As movie theaters struggle with tepid sales, Mitch Lowe has an extreme proposal for how to get more people into seats: Let them come to all the showings they want for about the price of a single ticket each month.
Lowe, an early Netflix Inc. executive who now runs a startup called MoviePass, plans to drop the price of the company’s movie ticket subscriptions on Tuesday to $9.95. The fee will let customers get in to one showing every day at any theater in the U.S. that accepts debit cards. MoviePass will pay theaters the full price of each ticket used by subscribers, excluding 3D or Imax screens.
MoviePass could lose a lot of money subsidizing people’s movie habits. So the company also raised cash on Tuesday by selling a majority stake to Helios and Matheson Analytics Inc., a small, publicly traded data firm in New York. The companies declined to comment on terms of the financing but said MoviePass intends to hold an initial public offering by March. Helios and Metheson shares rose 5.7 percent to $2.95 at the close Tuesday in New York.
Ted Farnsworth, chief executive officer at Helios and Matheson, said the goal is to amass a large base of customers and collect data on viewing behaviors. That information could then be used to eventually target advertisements or other marketing materials to subscribers. “It’s no different than Facebook or Google,” Farnsworth said. “The more we understand our fans, the more we can target them.”
Theater operators should certainly welcome any effort to increase sales. The top four cinema operators, led by AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., lost $1.3 billion in market value early this month after a disappointing summer. The number of tickets sold in the U.S. and Canada last year declined slightly, while box office revenue rose just 2 percent thanks to pricier tickets, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, a trade group. The cost of a ticket has almost doubled in the last two decades, according to the website Box Office Mojo. The average price is about $8.89 this year, though it can be much higher in some cities.
Shares of theater companies fell Tuesday on concerns that MoviePass’s pricing would hurt studios or exhibitors. AMC’s stock declined 2.6 percent to $13.25 at the close.
Investors may be misinterpreting the MoviePass business model, Eric Wold, an analyst at B Riley & Co. wrote in a note to clients. If MoviePass can drive more people to theaters that would benefit the exhibitors, although the overall impact is “more negligible than anything,” Wold wrote.
MoviePass was founded in 2011, originally with a business model similar to a gym membership. The company hoped to turn profit from subscribers who paid $30 or more per month but didn’t use the service often enough to justify the cost. Lowe, a fixture of the home video business who helped get Netflix off the ground and served as president of rental-kiosk operator Redbox, was named CEO last year. The privately held company declined to disclose subscriber numbers or financial information. Lowe said the data-based business model is still “years in the future.”
With the new strategy, MoviePass hopes to resolve what Lowe sees as the biggest factor to blame for the theater industry’s decline. He said the high price of tickets, not competition from Netflix or Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Video service, is a big part of what’s keeping people away. “People really do want to go more often,” Lowe said. “They just don’t like the transaction.”