The Price of Admission – The Boom and Bust of MoviePass and Bringing People Back to the Cinema

Ever since the first roll of celluloid ran through the mechanisms of the first projector, the medium of film has always been for the purpose of drawing an audience.  And with the advent of cinema, a new industry built up to serve the needs of accommodating those audiences.  Concert Halls and Opera Houses gave way to the movie palaces of early Hollywood, and then later expanded into the local neighborhood multiplex capable of screening multiple movies to thousands of people per day.  The movie theater is almost as synonymous with the identity of Hollywood as the studio lot itself.  It’s no mistake that Hollywood’s most visited landmarks are both the Hollywood sign and the Chinese Theater.  And yet, movie theaters have always had to struggle to compete with newer ways to consume media.  First it was television, which brought the experience of watching a movie into the living room.  Then came home video, which gave the viewer the choice of watching a movie on their own time.  Now, streaming services have become the biggest threat to the well being of the movie theater industry, as on demand media allows the viewer to take movies on the go and watch from pretty much everywhere.  Not only that, but streaming channels like Netflix and Amazon are actively trying to compete with major studios for exclusive content, taking even blockbuster level entertainment away from cinemas and puting them on their platforms.  But, if there is one constant with the movie theater industry over the years, it’s their continued efforts to adapt to new challenges as they compete for audience attention.  Some theaters adapt better than others, but the ones that do make the most effort to change are also the most innovative and create some of the most long-lasting changes in the way we watch the movies.

Having worked in the movie theater business myself for 4 1/2 years while I was attending college, I witnessed some of those changes take hold and become the new standards in the industry.  Probably the biggest one I witnessed was the conversion to digital projection.  When I started, all our movies still ran on celluloid on every screen, until one day we received our first digital projector.  This allowed us to screen movies for the first time in 3D, which became a big draw for our little theater for a while.  Around the time that Avatar (2009) roared into theaters, the necessity for digital projection became paramount and eventually every projector in the theater was replaced with the digital model.  The 3D craze died down in the decade since, but digital projection was here to stay, and this is an evolution that wouldn’t have happened had the market not shifted so quickly.  3D and digital projection are only some of the many innovations that have come out of competition with other media platforms; others include Widescreen, Drive-In, surround sound, IMAX, and even reclining chairs.  Some chains of theaters even draw inspiration from their competitors, like how the Alamo Drafthouse chain in Texas has brought the concept of Dine-In theaters to public attention, something that you see available in other places now through some of the larger theater chains.  While all these innovations help to make the movie going experience more special, they also come at a higher price, and sometimes they aren’t enough to pull their audience away from the comforts of their own home for very long.  The sad truth is that movie theaters are constantly in an uphill battle to prove their worth in a time where convenience dictates peoples attention.  So, after trying so many ways to make the experience of watching a movie more worthy of the price of a ticket, theaters are looking for a different kind of innovation today; one that affects the way we buy tickets in the first place.

Drawing inspiration from it’s current competitors (Netflix and Amazon), the movie theater business is trying a new tactic to bring people back to the cinema; a subscription plan.  Just like how Netflix allows for unlimited streaming of their content for a low monthly fee, movie theaters are now considering doing the same, which would greatly alter the way ticket pricing is done within the industry.  Enter the innovators behind this concept; the MoviePass subscription service.  Launched in 2011, MoviePass gave subscribers the opportunity to select one movie a week to watch for the low fee of $10 a month.  Now the average movie goer usually watches one or two movies a month, so for anyone (like me) who watches more than that each month, this was an incredible deal.  Each member would get their own debit card which would be pre-loaded with the value of the ticket once it was selected through the online app, and then that member would use the card to pick up their ticket at the box office, basically seeing the movie on the MoviePass company’s dime just as long as they kept paying their fee each month.  For the cinephiles, this was a dream come true, because now they could watch as much as they wanted without breaking the bank.  There was resistance from major chains like AMC and Regal, who believed that the business model for this was unsustainable and reckless; and yet they themselves are now trying their own subscription based services in response.  Regardless of the skepticism that MoviePass has faced over it’s business model, there is no question that they are having an effect.  2018’s box office is already the highest in history, and that includes a significant boost in ticket sales as well; not just with prices.  People are going to the movie theaters again, and this may be due to the MoviePass influence.  In just a short amount of time, this service has already moved the industry in a new direction.  There is only one problem, though; they might live long enough to see the lasting effect of their influence.

As of this writing, MoviePass is in dire economic straits as their business model is starting to prove to be unsustainable as many people feared.  According to Deadline Hollywood in May 2018, the company only had enough funds to remain solvent for the next three months, which means a moment of reckoning is coming in the next couple weeks as the deadline nears.  Primary among all the concerns is the fact that MoviePass’ low subscription fee didn’t justify the amount of money spent on the access the membership allowed.  People who used the service were watching more, but they weren’t spending more.  Theater chains and movie studios have always taken a percentage off of the price of a ticket, with studios collecting the majority share and theaters balancing their take with profits off of concession purchases.  MoviePass would get an even smaller percentage off of those numbers, and yet their profits remained low or non-existent because they were giving such a bargain out to their subscribers.  Now, it’s not unusual that a company builds itself up through accruing debt in it’s early days.  Netflix is still running up high debt as they cobble up expensive content for their service, and that has made their brand more valuable over time as their service becomes more desired for newer subscribers who wants to see their many exclusives.  MoviePass, despite an astounding rise in subscribers over the last couple years, still isn’t seeing enough growth to justify the spending that they are putting into their service, and as a result, they are now hemorrhaging funds.  Their parent company, Helios & Matheson Analytics was hit with a massive trade-off in March of this year, which saw their stock freefall and the value of MoviePass dwindle down to cents on the dollar.  As a result, MoviePass was forced to change their subscription plans, which irked long time members, especially when they attempted to make the changes stealthily.  Now, MoviePass not only has lost confidence with investors, but also with it’s once faithful member base, and this has left it in the most dire of straits.

MoviePass may not survive to the end of this year, but it’s impact will still leave a mark on the industry as a whole.  As stated earlier, AMC and Regal are already trying out their own services based on the MoviePass model, with payment plans that probably will be more sustainable in the long run.  MoviePass, for all it’s faults, did address something very important that was affecting the industry as a whole, which was the often out of control movie ticket prices.  This is an industry wide issue that extends beyond the movie theaters and goes all the way to Hollywood itself.  One thing that has become a problem for the industry over the years has been the ballooning costs of movie productions.  Whether it’s to finance the enormous salaries of the all star casts, or to pay for costly visual effects, or to “fix” problems found in post-production with re-shoots, movies have become far more expensive to make, and that cost translates into more premium ticket prices as they studios try to offset the damage to their bottom line.  As a result, we’ve significant decline over the years in the number of tickets sold.  Sure, box office numbers remain high, but when adjusted to inflation, you’ll see that movies today are attracting fewer viewers today than films released decades ago.  The types of movies that make money today are also representing a narrower field, typically falling into the action adventure or horror genres.  And that’s because people today will only go out to the movie theater if the film looks worthy enough of the high ticket price.  This changed very much with MoviePass’ help, as more people were willing to go to the movie theater to see any type of movie; something that was especially beneficial to the alternative independent film market.  It still hasn’t addressed the bigger problem of out of control movie production costs, but the fact that the less typical films are bringing people to the movie theaters as the ticket price factor has been eliminated  is something that is becoming a good overall change in the industry.

The industry as a whole needs to reevaluate the way it produces media for mass consumption.  Typically the bigger the movie is, the more likely it’s supposed to draw an audience, but this has not always been the case.  Huge box office flops like Speed Racer (2008), The Lone Ranger (2013), and last year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) prove that no amount of money you throw at a film is going to save it from failure.  But, the industry has been slow to follow trends, and many movies often come out too late to leave an impact as a result.  You only get a tiny sliver of time to become a hit at the box office.  Many classics that we revere today in fact found their audience afterwards on home video, like The Big Lebowski (1998) and The Iron Giant (1999), which shows that trying too hard to push a movie into success in the movie theaters is also not a cost-effective measure either.  The often less factored in aspect of the industry that also bleeds studios dry is the marketing of these movies.  Marketing budgets often can exceed the cost of the movie itself, especially when the studio knows that it has a bomb on their hands, and this makes it even more damaging when the marketing fails to bring the audience to the movie theater.  With a different pricing structure in place, like what MoviePass brought, people’s decisions on what they want to see can in effect change the way these movies are marketed too; perhaps in a way that may help the studio save some money.  One thing that would help is to consider balancing out what ends up in the theater with more modestly budgeted movies.  The kind of movies that wouldn’t have been cost effective before could see new life with a subscription based planso that the viewer doesn’t feel bad about wasting money on catching a movie first in the theater, instead of waiting for it to show up on TV.  Instead of trying to convince people that every movie is a “must see,” it might work better in the long run to present a “check this out” method of selling their movies.

What works so well for services like Netflix is the fact that they’ve made their service itself a must see destination.  Upon the viewing of every movie their audience wishes to see, they also offer up a dozen suggestions for something else, based on an algorithm designed into their database that analyzes our viewing patterns.  This kind of servicing could be valuable to a movie theater service like the one MoviePass runs, because it goes much further than what the regular trailer or teaser poster in the lobby can do to generate hype for each movie.  When a person uses a subscription service that takes the pain out of buying multiple tickets each week, they are more inclined to learn about what else is available to see.  That’s when suggestions similar to Netflix’s can be helpful in attracting people’s attentions to movies they otherwise would have skipped.  Movie theaters in general can target more directly to each viewer, and this isn’t just limited to other movies available.  Loyalty programs can allow them to save a little on concession snack that they otherwise would have skipped out on, which would greatly help the theaters make up the extra cost of running the subscription plan.  Netflix’s success comes out of the fact that they’ve figured out the best way to bring in new subscribers, and that has enabled them to spend so much on exclusive content, without spending too much extra on costly promotion.  In a market where theaters are competing with a service that is proving more cost effective in reaching an audience without the need of heavy marketing, this is absolutely the desired direction that they must go in order to remain relevant.  It may be too much of a bargain to make sense right away, but as membership increases and loyalty programs become more generous and effective, you’ll see a whole new life brought into this aging industry.

If anything, MoviePass could stand out through history as a trendsetter rather than an industry standard.  Most likely it will remain a cautionary tale of how not to grow a business, but even still, it’s legacy will be felt for years to come.  Already, it is beginning to create an effect on out-of-control ticket pricing and making Hollywood reevaluate how much they should spend on each film.  Is it something that is going to become an industry standard?  That we don’t know yet, but it will become an alternative that will in some way change how we go to the movies.  And in the end, this is something that reflects the long standing tradition of the movie theater industry working against the current with regards to appealing to audiences taste.  For a lot of people, it seems undesirable to leave their homes and fork over $15 to watch a mediocre movie in a room full of strangers; even worse if those strangers are also loud and obnoxious.  If a low monthly fee is all that it takes to get that same person to consider seeing one movie or more a month despite all that, then this is a service that will greatly help the movie theater survive in the long run.  MoviePass tried their best to make it work independently, but this will ultimately be something that the theater chains themselves will carry through into the future.  Sure, a lot of MoviePass’ problems arose from a poorly planned out business structure, and also the way it alienated itself from movie theaters who did business with them and subscribers who were unhappy with the unannounced price hikes, but the concept behind their service is something that movies need right now.  We needed something to balance the out of control costs that were starting to damage both the movie studios and the film industry, and while MoviePass was not a fix all solution, it nevertheless made the industry as a whole take note and begin to reevaluate.  So, in a couple of weeks, we will know if MoviePass subscribers will still be able to enjoy the same benefits as before, or if they’ll have to sign up for something new, or go back to watching movies at home like they used to do more often.  In any respect, I would love to see MoviePass or something like it become more of a standard within the industry, because it’s bringing people back to cinemas as a whole, and as a fan of the movie-going experience, I see this as a great thing for the future of movies.

Ant-Man and the Wasp – Review

Expectations are running high for Marvel Studios right now.  Even after ten years in the game, they have remarkably hit a new level of success just this year, with Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War both breaking every conceivable record in the books at the box office.  And with that box office success comes the added pressure to follow up each film with something even bigger than the last.  This hasn’t always panned out completely, with many of the Phase 2 films in the MCU struggling to match expectations, but in Phase 3, it has certainly been the case.  And this has been partly due to a different strategy on Marvel’s part, which is to try out different flavors with each new film they make.  The result has been a wonderful mix of movies that take place within the same universe, but feel uniquely characterized by the stories they tell and the heroes they focus on.  They also have helped Marvel branch out into different genres that are perfectly matched for each character, and help to add to the different flavors that characterize the MCU.  Captain America’s movies have taken on the flavor of political conspiracy thrillers; Thor’s have fully embraced their campiness and are now fully in tune with 80’s era fantasy epics; Doctor Strange has brought in a Matrix –like cerebral flavor to the universe; and Spider-Man even managed to fit in a bright high school comedy in the style of John Hughes into the mix.  Overall, every character gets their own distinct style of movie to tell their story, and it helps their own separate franchises breathe on their own, un-tethered to each other.  Even the big crossovers like the Avengers movies feel like their own series apart from the rest, taking on a colossal epic feel on their own.  But in this particular year, after Black Panther delivered some sobering political messages to it’s audience and Infinity War left us with a bleak cliffhanger that shook our senses, the one thing Marvel needs to give us now is a light, silly comedy.  Enter Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Ant-Man as a movie perhaps has had the most interesting backstory of all the films Marvel has made.  It was in development for years under the direction of Edgar Wright, who was an avowed fan of the comic book character.  But, Wright’s distinctive style clashed too heavily with the very stringent standards that Marvel Studios was imposing on their filmmakers as they were building up their universe, and Marvel’s Creative Director Kevin Feige had to make the difficult choice to take Edgar off his dream project.  Ironically, Edgar Wright’s style might have gone through better in Phase 3, where Marvel has been more welcoming to unique voices.  So, after Wright’s departure, the remainder of the film had to be completed with Peyton Reed in the director’s chair, with Ant-Man himself, Paul Rudd, and his writing partner Adam McKay making further adjustments to Wright’s script.  With all this compromising and sudden shift in vision behind the movie, it was thought at the time that this was going to be Marvel’s first stumbling block as well as their first flop.  But surprisingly, that not what happened at all.  Though the movie did feel disjointed due to it’s troubled production, it nevertheless managed to stick the landing and work as a passable entry in the MCU.  It also found an audience and continued Marvel’s winning streak.  The main reason the film succeeded was largely due to the ideal casting of Paul Rudd as the titular character.  His charming performance captured the humor and charisma needed for the part, and it made him an instant favorite in the MCU, which was a blessing for Marvel since needed him to be a worthy addition to their world before he made another appearance in Captain America: Civil War (2016).  The other positive of the movie’s success was that it granted Ant-Man a sequel, one that this time could be unburdened by production woes.  The only question is, did fewer problems translate into a better movie overall?

Ant-Man and the Wasp takes place in the months after the events of Civil War, where Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is confined to house arrest due to his illegal partnership with Team Captain America in violation of the Sakovia Accords.  Because of their affiliation with Scott, both Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are on the lamb, conducting their experiments in secrecy.  But, during one of Scott’s uneventful days at home, he receives a strange vision, where he imagines himself in the body of Hope’s long lost mother, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was known herself as another size-changing superhero known as the Wasp.  Scott reaches out to his estranged colleagues, who manage to sneak him out of his house arrest in order to learn more about his vision.  They believe that Janet is sending a message to them through Scott because he managed to escape from the sub-atomic quantum realm, where Janet has been stuck for the last 30 years.  They have been attempting to build a bridge into the quantum realm within their secret lab, but still lack the necessary parts needed to complete the project, so they enlist Scott’s help to get what they need.  They encounter a local mob boss named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who has the equipment they need, and Hope manages to subdue his henchmen thanks to her new abilities as the new Wasp.  However, their success is short-lived as the equipment is stolen by a mysterious assailant with molecular-phasing powers known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen).  To get back what she stole from them, the team must seek help from another estranged former colleague of Hank’s, Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne).  But even with all the help they can get, including from Scott’s loyal friend and associate Luis (Michael Pena), Ghost proves to be a tougher adversary than they thought.  Is it possible for them to finish their bridge, or is the original Wasp forever left to be a prisoner within the Quantum Realm.

The one thing that will be apparent when watching this film is that it is far more tightly scripted this time around.  After the production woes of the original Ant-Man, Marvel this time had the benefit of being able to know where they are going with this franchise and commit to one style of story-telling.  You definitely don’t get the feeling that it’s two movies smashed together into one this time around.  But, the question remains is it a better movie than the original?  Sort of.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the original Ant-Man, but I didn’t hate it either.  It was a perfectly competent film on it’s own.  But, because this is Marvel, the bar has been set pretty high and Ant-Man just clearing that bar sadly makes it one of the lesser movies in the MCU overall.  With the help of a better focused production, Ant-Man and the Wasp does work a bit better, but it’s not without it’s faults too.  The unfortunate thing is that it follows in the footsteps of Infinity War, which makes this lighter comedic film feel, for lack a better term, small by comparison.  It’s not a huge step backward, but I feel that Ant-Man just pales in comparison coming so soon after Infinity War has shaken the world.  Even when put up against Black Panther, it kind of lacks something, because it feels like a retreat back to the safe and predictable that characterized much of Marvel’s Phase 2, and not the game-changer that Panther proved to be.  That being said, I was not left unfulfilled watching this movie either.  Set apart from it’s place in the MCU, this would easily be one of the most entertaining super hero movies we’ve seen in recent years.  It’s consistently funny and never boring, and even has some genuine touching moments as well.  From a pure experience point, it’s a mixed bag, but one that doesn’t spoil the entire universe that it an essential part of.

The greatest asset that the movie has is the strength of it’s humor, which is carried a long way by it’s charming cast.  Paul Rudd especially continues to carry much of the weight of this franchise and remains the main reason to watch the film.  He once again proves why he was the perfect choice for the role, with enviable comedic timing and endless charm.  You get a sense that he has fun as this character while playing him on screen, and the movie uses this as a benefit.  His performance is also balanced well with a fine supporting cast.  Michael Douglas continues to be a lovable curmudgeon as Hank Pym, whose sternness is wonderfully balanced off of Rudd’s quirks.  Evangeline Lilly especially benefits from her expanded role in this movie, taking on the Wasp persona effectively and giving her a deserved place among the ever growing roster of Marvel’s big screen superheroes.  What I also enjoy is the wonderful chemistry that each of them have together, helping us to believe that they really are a family unit in addition to being a crime fighting team.  Also, despite a very minor role in the movie as a whole, Michelle Pfeiffer makes the most of her time, imbuing Janet Van Dyne with a fine sense of grace that makes her a welcome addition to this series.  I also love the fact that a year after Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) managed to bring a former Batman into the MCU, this time as the villainous Vulture, we now have a Catwoman crossing over as well.  The one weak point in the movie’s cast is the lack of a strong antagonist, which I fault more with the lack of a strong rogues gallery for the character of Ant-Man in general than the faults of the cast here.  Ghost, while still an interesting character overall, is not enough of a threat to drive the story into epic territory.  And though Walton Goggins’ performance as the mob boss fits within the silliness of the overall experience, his character is also sadly one-dimensional.  Even still, the cast helps to make the movie an overall enjoyable experience.

One thing that I will say is definitely improved upon from the first film is the staging of the action sequences.  The first movie, while still innovative in it’s execution of the size changing gimmick as a part of the action set-pieces, still had an unfortunate lack of overall effectiveness as they usually all felt the same.  Here, much more creativity was put into the uses of the size-changing gimmick, as a whole variety of options are put to use this time.  We have the neat idea of small everyday objects like a salt shaker and Pez dispensers being turned into weapons once grown to immense size utilized throughout the movie, as well as a fun little wild card of Scott having to deal with a malfunctioning suit, which either makes him grow to the size of a room or shrink to the size of a toddler at random moments.  All this helps to make the action sequences feel fresh and unpredictable.  The movie especially hits a high point once it introduces the concept of a size-changing car chase to the mix.  Thanks to the ability to shrink their vehicle and all the passengers within, Team Ant-Man has an incredible mode of transportation that makes this a car chase like nothing you’ve seen before.  I especially love the new spin it puts on flipping a car on it’s side.  Also, thanks to the movie’s San Francisco setting, it draws comparisons to other chase sequences from movies like Bullit (1968) and What’s Up Doc? (1972), honoring the legacy of those scenes.  Hot Wheels fans will also appreciate how well that brand is incorporated into the movie.  This is where the movie really finds it’s character over the first movie and helps to turn it’s unique gimmick into something that can continually surprise and entertain it’s audience.  And in addition, it shows more clearly that this franchise has found an angle that makes it feel unlike anything else in the MCU.

One of the things that was a sticking point for Edgar Wright when he was in the middle of producing his version of the original movie was the way that Marvel was trying to force world-building elements into every one of their films.  The biggest problem with that was how it would sometimes add unnecessary padding into otherwise tightly scripted stories.  This became clear when Wright was forced to add a scene where Ant-Man breaks into the Avengers compound halfway through the movie, leading to an encounter with Anthony Mackie’s Falcon.  This is where the friction started that ultimately led to Wright’s departure, and it’s clear in the original movie that Marvel was perhaps trying too hard to connect the universe together in each film, something that was improved upon in latter movies. The sequel, apart from a brief reference to the events of Civil War, doesn’t attempt to force any other connection to the rest of the MCU in this movie, which in turn helps it to breathe a little easier and carve out it’s own identity.  At the same time, it does work in concepts from the comics that will play a larger role in the MCU later, but does so in a way where you’re not being made aware that it’s setting future events up and in turn feels solely like a it’s a part of this one story.  This is particularly the case with the Quantum Realm which the characters are trying to reach.  In the comics, the subatomic Quantum Realm is a source for many powers in the MCU, and is visited by the likes of Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel, who we have yet to meet but is coming soon.  The movie could have gone into length detailing the true meaning of this realm for the audience, but it wisely instead focuses on it as a destination where they must go, find the original Wasp, and return home safely from; and that’s it.  It’s nice to see that Marvel has learned it’s lesson and focused on what is more essential for the stories rather than what’s essential for their universe.  In time, we will learn the finer details, but in the meantime, we can enjoy the journeys that each character takes, which in the end is far more fun.  Marvel has a rich universe to draw from, but it’s good to see now that they realize we don’t have to be spoiled all at once by seeing every part of it piled up on top of one another.  We have the Avengers movies to do that, and Ant-Man is the fulfilling snack between meals.

Ant-Man and the Wasp, as a sequel to it’s own predecessor, is definitely an improvement, but at the same time, it still falls into the category of the lesser Marvel films.  That’s a downside of Marvel’s unparalleled success, that even charming little diversions won’t come anywhere close to the top of what they’ve accomplished up to now.  Even still, I am happy that the movie still exists within this universe.  This time around, the filmmakers have really figured out what an Ant-Man movie should look and feel like.  I’ve heard this movie be described as a much needed palette cleanser after the shocking cliffhanger ending of Infinity War, and that’s a fair take to have.  These movies are definitely Marvel at it’s silliest, not afraid to wear the dumb aspects of the genre as a whole with a sense of pride and find clever ways to poke fun at it all.  I especially appreciate the fact that we are no longer at a point where Marvel has to keep reminding us that this is a shared universe that these characters exist within.  Ant-Man gets his own story to tell, without having to ride the coattails of Captain America, Iron Man, or the other Avengers.  It’s also creatively more freeing to filmmakers who want to give their own spin on these different story-lines without having to shoehorn in references to other films.  That’s why Marvel’s Phase 3 has been a huge success thanks to unique voices like Taika Watiti and Ryan Coogler being brought into the mix.  Sadly, the timing was just not ideal for Edgar Wright, and my hope is that someday he might find a return to the MCU and be able to bring his voice to the mix.  Even still, despite not feeling like Marvel firing on all cylinders, Ant-Man and the Wasp is still a fine sequel that improves upon a lot of it’s predecessor’s problems.  It still features a charming and funny hero at it’s center and gives a new budding hero her long overdue debut.  Despite feeling small in Marvel’s universe, this is still big entertainment in an already stacked summer of blockbuster movies.

Rating: 7.5/10