how they always trip over themselves on the same question, “how does the business make money when the average cost of a single movie ticket is about equal to the price of a monthly MoviePass subscription?”

It was during this time that Lowe and Farnsworth effectively removed Spikes and Watt from their own company, leaving them each with stock they couldn’t cash out for a year (of course, MoviePass folded roughly eight months later), and a business model they intend to ride until the wheels came off. While rampant (deliberate?) technical issues plagued users of the app in the months following, these two vultures came up with one miscalculated idea after another. The apex had to be MoviePass’ multi-million dollar investment in Coachella, underscored by NBA enigma Dennis Rodman helicoptering into the event decked out in MoviePass swag.

MoviePass, MovieCrash offers a compelling trip down memory lane for those of us who had one of those little red debit cards they couldn’t wait to swipe, and for those who are just hearing of the too-good-to-be-true deal. The surprise of the doc is how it shows the sad reality of two Black entrepreneurs getting their business hijacked from them by two woefully underqualified suits — one who inflates his resume (Lowe), the other a career grifter who knows little else besides inflating stock prices (Farnsworth) — who managed to sink their passion project in a little over a year’s time. Here, I was gearing up to watch a plethora of narrow-minded venture capitalists get hosed while expressing hope that their “consumer data” deals would keep the subscription service afloat. Instead, what I got was a bitterly sad story with so many tried and true American hallmarks within, from white-collar racism to greed, and right down to showing how corporate leaders can screw up a good thing in remarkable fashion, time and again.

MoviePass, MovieCrash‘s narrative is bolstered by the fact that Farnsworth didn’t agree to be interviewed, and that Lowe is a professional at giving non-answers. One aspect that remains unclear is just how Spikes and Watt were going to make MoviePass a profitable venture. The film begins with them outlining how the service had plateaued at around 20,000 subscribers (hence the need for outside investors and perhaps a new CEO). Spikes and Watt continue to iterate that they wanted to “disrupt” the industry, but there never seemed to be a plan in place to make MoviePass profitable when they realized that even pricing the service at $40/month wasn’t getting them in the black.

There’s also a lot of predictable documentary hallmarks on display, from talking heads, to archival footage, and the occasionally garish and sometimes distractingly cheesy animations. When the story is this good, and follows two genuinely well-meaning individuals, I tend to let things slide. Besides, MoviePass was a story I opined to friends could’ve been a movie in itself. Unlike some of the movies MoviePass themselves distributed (anyone remember John Travolta in Gotti?), it turns out that MoviePass, MovieCrash just so happens to be a pretty good one.

NOTE: MoviePass, MovieCrash is now available to stream on Max.

Directed by: Muta’Ali.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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