Credit: MoviePass/HBO
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Streaming Scene

MoviePass, MovieCrash — Muta’Ali Muhammad

May 30, 2024

With obituaries for theatrical filmgoing being filed on an almost weekly basis, it’s worthwhile to recall that we’re but six years removed from a phenomenon where people went to the movies so frequently it literally drove a buzzy startup into ruin. Such is the cultural flashpoint that was MoviePass, a monthly subscription service that famously promised, essentially, unlimited movie tickets for the low-low price of $9.99 a month. Back in 2017 and 2018, the company’s red Mastercard-branded debit cards were positively ubiquitous at movie theaters, with MoviePass reportedly making up 20% of all tickets sold in the U.S. But then the whole thing spectacularly imploded due to constantly changing terms of service and outages that made the app functionally useless, turning the act of simply finding a theater that would even accept the currency into a game of hide the football. For film fans used to paying upwards of $15 per ticket, it always seemed too good to last; one needn’t be an expert in economics to recognize that the financials never made a heck of a lot of sense, but millions were happy to exploit the benevolence/incompetence until the ride abruptly stopped. The new Max documentary MoviePass, MovieCrash, from filmmaker Muta’Ali Muhammad, serves as an autopsy of sorts, documenting the corporate malfeasance and distorted incentive structure which encouraged its executives to pump up the value of a small digital company in search of illusory growth only to leave it in shambles after they’d sucked all the marrow from its bones. It’s a familiar account of greed and mismanagement that will resonate with anyone who’s ever worked for a company (or frequented a website or business) that was acquired by a hedge fund.

Quickly defining both its heroes and villains, we’re introduced to the original creators of MoviePass, former Miramax marketing veteran Stacy Spikes and angel investor Hamet Watt, who co-founded the company in 2011. The two men are presented as thoughtful, measured, and soft-spoken film enthusiasts, with Spikes recalling seeing Blade Runner as a teenager and it changing the course of his life, leading to him moving to Hollywood to pursue a failed career in acting (it should be noted that both men are African American and wistfully recount how much not fitting the mold of a “typical” tech entrepreneur limited their ability to raise capital). After years spent trying to penetrate the tightly-knit world of theatrical exhibition and grow their subscriber base beyond a paltry 20,000 people, Spikes reluctantly agreed to bring in former Netflix and Redbox executive Mitch Lowe — who speaks in a folksy cadence and wears a soul patch into his ’70’s, instantly announcing himself as an unserious person — in the hopes that he can serve as a rainmaker. Lowe proceeded to push Watt out of the company and install himself as CEO, while relegating Spikes to a largely ornamental COO role. The new CEO is also responsible for the revelatory yet unsustainable price point, arguing that exponentially driving up subscription numbers will eventually push the company into profitability even though it loses money every time somebody buys a ticket using their service. Soon, they’ve caught the eye of Helios & Matheson Analytics CEO and serial scam artist Ted Farnsworth — who comes across so poorly in the film that his decision to not sit for an interview very well might be the smartest thing he’s ever done — who swoops in to acquire MoviePass, armed with ill-defined promises of monetizing the company’s data by selling it back to the studios as marketing insight. Backed by ever-gullible retail investors and a product that’s practically being given away, the stock price soared, Lowe and Farnsworh became darlings of the cable TV money management circuit, and the company was allegedly valued at hundreds of millions of dollars while lacking the cash on hand to even purchase office supplies.

Streaming content built around “disruptors” revealed to be charlatans has become something of a cottage industry in recent years, with documentaries about Fyre Festival and Theranos and star-studded limited series chronicling the downfalls of WeWork and Uber (as well as Theranos again) becoming omnipresent. Like #MeToo springing up seemingly in response to Trump’s presidency, the trend feels a bit like transference; celebrating the downfall of relatively small-time hucksters while the culture at large stews over the continued prosperity of the Zuckerbergs and Musks of the world. MoviePass, MovieCrash dutifully chronicles every forehead-slapping misstep or tone deaf public statement which frequently boiled down to chasing clout at the expense of sound fundamentals or delivering a quality product. For example, the film repeatedly refers back to a ridiculously expensive (and possibly illegal) Coachella sponsorship that for some reason involved retired NBA player Dennis Rodman walking around the music festival in MoviePass attire accompanied by a buxom influencer. As the dozen or so actual employees of the company struggled to fulfill customer orders and fielded complaints about the increasingly unreliable service, Mitch and Ted pretended to be moguls — the company infamously partnered with the universally reviled John Travolta vanity project, Gotti, with the two men mistakenly believing they could will the film to success simply by directing their subscribers to the it through the app — and partied on yachts, all while Spikes and Watt were locked out of the company they created, helpless to intervene once it began circling the drain.

As an info-dump, MoviePass, MovieCrash is serviceable; as filmmaking, it’s slightly less so. Muhammad attempts to enliven fairly dry talking heads accounts of fights over board seats or receiving cash infusions by frantically over-cutting (the film at times plays like a trailer for itself) and punctuating anecdotes with tongue-in-cheek animations, like depicting the process of hitting subscriber milestones by showing cartoon versions of the company’s employees scaling a series of mountains. More egregious, the film keeps shoehorning in references to movies as an excuse to license famous film clips; hackneyed analogies comparing business scenarios to the band playing as the Titanic sank or Thelma and Louise driving off the cliff together are accompanied by the single most obvious visual references. However, what’s most frustrating is the film’s unwillingness to contend with the conundrum at its center: MoviePass wasn’t a popular service that was ultimately ruined by the dilettantes put in charge. It became popular precisely because Lowe and Farnsworth were frauds, and MoviePass members gorged themselves on their confounding business model. The moviegoing public, as presented here, come across as gluttons seemingly going to movie theaters ad nauseam primarily as an act of trolling; one interview subject confesses he watched Avengers: Infinity War in 30-minute installments over the course of a week while another admits he went to go see Crazy Rich Asians 14 times. The film attempts to position Spikes as a tragic figure, pushed out of the company he created — the Eduardo Saverin, if you will, of this particular power struggle, and let’s be thankful the film doesn’t make that explicit a comparison or it would have had to license footage from The Social Network as well — but there’s scant evidence to support the idea that his stewardship of the company would have ever turned a corner and caught on with the general public. MoviePass turned going to the cinema into a low-cost commodity that for a short period of time bolstered theaters, studios, and audiences, where the only real losers were investors too blinkered to recognize what was plainly obvious to anyone even half paying attention (class action lawsuits from consumers following the company eventually wising up and starting to throttle how many tickets you could buy or limiting options to less desirable theaters and showtimes come across like complaints that the night watchman finally started to lock the door to the store after hours). MoviePass, MovieCrash is trying to gin up outrage, or at least schadenfreude, when really the entire hubbub amounted to a “bank error in your favor” community chest card.

DIRECTOR: Muta’Ali Muhammad;  DISTRIBUTOR: Max;  STREAMINGMay 29;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 36 min.