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‘MoviePass, MovieCrash’ Review: HBO Doc Is an Effectively Nostalgic Communal Wake for Film Fans

Say this for Mitch Lowe, the former CEO of MoviePass: He may have helped destroy a briefly beloved brand and he may be awaiting trial on fraud charges stemming from that destruction, but he sat down for interviews for Muta’Ali’s upcoming HBO documentary MoviePass, MovieCrash and he gives what might be my favorite quote illustrating the true nature of capitalism.

Discussing the wave of out-of-control spending and public exuberance that preceded MoviePass’ fall — MoviePass-branded helicopters were landing at Coachella and Dennis Rodman was being trotted out in red hats while the offices were running out of supplies and seven customer service reps were handling countless complaints — Lowe says, without any evident self-awareness: “I sensed a resentment by the MoviePass employees. Each individual has their various roles and not all roles get to party.”

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“Not all roles get to party.”

Man, that’s good.

As for MoviePass, MovieCrash? It’s a solid time capsule of a shared delusion in which millions of us would regularly go to theaters praying our shiny red debit cards would actually work before conversations that inevitably went something like: “Sure, there’s zero chance that this is a workable business model, but I’m going to milk it for every penny before it goes under.” And then it went under.

But did it need to go under?

That is one of the two primary thematic strands of Muta’Ali’s documentary. The other is a less discussed and significantly more meaningful exploration of a corporate collapse in which two Black founders of a promising company were shoved aside by a pair of glad-handing white businessmen who took a concept developed over a decade and ran it into the ground in a year.

The Black co-founders were Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt, who both reflect on the journey at a cool-headed remove. Both of their approaches in chatting with Muta’Ali could be filed under the heading of “Not mad, just disappointed.” Watt may have achieved Zen and Spikes may still be trying to protect whatever residual core value there is to the “MoviePass” name as he continues to attempt to reboot and revitalize it.

Either way, they’re candid within the context of, “Here’s what other people were doing and here’s why we kept trying to say it was a bad idea.” Their vision, as they present it here, argues for a version of MoviePass that never would have been the subject of an embarrassing scam documentary like MoviePass, MovieCrash, but also never would have become the sort of all-encompassing household name that MoviePass legitimately was in 2018, after Spikes and Watt had been squeezed out. By the time the mainstream world came to embrace MoviePass, we all already knew it was doomed, and I wish the documentary had illustrated what the alternative might have been.

That imaginary alternative would have had to take place without Lowe and Ted Farnsworth, who were the face of the fraudulent version of MoviePass; they went on television every day talking about all the data they were going to sell, the looming prospect of profitability and other fantasies that only TV talking heads — but not Business Insider reporters Jason Guerrasio and Nathan McAlone, presented as crusading heroes here — truly believed.

Full credit to Lowe for at least appearing in the documentary, even if he says almost nothing of substance. It’s hard to imagine any attorney thinking this was a good idea, but it at least allows him to look better than the absent Farnsworth, treated like a Harold Hill-style huckster, and Khalid Itum, whose role in the company nobody seems capable of justifying. The racial dynamics, both in terms of optics and the reality that minority entrepreneurs are still heinously overlooked in the world of venture capital, are very much on the film’s mind, but Muta’Ali doesn’t have time or perhaps the necessary scapegoats to go too deep.

The one quote aside, Lowe doesn’t become the sort of obliviously verbose bad guy that viewers have come to expect from the wave of tech bubble scam documentaries that perhaps started with Alex Gibney’s Enron doc, but began to peak and plateau with the Fyre Festival double dose in 2019.

MoviePass, MovieCrash, instead, works better as a communal wake, starting with the tone set by Spikes and Watt. The best of the documentary’s talking heads are the low-level employees who were not, to use Lowe’s words, ever allowed to party. Even better are the featured MoviePass customers, who tell stories of outlandish levels of consumption, from seeing Crazy Rich Asians seven straight days to watching an Avengers movie in 30-minute increments over multiple days. Why would anybody have done that? Because thanks to MoviePass, we could!

Muta’Ali’s approach is to blend polished talking-head interviews with recognizable adjacent footage capturing the rise and fall through a pop culture lens. So that means clips of fans greeting the Beatles upon their arrival in the United States or scenes from movies like Titanic and Thelma & Louise. It’s a common language that would likely be spoken by exactly the people who got the most out of MoviePass and felt its loss most deeply.

MoviePass, MovieCrash doesn’t treat this loss as the sort that cost actual lives, just as one that left many people disappointed (easy for me to say since, unlike Spikes and Watt, I didn’t lose $80 million). The stakes were and are on the lower side, and the documentary hits softer as a result, but will still resonate with those of us who were “there.”

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