$50-per-month service suspends beta test after exhibs squawk

By the time the dust settled on the planned weekend launch of Movie-Pass — a $50-per-month service that would have allowed subscribers unlimited access to theaters using their smartphones as tickets — the AOL-backed venture had given up the fight … for now, at least.

Less than four months after the shock of premium VOD, exhibitors were blindsided this week by the beta rollout of MoviePass, which on Monday quietly announced its service at 21 theaters in the San Francisco Bay Area.

By Thursday morning, the theaters on that list — most of them Landmark and AMC chains — were apoplectic, insisting that they’d never been contacted by the New York-based venture and had neither the intention nor means to participate in it.

“Plans for this program were developed without AMC’s knowledge or input,” Stephen Colanero, chief marketing officer at AMC, said in a statement. “As MoviePass is currently designed, it does not integrate well into our programs and could create significant guest experience issues.”

And on Thursday night, after reps for all 21 theaters told Variety they’d had no prior communication with MoviePass and no plans to cooperate, MoviePass co-founder Stacy Spikes waved the white flag.

“I don’t think we’re going to get it solved with this long weekend coming up,” Spikes told Variety. “There are just a lot of important people on vacation right now and too much to be worked out.”

That came as good news to the exhibitors, all of whom had been hastily drawing up plans for dealing with subscribers who might have shown up expecting admission this weekend. Those plans varied from chain to chain:

Camera Cinemas and Big Cinemas, which represented five of the 21 locations, said they would most likely have politely turned people away. AMC instructed its six theaters on the list to deal with customers on a case-by-case basis, gauging their level of dissatisfaction and comping them accordingly.

But Landmark’s 10 locations would have honored already-purchased redemption codes, which offers a glimpse into some of the venture’s backstory: MoviePass had planned all along to pay theaters the full ticket price via movietickets.com, which, by no coincidence, is owned by AOL — a primary backer of the MoviePass venture. In fact, each of the 21 theaters listed as part of the MoviePass beta test is a subscriber to the movietickets.com service.

None of them sells tickets through NBCUniversal-owned Fandango, which previoulsly partnered with Groupon for a two-for-one promotion for the Lionsgate release of “The Lincoln Lawyer.”

Spikes had hoped that a quiet beta test of MoviePass in one market could give the venture’s execs the data they needed to present a stronger case to exhibs and distribs, with an eye toward taking the effort nationwide by fall. Spikes told Variety that he still hopes to bring the model to market once it is better explained to potential partners.

But even in the long run, that could be a hard sell.

“We’re not going to let anybody outside set prices for us,” Jack NyBlom, owner of Cameras Cinemas, told Variety. “Or this kind of program.”

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