A Conversation about Moviepass

In Side By Side, we look at a movie from two competing perspectives. This month, Andrew and Reed ended up forgoing so they could discuss The 2017 Emmy Awards.

 

By Reed Brewer and Andrew LeMay

 

Andrew: I think it’s fairly safe, and probably not a little trite, to say the way we watch movies isn’t what it used to be. We can stream really whatever we might be craving for only a few dollars a month. Such services are absurdly convenient, but can often make our movie selections seem entirely disposable; I don’t know how many times I’ve stared at a wall of hundreds of titles on Netflix and felt absolute apathy towards all of them.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the movie theater. Clearly people still go to the movies, but more and more the act of sitting down to watch a blockbuster is becoming an expensive night out. Even in a cheaper town like Little Rock, you can’t make it out of a theater without dropping $30. And now we have a deal that seems too good to be true: Moviepass, the card that lets you see up to a movie-a-day for just $10 per month. Reed, you and I both have signed up for one of these cards, and so far the deal has paid off pretty well, financially at least. Has Moviepass had a more meaningful effect on your moviegoing experiences? Do you think it will shift your viewing more towards the theater or is streaming still big in your life?  

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Reed: Andrew, I think it is safe to say that neither of us hold a partial allegiance to any theatre. Even the relatively few independent cinemas hold little sway in where we choose to watch a movie. Nor would I say that we have any loyalty to a specific production studio.

Moreover, I found myself disgusted my commitment to cinephilia in general. Criterion Collection cases and books on film cover my desk, yet I rarely do anything other than look past them. I will talk myself out of watching Rebecca (which I just bought on Blu-ray) so that I can watch another episode of The Great British Baking Show (which is no different than the last episode).

I got Moviepass because I am cheap, yet I think I enjoy it most because I am forced to commit myself to the theatrical experience. Unlike at home with Netflix or another service, I have to go somewhere without the distractions I love to hate. Though, I still am not watching the movies I already own, I at least am not watching old seasons of Survivor.

Murder on the Orient Express seems better with the freedom to watch the film discounted. (20th Century Fox)

A: Right, the idea that I’ve got to make Moviepass worth my while is one of the biggest attractions of it to me as well. I too am far behind on making my way through the stack of Criterion films next to my TV (His Girl Friday would obviously be a joy to watch, but I’ll keep delaying), but there’s something about making myself sit in a dark theater where I can ignore

Twitter for two hours that I think let’s me tap back into the joy of seeing a movie communally.

It also lowers the stakes quite a bit when picking a film to see, and definitely relieves some of the frustrations of modern moviegoing. For instance, take a film we saw recently, Kenneth Brannagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. Certainly not a great piece of cinema. But since we didn’t go broke paying to see it, I felt more open in my assessment of it. I was able to pick out the intriguing bits while cutting the boring or just bad parts a little slack. I don’t mean to say paying less makes me less critical, but that it feels like less of an indulgence. I actually think by doing this I have more room to be critical by broadening the range of films I actually see in theaters. Did you notice any of that, or has it been different for you?

 

R: Today, I even attempted to watch Insomnia, not the Christopher Nolan remake but Erik Skjoldbjærg’s original. However, I sadly found myself on my phone, which considering the entire of the film requires subtitles, just shows how distracted I allow myself to be at home.

I hadn’t thought about how the money saved by Moviepass actually allows you to think more critically of the film you see. Though, I think there is quite a bit of truth to it. The sense (albeit false sense) of having seen the movie for “free” does predispose you to like it more, or at least to not hate it as much.  With Murder on the Orient Express, I did find myself often remarking to you just have beautiful some of the shot composition was, something that while I might have noticed without Moviepass, I must admit I was certainly willing to engage with it more.  

Though, I wonder if that will lead us to be less critical of a film than we should be? Or does that mean we were just too critical beforehand? Wait, are we just snobs?

On the other hand, objectively great films like Thor: Ragnarok also are more enjoyable with Moviepass. (Disney Films)

A: Yes we are snobs, but clearly not overwhelmingly so, or we’d only watch our Criterion films. And I don’t think we’ve ever necessarily gone into watching a movie being too critical or not critical enough. I do think there’s a certain mindset you get into when you have the ability to see movies more regularly, one that let’s you remain slightly more passive as a viewer while appreciating aspects that you might otherwise have looked over (like the composition you noticed in Murder).

I feel like this mode of watching is actually a good blend of the theater experience with how we engage with movies through streaming. The stakes remain low, but our choices are narrowed down and our minds are more focused by the environment of the theater. So while it’s not like we’re suddenly going to start seeing garbage and thinking “Hmm, not too bad,” using Moviepass does broaden our critical horizons by allowing us to take chances on films we might otherwise forego.

 

R: I tend to agree with that reading of how Moviepass allows us to engage with the theatrical experience. For example, I recently used it to purchase a ticket to the Jackie Chan-led film The Foreigner. Though it was relatively well-received, I seriously doubt I would have ever watched it without the new service. And I honestly enjoyed the experience, and not just because it was “free.”

I think we should clarify something though. Moviepass certainly affords us a new way to engage with cinema, but I think it fails drastically short of saving the theatrical experience. that ability still relies on the studios and their final product.

 

A: Right, exactly. Basically I see it as letting us navigate the current state of film, but that state is still is pretty bad, or at least unoriginal. For instance (and this is certainly not an original observation), take the last movies I saw, Murder on the Orient Express and Thor: Ragnarok. Films like these, remakes and sequels to superhero franchises, are pretty much what to expect at any given theater on any given weekend. Yes, I enjoyed both, and Thor not only very good but injected some new flavor into the Marvel Universe through Taikki Waititi’s vision; but both are still safe choices for studios. In fact, it’s almost as if there’s an inverse relationship between the choices of a studio and those of the moviegoers nowadays: the fewer risks the studios take, the cheaper it becomes for us to choose from what those studios produce.

I can’t imagine, for example, a studio spending a dime on an original idea like Suspiria, which we recently went to a screening of. (Although, of course, there is a remake in production).

The service is not a solution to the current state of cinema, but it is certainly a decent stop-gap.

R: You are perfectly right to think about Suspiria in this context. Not only did we see this film at our local library’s rather nice theatre, we did so without Moviepass. So still yet with this new service, we are still resigned to just watching the big studio release.

Suspiria is simply better in a theatrical environment, as are most horror films. Because the screen is so large and the sound so loud, the panic envelops you. You are not only in the film’s atmosphere, but you are also subject to it. At home on Netflix, I would still be frightened by the film, but to a lesser extent—even if I had the beautiful 4K restoration and a big-screen television.

While we would all agree that studios should take more risks (and I hate to even use that term), but I am curious to see if you think a service like Moviepass will allow them to do so?

 

A: Honestly, I doubt it, for now at least. I certainly think it could have a positive effect in terms of filling the seats at movie theaters, which could lead to sum of the profits piping away from the four or five huge hits to some second-tier films. That might at least cause a few studios to commit to some more original titles, at least on the same tier as The Foreigner, for example.

But the future is still going to be Marvel and Star Wars and CGI Disney reboots so long as those movies continue pulling in the money. As we’ve seen in the past, for a big shift to happen towards more original and creative ideas, a certain kind of anomaly has to occur. A movie has to strike the right balance: it has to cost very little, make huge profits, while also triggering critical discussion. You can look back on a film like Easy Rider and the effect it had on the New Hollywood period. While so much of the creative energy is on the television side at the moment, there are films that give me hope for another cinematic Renaissance. The main film that comes to mind is Jordan Peele’s Get Out. That film had an enormous cultural impact from such an unexpected source, and I hope it leads to some similar offshoots soon.

But overall, I’m not holding my breath for any paradigm shifts in the movie business. I can only hope that, if one does happen, I’ll still be able to take full advantage of my Moviepass.

 

Reed Brewer
Reed works for a local news station in Little Rock. He's currently working hard to finally watch all of the Criterion Collection films he's accumulated over the years.