MoviePass brings all-you-can-watch model to theaters

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Cinephiles and lovers of air-conditioned theaters alike will appreciate MoviePass, a new service that aims to bring a smartphone-controlled, all-you-can-watch option to movie-going. I attended the start-up’s official launch event on Wednesday in San Francisco, where guests not only got to test out the new service, but also watch a free screening of the new Transformers: Dark of the Moon movie (more on that later).

MoviePass works similarly to Netflix. For a monthly fee of $50—plus a $3 surcharge for each 3D movie—subscribers can watch as many movies at as many participating theaters as they want. (You can only watch each movie once, and only watch one movie per day.) The company is also working on a limited pass option, where moviegoers can pay $30 for four movies per month.

You access your MoviePass subscription via an HTML5 Web app (native apps coming soon) on an iOS device, Android device, or other smartphone. I played around on an iPad at the launch, and it felt well-designed and easy to use, and streamlines the whole movie-going process. You can easily scroll through options by movies or by theaters, see all showtimes and locations, and reserve a ticket. Once you’re at a theater you just need to check in on your app (this uses location tracking to make sure you are at the theater), show your “ticket” to theater staff, and you’re in.

Co-founders Stacy Spikes and Hamett Watt say MoviePass is “going to change movie-going forever”. For movie buffs and amateur film critics, that may indeed be true. Beyond making it easier to watch movies in theaters, MoviePass also allows viewers to pre-order the movies they’ve just watched for purchase. The app also invites members to promotional screenings based on their movie preferences. On the flip side, that same movie viewing history is given to studios and producers, so they can engage with MoviePass members directly.

The service’s pricing doesn’t seem targeted to the average moviegoer, however, as you’d need to go to at least five non-matinee or six matinee films each month to make the membership worth the cost. Besides the $30 plan in the works, there’s no pass options planned for couples or families, say.

At launch (technically a beta period) MoviePass is currently available only in the San Francisco Bay Area, with 21 participating theaters. The company hopes to expand to other cities throughout the summer, however, and eventually get MoviePass in 40 percent of the country’s theaters.

As for whether you should go see the third Transformers movie in the theater? If you get in for free and have very low expectations, then yes. Sure.

Update: Industry website TheWrap.com reports that several theater chains were caught off guard by Wednesday's announcement, and weren't very happy with it.

[Alexandra Chang is a Macworld intern.]

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