For the past year, many of the conversations around movie theaters have been dominated by the topic of subscription services.

Last August, MoviePass announced a $9.95 plan that would allow subscribers to go to a theater and watch a movie every day for a month.

Subscribers were sent a Mastercard-branded credit card, which would be activated via a check-in on the MoviePass smartphone app when in range of a theater. The app would load enough money for the price of a ticket onto the card, and because the subscription is run through the card, it could be used at any theater with a credit-card reader.

Originally, users could see one movie per day at any time and at any theater. Over time, the plans and pricing offered by MoviePass have changed, with wrinkles like premium pricing and ticket verification added along the way.

Moreover, details on MoviePass' plan to make money have been vague. In a variety of interviews, CEO Mitch Lowe has mentioned a variety of ways he believes the company can become profitable, including the sale of activity-related data gathered from customers, advertising on the company's website and subscribers who see fewer than one movie per month.

At the end of July, MoviePass and its users experienced a variety of issues, and the company reportedly was forced to stop issuing tickets for a period of time because it ran out of funds. In a statement July 31, Lowe announced that some wide-release movies would be unavailable to MoviePass users, and reports suggested the company was planning to increase its monthly subscription price to $14.95.

Though its status is uncertain, MoviePass’ impact on the theater industry has been undeniable.

In June, company officials announced MoviePass, which was founded in 2011, had reached 3 million subscribers, which accounted for 5 percent of all box-office receipts.

The largest movie-theater chain in America, AMC Theatres, has been outspoken against MoviePass.

Hours after MoviePass' August 2017 announcement, AMC released a statement claiming the service "is not in the best interest of moviegoers, movie theatres and movie studios."

Since then, AMC, Cinemark, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and other large theater chains have implemented their own responses to the service, with membership programs that vary in cost, perks and movie selections.

But although much ado has been made about how MoviePass has affected large chains, the company's subscription service has served as less of a disruption to central Ohio's independent theaters, according to some of their managers and owners.

Local independents that are eligible for MoviePass subscribers include the Drexel Theatre (2254 E. Main St., Columbus, near Bexley), Gateway Film Center (1550 N. High St., Columbus), Grandview Theater & Drafthouse (1247 Grandview Ave., Grandview Heights), the South Drive-In Theatre (3050 S. High St., Columbus), the Strand Theatre (28 E. Winter St., Delaware) and Studio 35 Cinema (3055 Indianola Ave., Columbus, in the Clintonville neighborhood).

Bernadette McCabe, senior vice president of exhibitor relations for MoviePass, said the company is seeing users go to “all types of theaters,” not just chains.

She said customers “particularly like independent theaters and indie films” and are using MoviePass to go to theaters they usually wouldn’t.

“Not only are they exploring different types of content, but they’re also exploring different types of theaters,” she said.

Some of the local independent theaters’ managers and owners told ThisWeek they haven’t seen many effects, positive or negative.

"I don't think it's really impacting our business one way or the other," said Tracey Peyton, managing director of the Strand. "I would think that if (customers) want to get more bang for their buck, they wouldn't be coming to our theater, because our rates are so low, compared to others."

That difference in rates is a comparison that many of the theater operators agreed on.

Although a ticket to a film at a larger chain can reach well into double digits, sometimes beyond $15 for a 3D or IMAX movie, tickets at independent theaters hover around $8, or even less for a matinee.

Eric Brembeck, who co-owns Studio 35 and the Grandview Theater, said it's "hard to tell" how many people use MoviePass because his theaters don't track usage.

But like Peyton, he said, he doesn't think it's had much effect on his theaters' business. He said $8 tickets are "a pretty good deal anyway," and he sees MoviePass as a bigger issue for the large chain theaters than local ones.

"AMC is selling something different than what I'm selling," he said. "The way we view it is that we're competing with a Friday night, not an AMC."

Skip Yassenoff, owner of the South Drive-In, said he had been trying to get onto MoviePass' radar for almost a year before he finally broke through and was added to the list this spring.

Since then, he said, the theater has made some social-media posts about accepting the pass, but is "not getting a lot in."

Although customers can bring their own food and drinks and stay for two movies at the drive-in, Yassenoff said, he realizes that a MoviePass member has access to every theater in the city for the same price, so some might be less likely to choose the drive-in experience.

"I can understand that," he said. "If you've got the MoviePass, why deal with the drive-in that starts at 9:30?"

The Drexel, which is operated by the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, is between general managers.

CAPA spokeswoman Rolanda Copley said until a manager was in place, the organization would not have a comment on theater-related stories.

Gateway Film Center president Chris Hamel did not answer a call for a scheduled interview July 19 and did not respond to messages requesting comment.

Though the theater purveyors might not be seeing a change because of MoviePass, Columbus resident David Miller said his membership has changed his movie-going tendencies.

He said he and his wife, Ellie, used to see about one movie per month, usually at Easton's AMC, due to its proximity to their Berwick home.

Now, he said, they see at least two a month and are more likely to see an independent movie or go to an independent theater than they were before.

"I feel like I'm already paying for movies, so my decision to go to movies is easier, no matter the theater," he said. "I think it could only help in making the decision to check out a less mainstream movie at a theater like the Drexel or the Gateway because you're more willing to take risks."

Future outlook

The question for most of the theater operators interviewed has become how long MoviePass can stay in operation.

According to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings, the company lost $150 million in 2017 and had just $15.5 million remaining as of April 30.

Although none described themselves as "anti-MoviePass," Brembeck, Peyton and Yassenoff said they believe the company would be out of business sooner than later.

"I don't see MoviePass lasting a long time," Peyton said. "I see it kind of petering out."

For MoviePass, combining a growing user base with an increase in “partners” is key to the future of the company, McCabe said.

McCabe said the company has been working to partner with certain theaters, both independents and theaters that are part of a chain.

MoviePass can provide those partners with better placement in the app, include them in messaging to customers and feature them in other ways, she said.

“We’re looking for a partnership with those types of theaters,” she said. “We think we have a lot of value to bring.”

The operators said there's a belief – among large chains, as well as independents – that MoviePass eventually would need to try to take a cut of concessions earnings from theaters in order to stay in business.

For some, like Brembeck, that concept would be a nonstarter.

"It's funny; I think they're presumptuous," he said. "Their goal is to get a lot of subscribers and then they want to come back and say, 'We want a percentage of your concession sales.' That's their ultimate goal.

"For us, no way. We'll just stop taking it. Is that going to affect our business? Maybe in the margins. But people come to our theater for other reasons."

McCabe didn’t confirm or deny a plan to ask for a cut of concessions. She reiterated the “fair and equitable partnerships” that she said the company is trying to develop.

“There are a lot of things said about us publicly,” she said. “But for us to have exhibitors work directly with us, speak directly to us and share with us ... is good for both of us.”

Yassenoff said he would like to see MoviePass "stick around" as long as they can "make a profit ... without digging into us." But he also doesn't believe that theaters like his will matter.

"Drive-ins and independents are inconsequential," he said. "It's going to be up to Regal and AMC and Cinemark how they handle it. The rest of us are just fallout."

New ideas

One way the independent theaters can see a positive result from the MoviePass trend – however long it lasts – is by adapting some of its principles, the managers and owners said.

Some of the theaters already have membership programs.

The Strand offers a $100 per-year family membership that gives families matinee prices for a full year, along with free popcorn. According to Peyton, about 40 people are members.

Peyton said the theater likely would make some tweaks to its program to cater to those interested in MoviePass, and she believes it's an even better deal.

"If you put our membership up against MoviePass, ours is a better deal because it includes free concessions and the price of the ticket is the same," she said.

The Drexel offers memberships at a variety of levels and pricing, from $40 to $150 per year. Copley said numbers about the membership were not available.

At the Gateway, customers can get unlimited movies for $30 monthly for an individual or $45 monthly for a pair.

Both the programs at the Drexel and Gateway existed before MoviePass.

Studio 35 and the Grandview Theater don't have membership programs. Brembeck said he is not sure what that would look like for theaters with just one screen, and he is approaching the concept with a "wait-and-see attitude."

At those theaters, he said, he thinks people are aiming for a different experience than seeing a high volume of movies.

"People come and seek us out and wait to see a movie at our place," he said.

Yassenoff said he thinks establishing such a membership program would be even more difficult at a drive-in.

He said film distribution companies' requirements likely would limit what he could do but he is investigating it due to the popularity of MoviePass.

"I'll definitely give it more thought and try to find a way to make it work," he said. "But the movie companies are extremely difficult. ... They do not need me. They do not need Studio 35. So they're very harsh on us on per capita and number of passes and all that. So it would be a huge guessing game."

Before, after and during the era of MoviePass, the challenge for independent operators remains the same. They have to battle the perception that movies are expensive and less entertaining than any other option on a given night.

And for Brembeck, MoviePass and the membership trend just add ammunition to that argument.

"I've never been a fan of discounting," he said. "I think this whole model is too bad, because to spend $10 or $8 for two hours of entertainment is cheap. But for whatever reason, people say, 'Oh, it's so expensive,' when they'll spend $50 to go to a Blue Jackets game and that's no big deal."

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