“There was a time, not so long ago, when you could see basically any movie in basically any theater for a flat rate of $10 a month” sounds like a tall tale a grizzled old timer would tell children around a campfire after civilization collapses. But it was real, it was called MoviePass, and it was a system in which venture capitalists subsidized 3 million users’ moviegoing at a loss of hundreds of millions of their own dollars. It was an affordable public good but an extremely stupid business, so the app shuttered in September 2019. But just like an inflatable clown-shaped punching bag, you can’t keep a ridiculous Silicon Valley idea down.
At a press conference at Lincoln Center on Thursday, MoviePass co-founder and CEO Stacy Spikes announced that the app is coming back in beta with some significant changes. It looks like MoviePass will operate more like ClassPass with tiered plans that give you a certain amount of credits and with different movies at different times, dates, and locations costing varying numbers of credits. Spikes said credits will roll over, and users will be permitted to use them on buying a second ticket for a filmgoing companion. He didn’t say what the pricing will be, but this all sounds fairly reasonable.
The scary part comes in with the introduction of a new feature called PreShow, which plays ads in the app. “What’s cool about this,” Spikes said, wearing a Steve Jobs black turtleneck, “is that your phone, your device, uses your own facial detection.” He demonstrates this by starting up an ad on his phone. “If I’m looking at it, it’s playing back, but if I stopped, and I’m not paying attention to it, it actually pauses the content,” he explained. In return for watching an ad without looking away, a user gets credits to put toward a movie. Spikes frames this as empowering. Instead of MoviePass selling your data to advertisers, the advertisers buy ad-space on the app. He said it’s basically Web3 because the “transaction between you and the brand” is localized on your phone and, in return, you get “virtual currency” (movie credits) for your “digital wallet” (your plan to watch Marry Me on Valentine’s Day).
Except this is literally the same tech as the dystopian screen-based sleeping pods in the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits,” in which the surveillance-enabled screens blasting sleep-disrupting ads can tell when an employee covers their eyes and force them to watch. PreShow is an opt-in service within MoviePass; you don’t have to use it (yet), but it’s a way of voluntarily selling your attention as labor in exchange for credits. The implications of this are bleak; imagine a YouTube video not playing until you watch a Noom spot, pausing and restarting if you glance away. The invasion of privacy doesn’t seem worth it … Maybe for free tickets to Marry Me.