Why MoviePass’ creator thinks he can bring it back from the dead

Stacy Spikes sees the same future he saw a decade ago — and a chance to get it right this time.

MoviePass logo on a black background.

It won't be $10 a month anymore, but MoviePass is coming back.

Photo: MoviePass

Stacy Spikes didn't think he'd get MoviePass back. "It's one of those things where it's not going to work," he said over the phone on Thursday, "but if you don't try, you'll never be able to live with yourself." But he did, in fact, get MoviePass back. After a whirlwind legal process to rescue the company's remaining assets from a court after its previous owner filed for bankruptcy, the movie theater subscription service that flew too close to the sun is now back in the hands of its original founder. And he has big plans.

Here's the massively abbreviated history of MoviePass. It was started by Spikes and co-founder Hamet Watt in 2011, though Spikes said he'd been thinking about the idea for several years. The idea was simple: For one monthly fee, users could see a bunch of in-theater movies a month. It was movies-as-a-service for the power theatergoer. In 2017, they sold the company to Helios and Matheson, an analytics company, which fired Spikes in 2018. The new owner decided a clever way to grow MoviePass' subscriber base would be to lower the price to $10 a month and allow subscribers to see as many movies as they wanted. It worked! Millions of people signed up for MoviePass, and started going to movies at a remarkable pace. Almost as remarkable as the speed with which MoviePass hemorrhaged money on that deal. After more bad decisions and bad customer service, MoviePass crashed so spectacularly, it drove Helios and Matheson all the way out of business in January 2020.

Since then, MoviePass and other Helios and Matheson assets have been the property of a bankruptcy court. Spikes knew that much, and had heard that the assets had been put up for auction and hadn't found a buyer. "So I started to inquire about, could MoviePass be bought separately? And if so, how much?" He was eventually told to put in a bid, which he did a few months ago — he wouldn't say how much, though Insider reported the figure was less than $250,000 — and then he just waited. He figured someone else must be willing to bid, whether it was another entrepreneur or a theater chain just looking to put the idea out of play for good.

On Nov. 5, the court got in touch with Spikes. The bidding period was over, and nobody had complained about his bid or registered one of their own. A few days later, he got another call saying a judge had signed off on the whole thing. Spikes immediately wired the money to the court. "I wired that money so fast," he said. He couldn't believe it had worked. But a few signatures and counter-signatures later, by Wednesday, MoviePass was his again. It's part of his company, PreShow, which builds interactive advertising tech. "I think I'm still a little in shock that it actually happened," he said.

A smiling portrait of Stacy Spikes. Stacy Spikes, the former and current founder of MoviePass. Photo: PreShow

Now Spikes has something founders rarely get: a do-over. A chance to take his idea — which he still thinks is right, and one that movie theaters have embraced in recent years as they've rolled out subscription services of their own — and do it right this time. "I really would like to get back in the fight to help drive traffic to theaters," Spikes said. MoviePass data showed that subscribers did go to more movies, and they did spend more money on concessions and the like when they were there. The whole thing could have worked, he thinks, just not at $10 a month.

In a way, his timing couldn't be better. After the pandemic decimated the theater business while simultaneously making streaming the default entertainment choice for millions of viewers, chains and small theaters alike are done holding onto the vestiges of the past and eagerly embracing anything that looks like the future. AMC embraced its status as a meme stock, went all-in on crypto, is planning to sell its popcorn in stores, and has invested in its own subscription service, AMC Stubs A-List. Other chains haven't embraced the 2021 zeitgeist quite so aggressively, but have spent the last few years upgrading theaters with nicer seats and better screens, and investing in subscription services of their own. "I think people are more open-minded," Spikes said. "And they're not out of the woods."

So what will the next MoviePass look like? Spikes isn't sure. He's planning to launch in 2022, and to spend the interim months talking to users, theater owners, movie makers, everyone involved in the industry, to get a sense of what they need and how MoviePass can help. MoviePass initially embraced its renegade status, helping people get around theater policies and systems, but Spikes wants to be a good partner this time.

He's particularly focused on smaller theater chains and even individual arthouse cinemas, which don't have the resources to do subscriptions of their own. "MoviePass is software, right?" he said. "We're not giving you a hard ticket, or popping popcorn for you." MoviePass' main appeal, he said, is that it gets people off their couches and into theaters. "What we found is that when people said, 'Hey, I already paid for it, I might as well go,' they automatically increased their attendance by 100%." He said his data showed that MoviePass provided more of a revenue lift to theaters than even IMAX or 3D. And in a time when the main competitor to theaters is streaming services and the 4K TV downstairs, anything that gets people out of the house might be a win.

What Spikes does know is that MoviePass should still be a consumer product, and that the price is everything. MoviePass didn't die because it was a bad idea; it died because "10 bucks a month for all the movies you can watch" is such a ludicrously good deal that some MoviePass users were buying movie tickets just to go to the bathroom in the theater. "There wasn't execution there," Spikes said, "and it wasn't at a price point that could win." He wants to build something sustainable now, both for MoviePass itself and for the rest of the entertainment industry.

I asked Spikes if he's prepared to embrace crypto and NFTs and go full AMC-style meme stock, and he demurred. "There's so many Wild West things going on," he said. "We're still in the business of, Friday night, how many bodies were in those seats?" MoviePass' job, he said, is "ultimately about smoothing out your decision to go to the movies." He's not planning a streaming service, he's not thinking about rentals, he's thinking about butts in seats in theaters. That was what he cared about more than a decade ago, and what he cares about now. "But we need to do it right, so it is sustainable, and everybody wins," he said.

The future of MoviePass, it appears, is substantially less wild than the past. And probably a little more expensive. But in this increasingly everything-as-a-service world, MoviePass might make more sense than ever. And its original creator has a chance to make it work.

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins