Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt, the original developers of MoviePass,  in the...

Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt, the original developers of MoviePass,  in the HBO documentary "MoviePass, MovieCrash." Credit: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/HBO

DOCUMENTARY “MoviePass, MovieCrash” 

WHEN|WHERE Wednesday at 9 p.m. on HBO; Streaming on Max

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Remember MoviePass? Launched in 2011, it seemed like a gift from cinema heaven: A subscription service to movie theaters. Not one theater, not a particular chain of theaters, but virtually all theaters. For $39.95 a month, you could see a movie a day — essentially an all-you-can-eat buffet. Even as prices and “tiers” fluctuated, the math remained a puzzle: How on Earth could this ever be profitable? For millions of subscribers, though, the product was irresistible.

By 2019, after burning through millions of dollars, MoviePass was over. Among the factors that led to its demise: the usual startup growing pains, a resistant exhibition industry, high-spirited overspending and some behind-the-app maneuvering that caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. “MoviePass, MovieCrash,” a new HBO documentary directed by Muta’Ali, recaps the rise and fall of a product that always seemed too good to be true.

MY SAY During the mid-2010s, when MoviePass was a highflying stock making constant headlines in the Hollywood trades and on cable-news business programs, the faces of the company were Mitch Lowe, a former Netflix executive, and Ted Farnsworth, a lesser-known but voluble figure from the analytics firm Helios and Matheson. “Any movie, any theater, any day,” Farnsworth boasted to a television interviewer. “That was me. That’s what I created.”

Except that he didn’t. MoviePass was created by two Black men, the entertainment-biz veteran Stacy Spikes (a former marketing VP at Miramax) and investor Hamet Watt. Spikes initially envisioned MoviePass as a subscriber service for Urbanworld, the Black film festival he launched in 1997, but eventually he began thinking bigger. With funds raised by Watt, MoviePass set out to become a new disruptive force — the Uber of the theatrical exhibition industry.

That underreported part of this story is what makes “MoviePass, MovieCrash” worth watching. After Lowe and Farnsworth came in, the two founders were edged out. Watt acknowledges that MoviePass needed “white men with gray hair” to gain traction and credibility, but Spikes — a soft-spoken and sincere presence — takes his ouster personally. “It broke my heart to see two Black founders create a company the way we did,” he says, “and then all of a sudden there was an all-white board.” (Lowe, for his part, is unapologetic: “This is a company, not a family.”)

As a portrait of a highflying venture built on thin air, “MoviePass, MovieCrash” lacks the outrageous details that have made other docs on, say, Theranos or the Fyre Festival such schadenfreude-ian delights. We see the bosses partying at Coachella while a skeleton crew of staffers stay behind to run an overtaxed app, and we learn about the company’s half-baked plans to launch its own airline. The smoking gun, though, is the Federal Trade Commission's accusation that as MoviePass began hemorrhaging cash, it prevented subscribers from seeing the very movies they paid for. (In 2018, consumers howled over inaccessible screenings of “Mission: Impossible — Fallout.”) Lowe and Farnsworth were indicted on securities fraud in 2022; that case has yet to go to trail, according to the website of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Spoiler alert: Amazingly, Spikes has relaunched MoviePass, a bid that makes him seem like a modern-day Don Quixote or perhaps another Preston Tucker. Can he overcome the basic math that always seemed to work against his utopian ideal? I think I speak for all movie-lovers when I say: Good luck.

BOTTOM LINE An illuminating look at a dream product that ran afoul of reality.

Top Stories


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months