By slashing prices, Mitch Lowe transformed MoviePass into a supernova.
The ticketing service, which had ambitions to become the Netflix of moviegoing, had languished for years until Lowe took the reins in 2017 as Helios and Matheson, an analytics firm, purchased a controlling stake. At the same time, Lowe announced that for a monthly fee of $9.95, users could now watch a movie-a-day in cinemas — less than the cost of a single ticket in major cities like New York and Los Angeles. It was an offer that was too good to refuse, pushing MoviePass to 2 million customers in roughly six months. But it was also a risky proposition, one that caused the company to burn through tens of millions of dollars and collapse in spectacular fashion just two years later.
“It truly was embarrassing and hurtful,” says Lowe. “I tried as hard as I could, but I should have tried harder. I should have been more thoughtful, and I should have been more strategic. But I’ve got to live with that.”
Now, Lowe is making sense of that wild ride and his stints as a top executive at MoviePass and Redbox in a new memoir, “Watch and Learn: How I Turned Hollywood Upside Down with Netflix, Redbox, and Moviepass,” which went on sale on Sept. 6. In it, Lowe cops to making mistakes. MoviePass should have had a waiting list, he admits, which could have enabled it to ramp up more slowly and better service its customers. And it erred in being owned by a publicly traded company in Helios and Matheson, because that meant that all the money it hemorrhaged could be tracked in real time. But he still thinks that MoviePass’s model could have worked.
“Given enough time and given enough money and some good luck here and there, we could have been a success,” says Lowe. “But in any plan, you need to be flexible. In hindsight, I didn’t change things fast enough. I was just heads-down trying to solve that day’s issues.”
In his book, Lowe reveals that MoviePass came close to signing deals with the likes of Imax and negotiated with Ari Emanuel about selling the service to WME. But neither pact was finalized — Helios chief Ted Farnsworth thought Emanuel was low-balling MoviePass with his offer and wanted more cash up front.
As its popularity initially soared, Lowe says the company acted profligately. In 2018, it rented a twenty-three-thousand-square-foot mansion right at the Sundance Film Festival and tapped a high-end caterer for the parties it held at the house. At Coachella, the company spent $1 million on an event.
“It was definitely the wrong thing to do,” says Lowe. “The idea behind it was to raise our awareness within the entertainment community. We were desperately trying to build allies. But everything was happening too fast to be able to make well-thought out decisions on where to spend money and what the ultimate benefit would be.”
MoviePass has been resurrected by its initial founder Stacy Spikes, who bought it out of bankruptcy in 2022, but Lowe says he’s not sure how the company will be restructured.
In terms of his own failed vision, Lowe maintains that MoviePass could have been profitable by attracting more casual moviegoers, who would off-set the frequent guests who were making the ticketing service drown in red ink. And he also thinks the company could have augmented its subscription revenue by selling data to studios on its customers and by hammering out deals with theater chains for cheaper tickets. Instead, major chains, such as AMC, cried foul, threatening legal action.
“[AMC CEO] Adam Aron definitely won the battle between us,” says Lowe. “I wish he had seen what great partners we could have been.”
Of course, even Lowe admits that had MoviePass managed to recapitalize and find additional sources of income, the looming global pandemic that brought the movie business to its knees would have been impossible to overcome.
“COVID would have killed us,” he says.
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