Movie Theaters Begin Their Adjustments

The news coming out of the second quarter is that movie ticket prices inched up a bit but are still down from the high they reached a year ago. But at the same time both revenue and actual ticket sales are down, 3.8 percent and 2.5 percent respectively. The second quarter was better than the first, with almost all the growth coming from Disney’s biggest releases.

At the same time, reports are coming out that theater chains are interested in experimenting with variable pricing models for tickets. Premium exhibition formats already cost more but they want to be able to charge different prices for different movies, with higher prices for the most in-demand films like the Marvel Studios blockbusters and less for the kind of mid-level and indie movies that have recently tanked or at least underperformed.

Part of that anxiousness to mix up the pricing model is the realization that MoviePass was kind of a good idea, adding significant amounts to the box office take for those smaller, non-franchise movies because the barrier to experimentation was reduced to almost nothing. That’s the same reason people are choosing to stay home and watch the latest “sure, that looks fine” release on Netflix or binge a buzzed-about series. To counter that, more theater chains are implementing their own subscription plans. Otherwise audiences will stick with the known quantities and safe bets coming out of Disney instead of trying anything new.

Doing so is an attempt to accomplish a handful of things:

  • Get more people in theater seats. Data from the days when MoviePass wasn’t an ongoing dumpster fire showed that the service notably increased the number of people heading to theaters. As of now services like AMC Stubs A List have released subscriber numbers but not (unless I’ve missed it) information on how it’s moved the needle on actual ticket sales beyond vague statements about members seeing more movies than they otherwise would have and concession sales rising as a result.
  • Build brand loyalty. One reason chains didn’t like MoviePass was that it was good in most any theater. That sort of level field is one big companies in any industry don’t like playing on, so they pushed back. If you can lock someone in to your own brand, though, you build in repeated instances of the desired behavior and make the opportunity cost of switching too high. It’s why you haven’t actually deleted Facebook, because it’s where all your friends and family are.
  • Get that sick data. More than anything else, the chains want the data. They want to get the demographic information about their customers, find ways to gain insights into their other behavior and habits. All of that can then be used to target ads and other promotions on behalf of studio partners, increasing revenue streams.

Where this gets interesting is that any alterations to the theatrical pricing model significantly impact studios’ marketing efforts for their movies. If an individual knows their local theater does or doesn’t implement variable pricing it’s going to change their perception to and reception of the campaign.

And studios will be able to track how that plays out.

Let’s use the weekend of 12/20 as an example and presume that select theaters charge more per ticket for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker than they do for Superintelligence, the upcoming comedy from Melissa McCarthy.

If ticket sales for Superintelligence are higher in Zone 1 than they are in Zone 2, Warner Bros. will be able to see part of that is because more theaters in Zone 1 have variable pricing models and charged less for the comedy than they did for Star Wars. In Zone 2 sales were lower because ticket prices were level and people chose the familiar over uncertainty. People still went to see Star Wars, of course, but because there was little risk involved and the incremental cost reduced or eliminated they went out later in the week to see something else.

Now consider what can be done with those insights. More TV spots could be run in Zone 1 for movies similar to Superintelligence and more online ads targeted to people in those locations. There’s more ROI to be had through that kind of targeted marketing than a more evenly-distributed campaign. Some of that marketing is even done through the apps theaters are using for their subscription loyalty programs because, again, that’s who now owns a good chunk of valuable data.

What happens then is that those in Zone 2 see even fewer ads and other marketing elements for non-blockbuster franchises because the data models predict they’re less likely to take a chance on an unknown quantity. Cultural hegemony is reinforced by reducing exposure to messages that challenge the most powerful ideas.

We’re about to see how something like this plays out in real time. AMC has been aggressively promoting its Artisan Films program to keep smaller movies on screens for longer periods of time so people who catch word of mouth have an opportunity to see them. That includes in-theater signage and even custom trailers for those movies that include an Artisan Films callout.

The key becomes apparent when all of this is put together.

First, a small movie that didn’t receive a big nationwide campaign is kept in theaters for more than two weeks before being booted because it’s not performing at the same level as the latest blockbuster. So more people are catching the positive buzz coming from those who already saw it, including critics.

Second, the campaign itself from the studio is run differently because marketers know it’s still in theaters in select markets. More TV spots are run and online campaigns are lengthened to keep reaching potential audiences.

Third, members of the audience more easily make the decision to see it because either A) the ticket price is lower than usual due to variable pricing models or B) the cost is zero because they belong to the chain’s subscription plan.

Disney’s box-office dominance has already changed how movies in general are released, forcing studios to scramble for the few Disney-free weekends or become more creative with their marketing efforts to cut through the carpet-bombing campaigns run in support of super heros and remakes. Shifts in how exhibitors handle these smaller releases may be good for indie filmmakers and audiences, but it also means that power is being consolidated at that end of the pipeline, which could create its own set of problems in the long run.

MoviePass Lost the PR Battle Long Ago

If the last week is any indication, MoviePass has, as a corporate entity, begun to enter what can best be described as complete organ failure.

The problems began when the app went down, before the weekend of August 27th, something it chalked up to a technical problem but which was reportedly caused by an acute lack of cash with which to keep its systems online. After that it announced many major releases would not be available through the service until two weeks after their release AND it was raising prices, meaning customers would be paying more for a less attractive service.

All that came after a company executive said they had a lot of surprises up their sleeve that would “disrupt” (everyone’s favorite completely meaningless buzzword) the industry on a number of fronts.

Then last Wednesday it issued a press release that was characterized as defensive, strangely out-of-touch and just plain strange. In the release, which Variety’s Brett Lang does a nice job of dismantling, the company essentially pleads to be taken seriously and calls recent events simply a “rough patch” it is working to get out of. The company followed up that move with the announcement it would be fundamentally changing its model, allowing no more than three movies a month, a far cry from the “one per day” promise it originally made.

The limiting of movie availability and the price bump are just the latest in a series of changes to the terms of service customers have had to adjust to. It’s also just the latest in a series of poor, tone-deaf responses to customers, investors and others in response to those and other changes over the life of the app.

What’s most striking about all this is how poorly the company and everyone involved with it seems to be at messaging. That tone-deaf “I’m not dead!” release was just the latest example of how it’s fumbled almost every attempt to communicate with its user base in an open and constructive manner.

Customers for a long while experienced problems including over-billing, mandatory app updates that broke compatibility with the mobile OS someone was using and more. Those complaints were often shared on Twitter when the person in question had hit their breaking point after repeated unsuccessful attempts to contact what seemed to be non-existent customer service and technical support.

In that time the response from MoviePass seemed to be non-existent.

Several months ago the company’s CEO reportedly made comments at an industry gathering about how the app was collecting troves of user data that it would be selling to advertisers as a way to generate additional income. This came right *after* the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, showing what could best be described as a willful disregard for customer privacy protection, or at least a lack of ability to read the room at the moment.

Then earlier this year it blacked out screenings of the Jennifer Lawrence spy drama Red Sparrow, apparently because the studio behind it wasn’t interested in buying ads on the platform. Around that same time it shut off the ability to choose many popular AMC Theaters locations as part of an ongoing spat with the chain.

All of that and more was done *without* communicating changes or updates to customers. The company was apparently confident enough in its own standing it felt people would stick around no matter how poorly they were treated.

While that might have been true for a while, it remains to be seen if that will continue now that MoviePass has done more than just tweak some terms of service but fundamentally alter the value proposition it offered.

Several months ago a report was published showing MoviePass was helping some smaller movies be seen by users because it lowered the fear of the movie being a bad choice and a waste of time. Since there was no incremental cost, the biggest concern was the wasting of a couple hours, but that’s a lower hurdle to clear than wasting a couple hours *and* $10.

Moving to a 3/month max model takes that out of the equation. People may not worry about the wasted $10, but they are going to still worry that they will burn one of their three “free” movies on something they don’t ultimately enjoy. That’s a big change.

Every week now seems to bring news MoviePass is hemorrhaging cash. The stock of its parent company has hit bottom so often it’s being used for fracking operations in southern Illinois. There’s a good chance it doesn’t survive the year, at least not without a large-scale change such as new ownership or an even further abandonment of what it initially offered customers.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

AMC Theaters Girds Its Loins

Well, it finally happened: A major movie theater chain, in this case AMC Theaters, has introduced its own subscription-like movie ticket service seeking to compete against MoviePass.

[extreme John McClane voice] Welcome to the party, pal!

As I pointed out a couple months ago, this is the kind of innovation entrenched industry players rail against, which AMC has done loudly and often, because it’s something they should have thought of if they weren’t busy enjoying their protected status. Here are the details of how AMC Stubs A-List will work compared to MoviePass:

AMC Stubs A-List


Monthly Cost



Movies Allowed

Up to 3/week


IMAX/3D Showings



Multiple Movies/Day



Same Movie



On paper that looks like a slightly better deal. If you see two IMAX showings a month, the AMC plan has already paid for itself, and because it’s part of the chain’s Stubs loyalty program you continue to rack up points you can redeem later.

Yes, this validates the theatrical subscription model. But it’s a losing model. MoviePass’ parent company has seen massive stock price drops over the last few months as it hemorrhages cash. That’s part of the reason it introduced, at the same time AMC announced its offering, surge pricing, which would add a premium fee for in-demand movies just like Uber costs more during rush hour. The financials are so bad it’s setting up a bond sale to raise funds and stay afloat.

amc stub a list

So why mimic it?

AMC is clearly hoping premium formats, repeated viewings and widespread frustration with MoviePass’ horrific customer service and constant program changes will attract people. It’s also likely hoping audiences don’t use it enough to actually recoup that $20, which is the only way it will remain profitable. Indeed, in that article AMC’s CEO says profitability will depend on low usage, the same thinking Netflix used in the days of mailed DVDs.

Still, the challenges are obvious.

First, previous reports have shown MoviePass users not only saw more movies per month than they otherwise would have but saw a wider array of movies. Both are because there was no incremental cost and so the potential risk of wasting money on a movie that was only alright was low. It will be interesting to see if that remains true when repeated viewings of blockbuster franchise are available as a choice or if people still opt for breadth.

Second, that price point is pretty high. I understand that it comes with a lot of perks, but $20/month is well above what people are paying for Netflix, Amazon Prime or any other subscription service at the moment. Studies have shown most people don’t want to pay more than $20 for streaming subscriptions and average three subscriptions already. They may not see the value here as worth it on an ongoing basis, content to either pay single-ticket prices for occasional theater outings or just skip it altogether.

Third, it’s launching at a time when the studios and media companies AMC and other chains depend on are increasingly going their own way, or making plans to do so. The potential value of that Stubs A-List price will be a lot different when Disney starts withholding theatrical releases in favor of its own streaming service.

Fourth, because it’s only good at AMC theaters locations it may simply not be applicable to vast swaths of people for whom an AMC location isn’t convenient. You can make the case that people might be willing to drive a little farther to take advantage of the price point, but that overlooks trends across consumer product categories, including movies, that “not having to go out” is the increasingly dominant deciding factor in making a purchase.

Finally, it’s yet another move to gentrify the moviegoing experience. Low-income households may be able to splurge on the occasional very expensive movie ticket to see something like Black Panther, but they may not be able to take on an additional $20 monthly expense. That may not sound like much, but it really is, especially if your circumstances mean that simply finding the time to take your kids to a movie is impossible because of your inconsistent work schedule.

It’s good to see innovation in the theatrical exhibition game. What AMC is doing, though, does little to address or account for some underlying and overarching issues with the industry and how it’s simply poorly positioned to survive in a media and retail model that’s vastly different from what it was 30 years ago. AMC continues to believe IMAX and 3D are the answers to every question and that the studios will always want theaters to be around. Neither of those are assumptions that should be made.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

American Animals – Marketing Recap

american animals posterIt’s odd that one of the most notorious heists in American history should involve something as prosaic as a book about birds, but here we are. American Animals tells the story of four young men in suburban Pennsylvania who are apathetic about their lives and uncertain about their future and so decide to spice things up and add some adventure to their existence.

To do so they decide to steal an incredibly rare book from the collection of nearby Transylvania University. They’re not exactly criminal masterminds, though, and so turn to their knowledge of heist movies to help fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Executing the plan is filled with luck both good and bad, but nothing is going to deter this group of would-be thieves from adding some meaning to their bland, uneventful lives.

The Posters

The first poster, released while the film was still at Sundance, looks like one piece of paper has been torn in half and laid over another. The bottom half has a photo of four guys in suits, a couple of them carrying bags, walking toward the camera. It looks like any other crime action drama. But then a ripped piece of paper is laid over the top that replaces their heads with masks of various animals, which makes literal the title that appears just above the image. So clearly it’s trying to convey something fresh and possibly disturbing to the audience as opposed to yet another mildly entertaining heist film.

Two more posters take slightly different approaches while using similar elements. On both there’s a group of faceless individuals wearing trench coats and carrying guns walking toward the camera and on both there’s a drawing of a pelican, hinting at the aviary nature of the book that’s being stolen by these thieves. Aside from some different design choices, the main difference is in the copy. One reads “The perfect heist is a work of fiction” while the other features “You don’t know where the line is until you cross it.”

The Trailers

Spencer is bored and feeling like he’s on the edge of something monumental in the trailer, which opens by showing us a mix of craziness and tedium. Warren wants to recruit him into some sort of scheme but isn’t forthcoming with the details. It turns out, a group of friends wants to steal a priceless book from a library, presumably to fence it but also just for the adventure. Everyone just wants to feel something, some kind of rush, and this is a way to do that.

What’s being sold here is kind of an absurd action comedy. The title cards make it clear that the events depicted actually happened, but the overly dramatic closing of car doors and other small moments show plenty of liberties have been taken with the story as well. It looks mildly insane but also gripping and compelling, making it easy to see what the festival buzz was all about.

There’s a bit less focus on Spencer in the later “online exclusive” trailer. The same basic story is sold here, though, one about a group of guys who are so uninterested with the current trajectory of their lives that they decide stealing a rare book is the only way to feel something. We see the same outlines of the planning and preparation for the heist, though this one is more about the dynamics between the group than the kind of ridiculous lengths they go to in advance of the theft.

Online and Social

There isn’t much happening on the movie’s official website, just a “Synopsis,” a “Videos” section with the trailers and a featurette as well as plenty of prompts to buy tickets. There are links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles on the front page.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Some online ads might have been run but I haven’t seen any TV spots or other paid efforts.

Media and Publicity

The movie was one that received a good amount of conversation and buzz when it screened at the Sundance Film Festival. That only got more intense when it was acquired by a partnership of The Orchard and MoviePass, the latter making its first purchase after launching a new division for just that purpose. After that it was also screened at the SXSW Film Festival. Because of the ups-and-downs MoviePass has had over the last few months it was natural that features like this would pop up examining the company’s financial stake in the movie and what its fortunes meant for the fate of the movie.

There were a few features about the real life guys who inspired the story and who were part of the publicity tour, but nothing that seemed to amount to a particularly notable part of the overall push.


I just kind of wish the publicity push had the same vigor and sizzle as the trailers, which give off a decent vibe of energy. There’s some good material that’s on display in those trailers, which sell an unconventional caper flick, though one that is as implausible as they come. That the same energy wasn’t carried over throughout the campaign and expanded into other media is disappointing.


The narrative that’s emerging of how MoviePass, which partnered to release the film as its first move into film distribution, helped the film succeed is that it used its own platform to heavily promote the film, utilizing the user data it has to target ads. If I’m *any* other distributor right now I’m pretty honked off.

Both the cast and crew and the real people the actors are playing are interviewed here about the blurring of fact and fiction in the movie.

Exhibitors Reach Their WSHDT (We Should Have Done That) Moment

If you remember, the rise of on-demand car services such as Uber and Lyft was met with a chorus of existing taxi and cab companies screaming about how they could totally have done that if they wanted to and maybe they would. Drivers were seeing the value of the medallions they’d leveraged themselves and their families to buy drop precipitously, something that’s lead to more than a few tragic incidents driven by desperation and hopelessness. Cities like Chicago have tried to regulate this new classification of service, but the companies always seem to just keep going until the issue is dropped, usually at the same time it virtually shuts down existing players.

That same pattern seems to be playing out with Moviepass. After a week of bad news including how it’s hemorrhaging money the company hit CinemaCon by playing up how not only are new members signing up in droves but that these members are seeing a whole lot of movies, including more during weekdays than they otherwise would have. Even more specifically, they’re heading to theaters to see movies they would have skipped if the financial risk weren’t essentially zero. To put it simply, they went ahead and headed out to Daddy’s Home 2 because it’s not going to cost them anything extra, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Continue reading “Exhibitors Reach Their WSHDT (We Should Have Done That) Moment”

MoviePass’ New Mission: Power to the People

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.

Continue reading “MoviePass’ New Mission: Power to the People”