MoviePass Deceived Users So They’d Use It Less, F.T.C. Says

Federal regulators detailed tactics the company, which settled accusations against it, used to try to make its most active users go to the movies less.

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MoviePass, the failed subscription service that promised unlimited moviegoing for $9.95 a month, agreed on Monday to settle Federal Trade Commission accusations that it knowingly deceived customers, making the service difficult to use, and exposed their personal data.

In the process, the F.T.C. revealed the elaborate obstacles that MoviePass executives made the most active users overcome, including forcing them to reset their passwords and setting unannounced limits on their accounts.

The proposed settlement bars MoviePass’s parent company, Helios and Matheson Analytics, and its top executives, Mitchell Lowe and Theodore Farnsworth, from misrepresenting their business and data security practices. Any businesses controlled by them must also use information security programs.

“MoviePass and its executives went to great lengths to deny consumers access to the service they paid for while also failing to secure their personal information,” Daniel Kaufman, the F.T.C.’s acting director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement.

Those “great lengths,” as detailed in the F.T.C.’s complaint, revealed that top MoviePass executives were not only aware of efforts to keep users from going to the movies, but led the execution of schemes they knew to be deceptive.

The service, which began in 2011, attracted more than three million subscribers after it offered a deal in 2017 that seemed too good to be true: unlimited movies in theaters for $9.95 a month, or less than the cost of a single ticket in many locations. Its marketing materials said it was good for “any movie, any theater, any day,” including “all major movies” and “all major theaters.”

The company hoped that by subsidizing full-price tickets for millions of users, it could negotiate bulk prices from theaters and find other ways to make money from its users. That never happened, and executives, looking to cut costs, focused on trying to make its most active users less active, according to the F.T.C. complaint.

In one effort, the company invalidated the passwords of the 75,000 subscribers who used the service most often, while falsely claiming “we have detected suspicious activity or potential fraud” on their accounts, the F.T.C. said. Many of the people who tried to reset their passwords were unable to because of technical problems; the app would not accept their email address, they would not receive a password-reset email, or the email would link to a nonworking website, the F.T.C. said.

When users complained, customer service would take weeks to respond, the F.T.C. said. About half of the users successfully changed their password within a week, the F.T.C. said.

When an executive warned that the practice would catch the attention of federal regulators and state attorneys general, Mr. Lowe responded in writing “OK I get it,” suggesting the company try it with “2 percent of our highest volume users,” the F.T.C. said.

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In a separate effort, the company required the 20 percent of subscribers who used the service most often, about 450,000 people, to submit photos of their physical movie tickets for approval through the app, telling them they had been “randomly selected” for the program, the F.T.C. said. Those who failed to properly submit the tickets more than once would have their accounts canceled, the F.T.C. said.

The automated verification system often did not work on common mobile operating systems, and the software failed to recognize many user-submitted photos, the F.T.C. said. The program blocked thousands of people from using the service, the F.T.C. said.

Mr. Lowe personally chose how many people would be required to submit photos, the F.T.C. said.

In a third effort described by the commission, the company created a “trip wire” by imposing a limit on how often certain users could use the service, but did not disclose the limit in its advertising or terms of use. The company grouped subscribers based on how often they used the service, then, once the group hit an unannounced limit, the people in the group would be unable to use the service, regulators said. The users often did not know they had been cut off until they arrived at the theater, expecting to use their subscriptions, they said.

The trip wire was typically set on users who went to more than three movies per month, the F.T.C. said. Mr. Lowe set the thresholds, it said.

In addition, a data breach in 2019, which was previously reported, exposed the personal and financial information, including credit card numbers, of more than 28,000 customers, the F.T.C. said.

After three million people signed up — many more than executives had expected — the company perpetually struggled to bring in enough cash to offset costs. In April 2018, the company disclosed to regulators that it had been losing about $20 million a month for several months. In July 2018, it borrowed $5 million after it said it could not pay its bills and experienced a service interruption, but the company insisted its service remained stable.

In August of that year, MoviePass limited users to three movies a month from a rotating list of films. In January 2019, it increased prices and installed new leadership, promoting Khalid Itum from executive vice president.

All the while, customer complaints piled up, and analysts were skeptical the business could continue. They were right: The company shut down in September 2019.

It was always a nuisance for theater operators, who thought the low price set by MoviePass would devalue their product.

“In AMC’s view, that price level is unsustainable and only sets up consumers for ultimate disappointment down the road if or when the product can no longer be fulfilled,” the theater chain said in 2017 when MoviePass announced its $10 monthly rate.

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