Even if you’re no cinephile, you’ve probably heard tell of the famed and slightly mysterious MoviePass, a month-to-month service offering subscribers nigh-unlimited cinema screenings for just $9.95 per month.
If that price seems shockingly low, it’s because it is. In August, MoviePass dropped its rates from more than $30 — and as much as $50 in some markets — to Netflix-level cheapness, a move that raised eyebrows the internet over. In fact, we covered it ourselves.
TPH’s esteemed Lisa Rowan isn’t the only one who’s skeptical. Type “how can moviepass” into Google, and top auto-suggested searches include “make money,” “be so cheap,” and “stay in business.” Puzzlement and speculation about its business model have been published by Forbes, Fortune, MarketWatch and Business Insider. (Spoiler alert: The company plans to leverage your user data for advertising dollars — that is, it tracks your cinematic habits and will sell that valuable info to advertisers.)
But regardless of how MoviePass might turn a profit and whether or not it’ll stay in business long enough to do so, there’s another important question to consider: Is it a service worth subscribing to in the first place?
MoviePass is Cheap, But Is It Worth It?
I see a lot of movies. In fact, a quick glance at my religiously-tended Mint account shows I spent more than $300 on movie theater outings in 2017 — a rather hefty sum, even if it does include concessions, which I usually skip.
For a Penny Hoarder, it seems like a silly expense. Spending $10 or more (easily double that, if I cave on my popcorn craving) just to sit in a dark room, usually by myself, and watch a picture? I mean, I’m already getting Netflix for free, and I have a whole refrigerator at home.
But there’s a certain inimitable romance to the theater, from the ugly, kernel-covered carpet to the scent of overpriced, greasy fare. Plus, seeing a movie is a great midday brain break — i.e., procrastination tool — for a freelance writer.
So when the price dropped, and a quick website check revealed that even the two-screen indie theater in my little north Florida burg was participating, I bit. I could theoretically see every movie on the roster for the price of one.
It seemed like a no-brainer. But, of course, not everything is as it seems.
I Tried MoviePass, and Here’s What Happened
I must admit, the service was finicky at first. In fact, I nearly canceled.
Here’s what happened:
I signed up for MoviePass in early December, and a day later received the following email:
“Thanks for subscribing to MoviePass! Your personalized card has been ordered and should arrive in about 5 to 7 business days. Once your card arrives, log in to the MoviePass app and activate your card. You’ll then be ready to check in at the theater and start seeing the movies you want. It’s that simple!”
Sounds great, I thought. Sure enough, a week later, I pulled a bright red card from an unmarked white envelope. I was stoked — I’d been holding off on seeing a film until it arrived, and I hadn’t been to the theater since before my months-long stint in Europe.
So I hopped in the car and headed to the above-mentioned indie theater to go see “The Florida Project.” But when I arrived, the app wouldn’t let me check in. Apparently, card activation is not an instant process, despite the promised simplicity in the ambiguously-worded email.
Unwilling to front the $8 to see the film out of pocket (yes, I’m cheap), I climbed back into my car, summarily bummed out. However, that evening I received a response to my customer service query stating my account would activate the following day, which seemed… fairly reasonable.
Two days later, I decided to try the other theater in town — a larger, franchised location — this time for a showing of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
But once again, the app wouldn’t check me in, offering some sort of strange error about my account being “in an incorrect status to create reservations.”
At this point, I was upset. Mercifully, the box office lady took pity on me, comping me the ticket when I flashed her my impotent MoviePass. (This was probably thanks in part to the recently-released Star Wars movie, which ensured the theater was in no way hurting for business.)
I sent another query through the in-app customer service contact feature, this one with rather stronger wording. After not receiving a response for several days, I was just about ready to unsubscribe and delete, chalking up the $9.95 as a failed experiment. And hey, at least I’d gotten one free movie out of it.
But a couple days later, I decided to give MoviePass one more shot. I’d arrived early for a friend’s destination wedding, and had nothing to do that evening besides pass the time at the shopping center across from my hotel. I opened the app once again and half-heartedly tapped the “Check In” button on a mid-afternoon showing of “Coco.”
Miraculously, it worked.
Here’s How Much I Saved with MoviePass
Once my MoviePass was (finally) in working order, I put it through its paces.
In my first month as a subscriber, I saw the following movies without paying for my ticket. Helpfully, the tickets still print with their would-be prices, which I’ve included next to each in the list.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri:” $8.25
“Coco:” $14 (!)
“The Shape of Water:” $8.25
That’s a total of $38.75 worth of movie tickets — which means I saved $28.80 in only a single month of membership. And that was over the holidays, when I didn’t have as much time as usual to casually meander down to the theater.
As far as user experience is concerned, when MoviePass is working, it’s super simple. You just “check in” to the movie showing you want, and then you have 30 minutes to use the card to buy the ticket at the theater. If you change your mind or run out the timer, no big deal; you can simply choose a different movie or time slot and start the process over.
To note: You can’t use MoviePass to purchase tickets ahead of time, which could be a bummer if you frequent a fancy-pants theater that has assigned seating. Ditto if you’re want to see a much-talked-about film on opening night, for example. It’s totally possible to arrive at the theater and find your showing sold out, which, while it wouldn’t cost you anything, would also be a downer.
I will say that having a MoviePass card in your wallet has a certain psychological effect — it incentivizes movie-going, at least if you’re of a Penny Hoarder mindset. You might see more movies than you normally would in an effort to get your money’s worth, or simply because it’s suddenly effectively free to do so. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a benefit or a drawback.
Bottom line: Once it’s working (and, as Rowan aptly warns, while it lasts), MoviePass is a stellar deal, for even a casual movie-goer.
Just don’t count on award-winning customer service — though at prices this low, I guess the company has to cut some corners.
Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) has written for VinePair, SELF, Ms. Magazine, Yahoo Wellness, Roads & Kingdoms, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog and other outlets. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality
This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.
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