‘MoviePass, MovieCrash’ Review: When They Take Your Company Away

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MoviePass didn’t reach five million users, but for a while it seemed as though there would be no stopping it. Under the leadership of Lowe and Theodore Farnsworth, the chief executive of Helios and Matheson, the new subsidiary MoviePass Ventures produced the abysmal movie “Gotti” and threw a lot of very expensive parties in mid-2018. At the same time, if you were trying to actually use the service, it went from bad to worse to baffling: random blackout periods, strange requirements for purchasing tickets (like uploading photos of stubs) and near-constant changes to the terms and conditions. Eventually the Federal Trade Commission made accusations that MoviePass fraudulently deceived its customers to prevent power users from getting what they’d paid for. That era of MoviePass did not end well.

My friends and I still wistfully speak of those days, wondering what exactly happened there. Luckily, “MoviePass, MovieCrash” answers a lot of those questions, with the participation of the company’s put-upon customer service agents, engineers, employees, investors and Lowe himself. But surprisingly, the film goes much further than expected. Streaming services are loaded with documentaries about scammy internet-era companies, but “MoviePass, MovieCrash” finds the barely told story in all the juicy facts.

That story is, in a sense, a tale as old as time. MoviePass in fact existed all the way back in 2011, co-founded by Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt. The story they tell in the documentary is one of spotting a need in the market — a threat to theatrical exhibition of films posed, in part, by the slow growth of streaming services — and of figuring out a sustainable way to fill it. The answer was MoviePass, which cost more at the time (I believe I paid $49.99 per month in 2013, which was still a bargain) and seemed poised for success.

But as Spikes and Watt explain it, MoviePass is another story of Black entrepreneurs who, along with other underrepresented demographics, struggle to find investment capital and investor confidence in the market, creating something groundbreaking and then losing it to overconfident white men. There’s no doubt that, under Lowe and Farnsworth, a promising service was run directly into the ground. The frustration that Spikes and Watt felt as they were pushed out of the company is palpable. And when Lowe opines on camera that Spikes “wasn’t being a productive member of the team” when he voiced his concerns, you can feel that frustration, too.

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