Last week’s news that MoviePass, the subscription model movie ticketing service, gave me flashbacks to the 2000 acquisition of Time Warner by AOL. While AOL was by no means a young company at that point, not nearly as young as MoviePass anyway, it was still a case of the upstart buying the legacy company. Moviefone has been around for decades, dating back to when it was a phone service that was so ubiquitous as to be incorporated into a bit on “Seinfeld.”
One quote from MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe in an interview explaining and justifying the acquisition jumped out at me:
Today, many people go to Rotten Tomatoes. And we find our subscribers have a slightly different and, in fact, a more positive rating of movies. We want to be able to do our own presentation for our subscribers from fellow MoviePass subscribers that gives them more reflection of people like them, who love movies.
MoviePass seems to have found common cause with studios, who for years have been waging war against Rotten Tomatoes even as the site itself is partially owned by Warner Bros. Hollywood has complained that negative ratings on the site have tanked their blockbusters, not seeming to realize (or care) that aggregating the reviews of outside critics isn’t the same as actively working against a movie. That aggregation may not be perfect, but it serves as an effective shorthand for people who don’t have the time to spend researching two dozen individual reviews.
The positioning of this goal is what’s most interesting to me. It indicates MoviePass has two goals in mind.
Remove Rotten Tomatoes From the Picture
Again, Rotten Tomatoes is often painted by studios and their allies as the enemy, some malicious entity fixated on killing everyone’s fun by assigning negative rankings to special effects-driven blockbusters and causing them to flounder at the box office. That’s a great way to take zero responsibility for making bad movies. Much like our sitting president, they’ve adopted a “blame the press for our own bad actions” as a strategy instead of making better decisions.
Despite its squabbles with exhibitors, MoviePass needs to present itself as a friend to studios. There’s the basic idea that if more people want to see movies theatrically MoviePass succeeds, but there’s also that the company needs to curry favor with the studios since they are a primary source of ad revenue for the startup. If studios win MoviePass wins and vice versa.
Embrace Peer Recommendations
There have been multiple studies in recent years showing people put more trust in the opinions and recommendations of those like them than they do in the press or other institutions. If my friend or someone who’s just an ordinary user of the site says they like the movie then that will presumably carry more weight in influencing a decision.
Pair that with the steady decline of respected regional and local film critics – often among the first to be let go when a media organization is retrenching because of declining ad revenue and other issues – and you don’t have that additional connection with media that creates added trust. The web has made all opinions available to us so that local voice is replaced with one that might be more broad and not as attuned to local tastes and can be easily dismissed.
Both sides of the conversation have contributed to the divide that’s grown. Critics, as their numbers have dwindled, seem to have grown even more insular. Social media has allowed them to reinforce opinions such as how you can’t *really* enjoy Get Out until you understand these three Italian post-modern filmmaking influences. Meanwhile, studios and filmmakers have adopted the “for the fans, not the critics” talking point as the primary line of defense against any criticism, casting those who dislike their movies as out of touch with the common folk.
(Side note: Is it creeping anyone else out how much the movie industry sounds like the modern Republican party? Wow…)
That divide can be seen clearly when looking at Rampage, Dwayne Johnson’s latest action flick. On Rotten Tomatoes the movie has a 50% from critics, earning it a “Rotten” badge. From fans, though, it scores an 81% “Fresh” score that’s in line with its A- on audience sentiment tracking site CinemaScore.
I still believe MoviePass is growing too cocky and has hitched its wagon to two horses that may not have much life left in them, both the theatrical distribution model and the ad-targeting business model. The first is swiftly moving toward a niche elite leisure activity. That will impact the second, which is under fire as more people wake up to how they’re being tracked and what data is being gathered on them.
The move to embrace populism may buy some time and certainly seems to be one made to take advantage of consumer preferences on one front, which is smart. To that end it may be actually working to create a model that’s less reliant on theatrical ticket sales and is more geared toward fan recommendations, something that can be extended to streaming and VOD movies as well. That would be a big shift from its subscription service, but would also future-proof it (to an extent) against continued changes in viewing habits.
Whatever the motives and plans, there are changes coming to MoviePass that the company is clearly hoping will catch on and extend its relevance among a finicky customer base.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.