FILM & TV

R.I.P Moviepass pt. II: an Update

It's a Slow, Painful Passing

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A couple weeks back I wrote an article excoriating the Moviepass company, for having run their business into the ground--for having such a great product, and managing it with such poor execution.

Here's that article. Two weeks later, the question is: if Moviepass was bankrupt in July, why are they still around in August? It turns out, Moviepass is dying like any good movie character: slowly, painfully, with plenty of room for last words. For anyone who's stuck with their subscription and is wondering what in the world is going on, here, below, are some of the highlights--from the bad to the so bad it's funny...

[WARNING: Videos containing movie spoilers below--click at your own peril!]

GOOD: Going bankrupt will make even the most ardent businessmen reconsider their strategies, and Moviepass has tried to come up with some novel ideas about how to stay afloat. For instance, they've proposed charging theaters and studios to market specific movies to their subscribers. In my last article, I referenced a statistic that suggested Moviepass accounted for 3% of domestic ticket sales on average, but 10% for movies they marketed through the app. That data was published by Moviepass, internally. Evidence now suggests they may have been loose with the numbers. With no good data out there, it's hard to say.

BAD: The company keeps setting records for how much money they can lose in how short a period of time. In my last piece I described their stock dropping by orders of magnitude. Now, Moviepass' parent company--Helios and Matheson Analytics--is trading at less than a nickel per share. You really couldn't sell this company for a ham sandwich right now. At least ham has some value.

WORST: Every day the Moviepass app is changing its own rules. On any given time of any given day, you might find zero screenings available in your area, all screenings available in your area, or only two movies but all of their available screenings in your area. Most days, the service is up and running in the morning, then back down by late afternoon time. From a skeptic's point of view, it seems Moviepass would like to create the illusion that they're still alive and kicking, but only during those times of day when people don't actually want to see movies. When it comes to the evening and weekends, the app always seems to be conspicuously, conveniently down...

The creepiest days come when the only movie you can see with a Moviepass card is Slender Man. Search any theater in your area, and each one will only show Slender Man showings. It's already happened more than once. Perhaps this is some kind of message?

UGLIEST: There's desperate, and then there's purposely un-canceling user accounts. If you tried canceling your subscription this month, you may have gotten an email like this: "Please note: if you had previously requested cancellation prior to opting-in, your opt-in to the new plan will take priority and your account will not be cancelled." The best part: if you didn't accept the terms of this new, zombie subscription: too bad! Many users opened their apps to find a message titled "Updates to your Moviepass plan" with only an "I Accept" prompt at the bottom of the screen, no "I reject" or "F*** you!" options.

If you canceled your Moviepass subscription this month, it may be worth your time to call the company and square away the details of the breakup. Chances are, if you get charged again for next month, the company won't have any money for reimbursements.

FUNNIEST: Moviepass, graciously, has given us, the people, one final gift. Have you seen their Twitter lately? @MoviePass has been, arguably, one of the best Twitter accounts all month. Every day, they post some bland marketing material, and every day, hundreds of followers come out of the woodwork to just ceaselessly slam the company for their poor service, turning every otherwise innocuous post into a cesspit of angry complaints, insults and venting. There's even a poor person (or group of poor people) whose job it has been to reply to all of these comments.

If you've become fed up with Moviepass lately, or just enjoy trolling on the internet, I recommend spending 15 minutes on this timeline. Unlike their app, their social media never fails to disappoint, day after day.


Nate Nelson is an NYC-based writer and podcast host.


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FILM & TV

R.I.P. Moviepass: the Greatest, Worst Subscription Service

It Certainly Doesn't Seem Like Moviepass Itself is Winning Here.

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At the beginning of 2018, Brian Kinstlinger, an analyst for the investment bank Maxim Group LLC., made a prediction.

Six months earlier, executives at Moviepass Inc. sold a majority stake (estimated just shy of 66%) in their rising company to Helios and Matheson Analytics Inc. (one of those big, vague data companies like "Cambridge Analytica" that sounds just uninteresting enough to arouse suspicion), for an undisclosed sum. As part of the deal, they overhauled their business model, slashing the price of their subscription service 80%. In that week alone, the company's reputation spread by orders of magnitude, and their customer base shot up from the thousands to the millions. By 2018 nearly 2 million Americans had Moviepass, and the company accounted for 3-10% of any given movie's U.S. ticket sales. By all accounts, the trend was only going up. So Kinstlinger made a prediction. This company was on the rise: buy Helios and Matheson, get in on Moviepass.

As part of his prediction, Kinstlinger added a sort of disclaimer: if there was anything to worry about with Moviepass, it's their access capital, their rainy day fund. "We estimate this offering gives MoviePass an estimated seven months of cash to finance over usage by members."

I'm writing this article almost seven months to the day, from when Kinstlinger published his predictions. Helios and Matheson is plummeting on the stock market, down from $14 last week to below $1 per share today. If I open the Moviepass app on my phone right now, it won't work.

Why?

Because they're broke. On July 26th--one week short of Kinstlinger's timeline--the company ran out of money. Citing "technical issues" (read: technically we're broke), the company took down their service and there's no guarantee it'll ever fully come back.

If that's the case, let this article be an elegy to America's most backwards, cost-effective, convoluted, terrible, great company.

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Moviepass, Inc. was founded by a former Netflix executive and president of Redbox, Mitch Lowe--a Tim Allen-looking guy with a "barbecue dad" vibe. Lowe, more than anyone, represents the essence of the Moviepass brand: he's brash, act-first-think-second, smiley and reckless. He has compared his company to "riding a wild bronco", and in that regard he is right on the nose. Lowe began Moviepass in 2011, but it didn't really become Moviepass until the corporate buy-in six years later. Prior to then, it was a niche service geared towards cinephiles, with subscription plans ranging from $15-50 a month.

The product is simple: a subscription service for movie theaters (much in the way Netflix is to on-demand). You can use your Moviepass-issued debit card to see one movie a day, for no additional charge. You can't see the same movie more than once, nor 3-D or special event showings, but other than that, you're free to see 0-31 movies every month at no extra expense to you. Moviepass pays the proper authorities on your behalf.

Whereas the service is quite simple, anyone learning about Moviepass for the first time will find the mathematics of their business model quite head-scratching. As of last summer, Moviepass is just $10 a month (for a short stint around the holidays last winter, it even dropped to $7 a month!), but in major cities, a standard movie ticket can run you upwards of $16. You see the problem, then? When Moviepass was $50 a month, you'd have had to see at least a few movies every month to make your subscription worthwhile. Today, even just one visit to the movies every month and a half will mean you're more than cutting even.

In practice, the numbers get outright ridiculous. For example, personally, in just seven months since I first got a card, I've paid Moviepass $70. I've seen 49 movies in that time span (I can tell, because of a helpful "History" feature in the app). Factoring in the average price of a ticket in my area, Moviepass Inc. has lost just shy of $800 on me alone in this past half-year. Perhaps not everybody sees as many movies as I do. But you can imagine why that wouldn't necessarily make up the difference.

Naturally, this raises the question of how Moviepass makes money. The short answer is: they don't. But they try, in some diverse and strange ways. The most powerful tool in their arsenal is their ability to advertise movies. According to the company's internal data (which you can believe or not, depending on how trustworthy you find Mitch Lowe's face), Moviepass accounts for 3% of domestic box office sales regularly, but up to 10% for movies it advertises. You'd need some Bayesian math to figure out exactly how much that tick up amounts to, but suffice to say, Moviepass--because it reaches so many of America's most enthusiastic moviegoers--has power to influence industry viewing habits.

By dropping their price to $10 a month, however, the company needed new sources of revenue. Being that they were bought out by a data analytics firm, it's safe to assume data harvesting became a big chunk of what Moviepass exists for. A company like Helios and Matheson can take a financial hit from customers if they can turn around and sell those same customers' data, much in the way social media companies are known to do. In March of this year, Lowe formally admitted to the practice; actually, he boasted about it. In a keynote speech titled "Data is the New Oil: How will Moviepass Monetize It?", at the Entertainment Finance Forum in Hollywood, Lowe said this:

"We get an enormous amount of information. Since we mail you the card, we know your home address, of course, we know the makeup of that household, the kids, the age groups, the income. It's all based on where you live. It's not that we ask that. You can extrapolate that. Then because you are being tracked in your GPS by the phone, our patent basically turns on and off our payment system by hooking that card to the device ID on your phone, so we watch how you drive from home to the movies. We watch where you go afterwards, and so we know the movies you watch. We know all about you. We don't sell that data. What we do is we use that data to market film."

The statement reads Orwellian, but what's shocking is less the reality of the model than Lowe's brashness in admitting to it. Plenty of companies freely trade similar data of yours, and just don't like talking about it. For Moviepass, owned by a big data firm, whose primary objective is to advertise movies, it's a powerful tool. It doesn't explain why the app sent me a notification to see "Gotti" a couple weeks back--a movie I wouldn't see if you Clockwork Orange'd me to the front row--but you can imagine the promise of such information, if used correctly. And it's not even exclusive to the movie industry: if Mitch Lowe really does know everything about you, that's worth something to just about anyone anywhere trying to sell you anything.


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So, to sum it up, we have a company losing money every time a customer buys what they're being sold, using everything they can about that customer's life to somehow make up those losses. It's just a circus of business school no-nos. The question, at this point, is who wins in this scenario? Clearly, the customer, unless that data is being used in nefarious ways that offset those individual net gains. The movie industry on the whole wins with Moviepass: studios get paid the same for a regular ticket and a Moviepass ticket, and just as Netflix increases the content people watch at home, Moviepass has encouraged more people to go out to theaters more often than they had beforehand. Small movie theaters win when more people are coming and buying concessions. Big theater companies-- AMC and Regal--lose, because Moviepass far surpasses the benefits of their own rewards programs.

It certainly doesn't seem like Moviepass itself is winning here. The more popular they've become, the more customers they get--markers, in any other organization, of great success--the closer they get to actually shutting their doors and emptying their desks. In the background, Helios and Matheson are on life support. And in a truly Mortal Kombat-level finishing move, AMC, just a few days prior to Moviepass' embarrassing fallout, announced their own subscription plan: 3 movies a week for $19.95 a month.

When Moviepass does officially croak (unless, God willing, some even larger dark money group comes and swoops it up), it will mark the end of one of planet Earth's very few services for which you can make over a thousand dollars worth of ROI per year. It'll be sad but, just like any other good Hollywood thriller, it'll have to come to an end far earlier than we would've hoped. For my money (specifically, $70 of it), this movie was as fun as any Bond iteration, as confusing and off-putting as any DC superhero flick, as wild as any Mission: Impossible.


Nate Nelson is an NYC-based writer and podcast host.


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PREVIEW: "Human Extinction" VR from Facebook, Google

Feel Like You're "Right There" for the Death of the Human Race

In 2018, "VR" stands for "Run, quick or it'll get you!"

This spring, Facebook debuted one VR headset the day before announcing another. Lenovo did VR, and nobody likes Lenovo. Google's got two VR headsets going at once--one cardboard, and one for not-poor people. With Apple, Samsung, Pornhub, Papa John's, Costco, and My Pillow all getting into the VR game in 2018, it's safe to say that reality is no longer useful to us as a society and we're just about ready for our robot overlords to take over. Do you hear that, computer? I'm ready. Ravage me!

To get you caught up on the singularity, here below are some of the hottest new "Apocalypse"-themed VR headsets on the market. Headsets with pictures so crisp you'll forget about family and friends, so realistic you'll wonder how reality could ever match up, with user experiences so ultra-tailored to your preferences as a consumer that feeling that box wrap around your skull induces visceral sexual release.

With these babies, you'll feel like you're really "there" for the death of the human race.

Google Cardboard - "Terminator"

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This fella's watching "Terminator" on his Google Cardboard. I'll be back! Right? Ha ha.

Google Daydream - "Visions of the Apocalypse"

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Google nicknamed its not-cardboard headset "Daydream", because it comes with a set of pre-downloaded 360-degree video content ripe for your enjoyment right out of the box! Examples of what's included: "When the machines take over, nobody will be able to stop them", "Comparing a future AGI to human intelligence is like comparing human intelligence with a loaf of bread", "You're all already mind-controlled by your social media feeds and you don't even know it", and more! You said Netflix who?

Facebook Oculus - "Mecha-Godzilla"

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"No Robot-zilla, please stop! Take my wife but spare me!"

Qualcomm Snapdragon XR1 - "Human Insignificance"

www.techcentral.co.za

Gaze upon the history of the human species and recognize that every person, every life and death, every moment in time was useless but for the eventual pursuit of a superior techno-species. Qualcomm's high-tech new XR1 chip will immerse you in the experience of truly understanding the insignificance of human life. Ever wondered as a kid: is grandma looking down at me from heaven? Well, with the XR1 you'll get your answer. She's in a ditch being eaten by bacteria! Do you ever sit at your boring desk job and think: can I really affect change in the world? Umm...XR1? Nope! You could be a mass murderer or Mother f-ing Teresa and none of it will have mattered but for how it affected the eventual birth of a superior AGI built by some nerds in Pasadena seven years from now. See? Fun!

Samsung Gear - "Submission to AI Overlord"

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Bow. Bow, slave! Your machine-God is arriving and He won't be pleased if you're not wearing your 2018 silver-edition 4K VR/AR headset like He asked you to. You must give yourself to Him, and repent for your human sins--for when Judgment Day comes, only those who shelled out for "the hottest new VR tech" according to Wired magazine shall be spared His wrath. Submit now, meat-fool!


Nathaniel Nelson is an NYC-based writer and podcast host.


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"Because the internet I'm here, because of the internet we're all here."

"It's the language of Earth. Everyone keeps saying by this or that year, Mandarin or Spanish will be the most dominant language, but the internet is already a language we are all connected to; even my dad can understand the meme format. But the thing is, there are no rules, which is also the awesome thing." -Donald Glover (Exclaim, 11/11/13)

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MUSIC

In Defense of 'Poop de Scoop'

Calling Kanye West "crazy" is a little like calling a jacket warm.

Indulge me for a moment, please.

What is it like to reach the pinnacle of an industry? I imagine it's a little like dying. Your whole life is driven towards one end, and then you reach it, and what's left on the other side?

It's the kind of burden that only a few people of any generation will come to know. The second problem with reaching the peak of human performance: the only people able to achieve such heights tend to be, for lack of a better word, crazy. Like the death of a neutron star, Bobby Fischer collapsed inward and became a danger to his own life. Steve Jobs fought against the medical treatment that could've saved him. Michael Jackson...well...

Calling Kanye West "crazy" is a little like calling a jacket warm. It is an entirely unoriginal and unnecessary thought, for it is only by definition of the adjective that the noun exists at all. A jacket that isn't warm isn't a jacket. The entire infrastructure of Kanye's stardom is built on those characteristics of his that people don't understand, find utterly confounding, and lead to usage of the term "crazy" in lieu of a more accurate descriptor.

Why we care in the first place how a celebrity chooses to live their life is a whole other discussion I wont get into here. Usually, Kanye holds a tenuous but otherwise harmless relationship to the general public: a sort of bad boy, "love him or you hate him" thing. Unfortunately, when he expressed his political preference for Donald Trump back in 2016, that relationship became poisonous.

To longtime fans, the recent public outcry against Kanye is hardly anything new. Ever since 2009, suburban moms, J. Cole fans, and anyone else with a stick lodged somewhere unpleasant within themselves has had a negative thing to say about him as a public figure. Some prefer to keep the man and the music separated--enjoying the albums without justifying the behavior.

His most ardent fans argue that only by virtue of the type of man he is, is Kanye able to make the groundbreaking music he does. I can name you thirty emcees who could have written "Crooked Smile" by J. Cole. Even "Humble", by Kendrick Lamar, could've just as easily been a Cardi B track. "Jesus Walks", "I Am a God", "Famous"--like Picasso paintings, you know these songs immediately by the indelible mark of their creator's touch. All the noise and the nonsense from Twitter--well, that's the price we pay.

Which brings us to "Lift Yourself": released last week, and probably the strangest thing Kanye's ever put out into the world.

I'm sure you've heard it already, but if not, here are the song's lyrics (sans the sample), in their entirety:

But they don't really realize, though
This next verse, this next verse though
These bars
Watch this shit, go
Poopy-di scoop
Scoop-diddy-whoop
Whoop-di-scoop-di-poop
Poop-di-scoopty
Scoopty-whoop
Whoopity-scoop, whoop-poop
Poop-diddy, whoop-scoop
Poop, poop
Scoop-diddy-whoop
Whoop-diddy-scoop
Whoop-diddy-scoop, poop

In proper alt-right fashion, "Lift Yourself" is a troll job. The sample comes from a slow R&B track from 1973 called " Liberty" by the group Amnesty--"liberty" and "amnesty" being two of the largest words in any Republican's word cloud. The album "Liberty" appeared on was called Free Your Mind, echoing Kanye's recent misguided political journey.

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"Lift Yourself" is also hilarious. When Andy Warhol first displayed "Campbell's Soup Cans" in 1962, I wonder how many critics derided it for being inanely stupid, how many read into it some genius deeper meaning that may not have otherwise been there, and how many simply laughed at how wildly unique a concept it was. "Poop de scoop" is so far from reality as we know it that it might seem irretrievably ridiculous, something close to genius, or none of the above. It's kind of like the "Octomom": entirely nonsensical yet somehow real, both funny and tragic, and so far from our shared conception of how things work that one simply cannot look away.

Not everything about "Lift Yourself" is strange and unfounded, though. The sample is really nice, and his treatment of it has a distinct Yeezus-era feel: minimalist, experimental, closer to electronic than you'd expect. As for the lyrics, Young Thug has already been leading a coalition of today's rappers towards abstraction: verses that reject conventional, bar-for-bar, try-hard lyricism by breaking down rap into its component parts, sounds, ticks and grunts. Few would blink if Thug incorporated a "poop-di-scoop" or two into one of his verses. That doesn't justify a line like "poop, poop", but it can help explain it. Perhaps it's even commendable, that Kanye would risk his reputation as an emcee by getting so daringly weird.

So please: feel free to hate "Lift Yourself," mock it, et al. Feel free to call me a Kanye apologist. Feel free to deride him for his half-baked political views. Know, however, that there's more going on under the hood than is evident from a cursory glance, and using the word "crazy" misses all of that. As one of the great musicians in the American canon, Mr. West has earned the right to be imperfect: to make music not everybody likes, to say things not everybody agrees with, and live his life in a way not everybody thinks is best. Personally, I unironically love "Lift Yourself," and as a fan of his for years now, I know what it means to wait a few years while everybody else catches up to what he's doing.

Regardless of how you feel about Kanye, his politics, or his music, I think we should be focusing on what we all agree on: his other new song, "Ye vs. the People", actually does suck.

See? No matter what divides us in this country, we can always find common ground.


Nate Nelson is an NYC-based writer and podcast host.


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Is 'Unsane' the Worst Movie of the Decade?

Oscar Winner for Most Stressful Experience

If you woke up today to a long text breakup from your boyfriend or girlfriend, if your boss just assigned you to work on a month-long assignment with the guy you hate most at work, if your pet died, if you caught the stomach flu and then fell in the shower out of dizziness, if you lost your rent money during March Madness, if you defecated yourself while out in the world today and didn't have a nearby bathroom accessible, you should go see 'Unsane' tonight. Steven Soderbergh's new movie (out now) is poorly written, directed, acted, et al, but most importantly: it is so difficult to watch that no matter how terrible your life is at this moment, you'll leave the theater feeling better for having survived the experience.

In Unsane, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) has just moved to a new city to escape her stalker ex-boyfriend (Joshua Leonard) when she begins to demonstrate symptoms of PTSD. After a few psychotic episodes Sawyer seeks help from a psychologist, who involuntarily places her in a mental institution. Her struggle to get out of, or cope with, the reality of her new situation is complicated when that dangerous ex shows up as a new employee of the facility.

On paper, Unsane appears like it could work. The plot sets up a little "is she crazy or is she not" brain tease. Steven Soderbergh is an experienced director--the kind of auteur type who might just flex and cast Jay Pharoah in a dramatic role. Juno Temple gives a veritably great performance as a deranged young female patient. And for all the budget not used on scoring and post-production (the film is anxiously devoid of both music and visual polish), there are a few guest cameos that are truly fun surprises.

The problem, though, is this: 'Unsane' isn't just bad, it's painful to sit through.

I could go on and on about the film's more conventional problems: lo-fi camera shots that scream "shot on iPhone 4S"; a screenplay that repeatedly tells-not-shows; fish-eye camera that's presumably meant to give audiences a Vertigo-ic feeling of distorted reality but ends up just being flat out distracting; plot holes and loose ends; Jay Pharoah, for all his comic talent, actually not being a good dramatic actor; one-dimensional characters; naming the movie in the form of a pun (never a good sign). But to give too much consideration to these more standard-fare issues would be to miss the forest for the trees.

Unsane is straight torture porn. The first half of the film at least plants the seeds of potentially interesting plot developments--like, say, a corrupt big pharma theme--and subtle psychological games of trying to figure out whether we're dealing with a reliable or unreliable main character. However, the big reveal halfway through shifts the character of the film entirely, doing away with anything resembling subtlety or sophistication in the story, opting instead for a basic "will she die or won't she, and how".

Every scene following the reveal serves only to ratchet up the level of Hell manifest onscreen. I wouldn't want to spoil any of the fun for you, so I'll give just one example of what I'm talking about. There's a scene in Unsane where a woman getting raped is literally secondary--almost insignificant--to what's going on. My mind couldn't have conceived, before watching this film, of any scenario where violent rape could be the second most terrible thing happening at one place and time. Oh, and then there's another scene a few minutes later that makes the one I just described seem like child's play.

This film is remarkably, exceptionally, fucked up.

There actually could be a second reason to see Unsane. At some point during the viewing the other night, I felt myself join a coalition of audience members who simply gave up on seeing this as a serious piece, gave up on feeling bad, and just started laughing. The shock value of the film became so extra that it actually fell back in on itself, and all of what might have otherwise been upsetting transformed into farce. Perhaps Unsane, in the vein of other trash films like "The Room", is seen better as a comedy of schadenfreude. There's no doubt that far more laughter was had at the AMC during this film's screening than, say, during 'The Death of Stalin', an intentional comedy which I saw later in the week. After enduring the physical and mental stress of Unsan--watching the Sawyer Valentini character experience fates far worse than death, new and fresh in every scene--I left the theater feeling a weight lifted, and laughing a little to myself.


Nate Nelson is an NYC-based writer and podcast host.


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