Last week, former MoviePass subscribers packed into the Walter Reade Theater in NYC in response to a mysterious email. The subject line: MoviePass Relaunch. The contents: simply “2.0” and event details. MoviePass, the movie theater subscription service that had flamed out in a blaze of unsustainable glory, had been bought out of bankruptcy by founding CEO Stacy Spikes, and was plotting a comeback.
MoviePass, however, is being reborn into a much different environment than the one which fostered its initial popularity. AMC, Regal, and Cinemark, the three largest theater chains in the U.S., now each have their own subscription service inspired by MoviePass, making it more difficult for the original to recapture marketshare.
The big movie theater chains also have their own pressing struggles to worry about. The Covid pandemic was understandably catastrophic for the industry, with movie theaters forced to close cinemas and furlough employees nationwide. As Covid declined around 95% of theaters reopened thanks to government assistance. Interest in going to the movies has returned but, like MoviePass, the theaters are opening to a transformed market and an uncertain future.
Data from Thinknum does offer a glimpse of a rebound in excitement around movie theaters. For instance, Twitter followers for the largest U.S. theater chain, AMC, jumped 21% from 442,000 on Jan. 19, 2021 (in the depths of the pandemic) to 537,000 on Feb. 15, 2022.
However, streaming services continue to present steep competition. When theaters were closed in 2020, film distributors faced a choice between delaying their big-budget releases and releasing them directly to streaming services. While some movies, such as No Time To Die, were delayed throughout the pandemic, other distributors such as Warner Media debuted its big-budget 2020 and 2021 flicks like Wonder Woman 1984, Space Jam: A New Legacy, and Dune on its streaming service, HBO Max, on the same day as their theater releases.
The spike in popularity of streaming services is reflected in the rise in Twitter followers for Disney+ and HBO Max, as collected by Thinknum.
Streaming hasn't come without business problems. Warner Media’s release of Matrix: Resurrections and Disney’s release of Black Widow both led to litigation; the plaintiffs allege that the companies sacrificed theater profits in order to grow their streaming services, HBO Max and Disney+, breaching contracts which rely on profit-sharing.
The streaming release model has been good for some film productions, however. While Encanto underperformed at the box office, its release on Disney+ led to a surge of interest, catapulting its soundtrack to the top of the charts for 5 weeks and counting. 2022 will see compromises between studios and distributors around the length of time a movie will be exclusive to cinemas before making a streaming release: 45 days in Warner Media’s case, but only 17 for Universal. Warner Media is also struggling with complaints about the functionality of the HBO Max app.
App Store ratings, collected by Thinknum, show that Disney+ earns consistently much higher ratings than HBO Max.
The changes around screening exclusivity, lingering concerns around Covid and masking requirements, and the improvement in quality in consumer technology from TVs and sound systems all remain major hurdles for the big cinema chains, Reddit investor hype notwithstanding.
Cinema chains are exploring increasing their offerings around alternative content such as private events and screenings, as distributors market some films as “only in theaters”. AMC may even let you buy popcorn delivered to your house, but employment at AMC and Cinemark has leveled off. Data collected by Thinknum from Linkedin show that headcount at AMC and No. 2 U.S. theater chain Cinemark has been about flat since the onset of the pandemic.
While theater attendence has improved — Disney’s latest release, Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Way Home is the third-highest grossing domestic release in history — the chains continue to face challenges courting patrons on a consistent basis. Even if the sequel of MoviePass creates just as much buzz as the first edition, it may not make enough of an impact.