HBO’s MoviePass doc is a snapshot of how C-suites kill companies SuperNayr

To many, MoviePass was an overnight sensation whose too good to be true monthly cost was a sign of its potential to revolutionize the theater industry. The promise of being able to see as many newly released movies as you wanted for less than the price of a single normal ticket was intoxicating enough to convince much of the public that MoviePass had a game plan in place. 

But there were a handful of people within the company who had long been sounding alarms about its unsustainable growth. MoviePass, MovieCrash — director Muta’Ali’s new HBO documentary — is a damning account of how MoviePass’ C-suite executives were dead set on ignoring all the warning signs leading up to its filing for bankruptcy in 2020. And while the film plays into some of the same wide-eyed mythmaking that ultimately doomed its disruptive subject, it lays bare how the chase for exponential profits can doom companies that seem to have everything going for them.

MoviePass, MovieCrash features interviews with a wide range of former employees, investors, and analysts who all speak candidly about how the company burned through hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital while struggling to make its business model work. But the film opens with the origin story of Mitch Lowe, the founder of a regional video rental chain who hopscotched his way through the entertainment industry to Netflix in the late ’90s before becoming CEO of MoviePass in 2016. 

As Lowe describes how his passion for film was sparked by a childhood viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, you can hear traces of a practiced boardroom showmanship meant to convey earnestness. But MoviePass, MovieCrash uses clips from the 1960 horror classic to foreshadow how, somewhat similar to Norman Bates, Lowe would one day become infamous for running a business into the ground while drowning in a mess of his own delusional making.

Before the documentary digs into what went wrong, though, it shifts focus to MoviePass’ halcyon days, when the company was making headlines for being a hot new player poised to revolutionize the theater experience. In its first act, as staffers recount their quest to secure more venture capital by hitting 100,000 subscribers, MoviePass, MovieCrash presents 2016 as the most pivotal moment in MoviePass’ history — so much so that it almost makes it seem as if that’s when the business began. But it isn’t until the film starts unpacking how that quest put MoviePass on a downward spiral that MoviePass, MovieCrash begins telling the far more interesting story of how two Black men — entrepreneur Stacy Spikes and investor Hamet Watt — co-founded the company in 2011.

In the news coverage of MoviePass’ rise and fall, Spikes’ and Watt’s roles at the company were often downplayed, while Lowe was trotted out as the company’s face. Initially, MoviePass, MovieCrash feels a bit like it is playing into the self-aggrandizing narrative Lowe presented as he made TV appearances assuring the public of MoviePass’ durability. But by leading with Lowe, MoviePass, MovieCrash sets Spikes and Watts up to clear the record about why they were ousted and to explain how MoviePass’ origins were shaped by the widespread refusal of the entertainment and tech industries to invest in and trust Black founders.

While the time the documentary spends with Lowe illustrates the resources white, male executives are given to move fast and break things, it uses Spikes and Watt to hammer home how much thought and care went into creating MoviePass before it was snatched away from them. Even though they come a bit later than they probably should, Spikes and Watt help MoviePass, MovieCrash highlight how differently things might have played out if the company’s long-term existence had been prioritized over a desire for ever-increasing growth and profit.

If you followed the news in real time (which wasn’t all that long ago), most of MoviePass, MovieCrash will ring familiar and remind you how loud the hype machine roared when splashy “innovative” tech startups could still afford to subsidize their offerings. But we’re now much more attuned to the reality that C-suite execs will obsess over the idea of numbers going up while simultaneously lighting piles of cash on fire. With that in mind, the downfall of MoviePass is in no way surprising. But the doc is detailed enough to make even an all too common business story into something worth watching.

MoviePass, MovieCrash hits HBO on May 29th.

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