Mike Fleming

UPDATE, 7:12 PM: Reps for MoviePass confirm they have thrown in the towel and canceled their test run in San Francisco this weekend. They say this is on a “temporary hiatus,” but I doubt we’ll see this service up and running again particularly since it’s clear two major theater chains don’t want it. That Moviepass counted six AMC theaters in its test run without actually getting clearance from that chain or from Landmark, probably qualifies this as one of the most boneheaded stillborn launches in recent entertainment history.

PREVIOUS: Hollywood doesn’t like to let newcomers into its exclusive club. When a couple of companies tried to sell sell futures based on box office movie grosses, the MPAA used its lobbying might to crush the ventures in DC. Netflix is one of the few interlopers that managed to create a niche for itself in the Hollywood infrastructure, helped by the indisputable fact it was providing a new revenue source at a time when DVD revenues went in the crapper. So it’s not surprising that an upstart service like MoviePass is having so many problems as it tries to test out a service that was to start this weekend in San Francisco. The plan was to charge $50 a month for passes that allowed buyers to see as many movies as they wanted in a calendar month. Stacy Spikes, one of the execs who formed the venture, seemed crestfallen this evening; on the eve of the test program, AMC and Landmark both said they hadn’t been informed about it, wanted no part of it and even seemed to scoff at it.

Spikes said he and his cohorts had approached several chains (“I won’t name names at this point, considering what has happened”). MoviePass got the brush off from most of the theater chains and the takeaway was that the service would have to prove itself worth the time of the exhibitors and that was the point of the pilot program, Spikes said. He had conversations with one of those two chains that have since shunned MoviePass, but wouldn’t say which one. Since AMC comprises six of the 21 theaters in the test-program list, I’d guess it was AMC. Spikes said they tried to inform a few movie bloggers who might help create a test audience of moviegoers in the San Francisco area that would allow them to create data from a real audience sample that would prove useful to studios and could show that such a program would lead to increased attendance, concessions sales, etc. The media ran with the news and it has blown up in the faces of the MoviePass backers that include AOL Ventures, True Ventures, Lambert Media, Moxie Pictures and other private investors.

Given the rejection by the two major chains, Spikes wasn’t sure the test would be worth the money this weekend that would have to be spent by his backers, who would pay 100 cents on the dollar for movie tickets requested by subscribers. MoviePass can’t work unless theater chains and studios get behind it and hatch some kind of discount-tickets system that would make $50 a month feasible, he said. “I am going to call these chains to see if we can do this and not injure this trial balloon,” Spikes told me. “I imagine a day where studio executives can see real-time decisions that subscribers are making from their phones and devices. If studios say they are not interested in being able to talk to their customers, knowing what they are thinking and being able to notify them of things like ancillary items, and that theater owners aren’t interested in having these people go to the movies more, and drive up concessions sales, and having us put all this in the palms of their hands, then I’m in the wrong business.”

He promised to call and say if he had enough theaters for the test program to elicit a worthwhile sample. It will be interesting to see if MoviePass doesn’t become a stillborn venture because it’s just so hard to crack that Hollywood club, even when the major players in that club is the exhibition crowd. As for me, I just took my son to see Green Lantern and spent $30 for the two of us to sit through subpar 3D. I might jump at the $50 plan and I could see it provoking me to see more movies. But while theater chains bristle at studios shortening their theatrical windows, it seems very difficult to crack the establishment unless you are flashing serious cash like Netflix did.

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