MoviePass, Take Two!

Stacy Spikes, whose subscription service relaunched last fall, discusses the corporate takeover that bankrupted it, and being called an “idiot” by Bob Weinstein.
MoviePass Take Two
Illustration by João Fazenda

Stacy Spikes, the C.E.O. of MoviePass, was buying popcorn at the Angelika Film Center the other day, before a screening of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale.”

“I think it’s incredible,” Spikes said of the film, which he’d seen already. “You don’t see overweight people, you don’t see addiction, you don’t see a broken heart the same way as you did before.” He filled a cup with Diet Coke before making his way to Theatre 1, fourth row center. (He always studies the map before picking a seat.)

Spikes is a movie nerd who has dedicated a chunk of his career to helping theatres survive the age of smartphones and streaming. In 2011, he co-founded MoviePass, a service that let users pay a flat monthly fee to see up to one movie a day in theatres; he pitched it as “Netflix for movie theatres.” The launch was rocky, as several big chains announced that they wouldn’t participate. (AMC Theatres called MoviePass “a small fringe player” and threatened to sue.) The company eventually reached around three million subscribers, but Spikes had trouble raising capital to keep it going, and in 2017 it was taken over by the now defunct data-analytics firm Helios and Matheson. Soon, after Spikes criticized some of the firm’s business decisions, including the adoption of the unsustainably low monthly subscription price of $9.95, he was pushed out, and MoviePass went under. In 2021, Spikes bought the company back out of bankruptcy; he relaunched it last fall.

He has probably spent hundreds of hours in movie theatres around New York City, and he believes that researchers should use movies to train artificial-intelligence algorithms to understand humans. “If aliens came down from another planet, and they wanted to get to know us, they should go to the movies, right?” he said. “Then they would understand us.” A trailer with a ghoulish-looking Willem Dafoe started playing. Spikes muttered, “Some movies were meant for straight to video.”

Spikes was dressed in a Manhattan-tech-bro uniform of jeans, black Patagonia turtleneck and Nano Puff jacket, and chunky black glasses. He recently wrote a book, “Black Founder: The Hidden Power of Being an Outsider,” in which he recounts his climb through the entertainment business and his struggles to raise funding as a Black entrepreneur in the tech industry, in a country where less than two per cent of capital each year is invested with nonwhite or female founders.

Spikes grew up in Houston, the child of a school-principal father and an entrepreneurial mother who hosted her own public-access TV show. After high school, he drove his pickup truck to Los Angeles, where he stayed with an uncle and accidentally lost all his belongings to some zealous garbage collectors. (“Don’t put your things in trash bags,” his uncle told him.) He loaded trucks for UPS and ended up briefly in detox before beginning his ascent, working first at a video-distribution company, where he was treated like family, then at Motown Records, where he was mentored by a series of Black executives. (He learned to read several newspapers each day, send monogrammed notes, and treat secretaries and janitors with respect.) In 1995, Spikes landed, as vice-president of marketing, at Miramax Films, which was then in its pre-scandal heyday. (During his first hour at the job, Bob Weinstein asked Spikes’s opinion of a movie trailer, then yelled, “Did we hire an idiot? Harvey, I think we hired an idiot.”)

While watching “The Whale,” Spikes occasionally let out a low chuckle or a gasp. Afterward, he talked about why he admires Brendan Fraser’s performance as Charlie, an obese writing instructor struggling to repair his relationship with his teen-age daughter. “We’re feeling empathy for him. But he’s the enlightened one,” Spikes said.

He said that he’d had trouble staying positive during the MoviePass experience, when the two white executives who took it over burned through a quarter of a billion dollars before running it into bankruptcy. In his book, he describes bringing a white colleague at MoviePass to a meeting with a V.C. firm, and having an analyst there assume that the colleague, and not Spikes, was the founder. “It became clear to me that pattern recognition was the problem. Not that these are racist people,” he said. “Women and minorities, we need to not give up the fight and keep running at the gate.” He went on, “Imagine tennis without Venus and Serena—imagine golf without Tiger. You’re doing the same thing to the finance world when you don’t allow that wider view of the universe. You’re limiting the possibilities.”

He sees signs that things are changing. He hopes that students who read his book will try to do what he did, starting their own companies and raising money even if they don’t look like the average tech founder. “Like Charlie,” he said, “I’m a bit of an optimist.” ♦