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As MoviePass struggles, Sinemia intends to thrive

David Pogue
Tech Critic

In the beginning, there was MoviePass. It was a revolutionary service that let you go see as many movies as you liked, in theaters, for a flat $10 a month. (Here’s my interview with the CEO in happier times.)

Amazing! Irresistible! Boom: 3 million people signed up. They may have wondered how MoviePass was a sustainable business, but they signed up.

Turns out MoviePass was not a sustainable business. As its parent company’s stock crashed, the service kept going out, and its doom seemed imminent, the company began tweaking the terms of the deal.

They said you couldn’t see a movie more than once. They said it was no longer unlimited: now it was three movies a month, tops.

Nowadays, you don’t get to choose the movies! MoviePass offers you a choice of six movies each day—typically movies you’ve never heard of. (Today’s movies, for example, include such limited-release no-names as “On Her Shoulders,” “Indivisible,” and “Border.”)

You can practically hear the death rattle with every new desperate MoviePass email.

It’s a shame, because the concept has some real benefits. You win, because you save so much money. The theaters win, because they get paid full price for your ticket (and because they sell more snacks as more people go out). Movie studios win, because more people are going to see their movies—especially smaller and independent ones, which people often skip if they have a limited movie budget.

Too bad somebody couldn’t step in, fix what was unsustainable with the MoviePass concept, and try again.

Somebody has. It’s called Sinemia.

How it works

The big difference is that Sinemia’s plans are not unlimited. CEO Rifat Oguz insists that it’s impossible to offer an unlimited number of movies for $10 a month.

Instead, he limits the number of movies you can see. You can see one movie a month for $5, or three movies for $9. Any movie, almost any theater. That’s still a fairly massive discount if you see movies regularly.

There are also Elite plans, which cost more but include 3-D movies and one IMAX movie a month. Those plans are capped at two or three movies a month (for $13 and $18).

(You can pay month by month and quit any time, but only if you pay a $20 initiation fee. There’s no fee if you agree to an annual contract.)

Sinemia offers a lot of plans, not especially clearly explained.

I find all of those plans confusing. It’s made worse by the fact that they change constantly, fluctuating up or down by a dollar or two (just as MoviePass’s plans have for years). “We’re A/B testing everything,” Oguz told me. “You need to price so smart that you will be sustainable. This is so important.”

(UPDATE: I also don’t love the $1.80 “service fee” that Sinemia has been charging per ticket. If you’re sneaky, though, you can bypass it using facebook.com/movies. Here are the details.)

What I do love, though, is Sinemia’s optional cardless approach. When you want to go see a movie, the app spits out a single-use credit-card number. You can paste it into any movie-ticket app or site, like Fandango or whatever.

And you know what that means, right? You can pick your seats ahead of time, online!

That is a huge, huge perk. With MoviePass, as you may remember, you generally could not pick your seats or buy your tickets in advance. You had to go to the movie theater to buy your ticket, where you sometimes discovered your movie was sold out.

Sinemia’s system also means that you don’t have to wait for a physical credit card to arrive in the mail (as you do for MoviePass). You can start using Sinemia the day you sign up.

One thing bugs me about the cardless system: In the Sinemia app, you specify what movie and theater you’re going to—and then you have to dial in the showtime manually, digit by digit. The app already knows each theater’s showtimes (they appear elsewhere in the app); why doesn’t it just display them and let you tap the one you want?

Left: You have to manually enter the movie start time. Why? Right: The app supplies a card number to buy your tickets online.

Going together

Here’s something else you can’t do with MoviePass: Take a friend.

This is a little hard to explain, but here goes: Sinemia Family Plans cost roughly twice as much ($10 a month for two movies, $21 for three movies)—but they include two tickets each time. And nobody cares who uses the second ticket. It could be your spouse, your kid, your friend, your boss, and it can be different every time you go to the movies.

That’s a decent attempt to solve another nasty MoviePass problem: That often, you can’t sit with your companion, unless he or she is also a MoviePass card holder and arrives at the theater kiosk side-by-side with you.

Will it last?

The purpose of Sinemia’s structure, of course, is to offer massive savings for frequent moviegoers—without going out of business.

So far, it seems to be working. Oguz says the company’s been chugging along in Canada, Australia, the UK, and Turkey for four years, and is now making money. He won’t say how many members have signed up—“not as many as MoviePass, I can say that”—but says the membership is climbing 50% a month.

One thing still doesn’t make sense, though: Even with its more modest discounts, it still doesn’t seem like the math works out.

In big cities, movie tickets cost $16. If you’re on the three-movies-a-month plan, you’re paying $9, but Sinemia pays the theaters $48. How is that sustainable?

Oguz says it’s kind of like gym memberships: Not everyone will actually go three times a month. They may go only once, or not at all—and in those months, the company makes money.

Outside of big cities, moreover, tickets don’t cost $16 each; the national average is only $8. So if you’re on the $9 plan, but you see only one movie in a month, Sinemia comes out ahead.

The company also makes money from movie studio ads, which appear in the Sinemia app. The company also sells anonymized, aggregated data about the movies its members see.

“Also, we have restaurant deals. We have merchandise. We have ride-sharing, [right] in the app,” Oguz says. “In Europe, we’re selling popcorn in the app.”

Overall, he says, Sinemia comes closer to serving as the win-win-win that MoviePass once set out to be. “The movie theater doubled their sales and their concessions. They’re really happy. The studio has doubled the movies [people go to see], and they’re happy. We are making money because you’re going [only] once every month [instead of two]. And you’re happy because you’re paying less than what [you would have paid]. And you just doubled your moviegoing, and you’re social again.”

The flat-fee era

There are, of course, other MoviePass imitators. AMC, the nation’s biggest theater chain, offers its own flat-fee deal: $20 a month for up to three movies a week. It’s got all the good stuff: You can see multiple movies the same day, you can choose your seats in advance, you can see Imax and 3-D movies, and you get various perks and discounts on snacks.

The smaller Cinemark chain has its own deal: $9 a month for one movie. No Imax or 3D, but unused tickets roll over to subsequent months, and you get 20% off of snacks.

Both of those are much pricier than Sinemia, though, and, of course, they’re good only at those theater chains.

Sinemia doesn’t offer the same impossible, giddy thrill that MoviePass once did, back in its “$10 unlimited” days. But after using it for four months, I can say this for sure: The service feels more stable, better run, less desperate—and more likely to be around the next time you want to go out to see a movie.

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes comments below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can sign up to get his stuff by email, here.

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