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AMC will test a monthly movie pass in two cities

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The average AMC Theatres movie ticket price, nudging close to $9.50, may be a price that’s pushing some patrons to stay at home.

The Leawood-based theater chain will test that theory beginning in January when it teams with the MoviePass Inc. subscription service for a pricing pilot in Denver and Boston. The test is designed to pump up theater attendance at the film industry’s priciest movies, as well as its regular fare.

The test offer: Pay $45 a month in Denver or $40 a month in Boston for a pass to watch up to one 2D, 3D or Imax movie a day at AMC theaters in those two markets.

The companies said there’s no time frame yet in mind to roll out the premium pricing plan in Kansas City or other markets.

But Kansas City area patrons already have access to a less-expensive MoviePass subscription service, accessible at moviepass.com, that’s good for 2D movies. The basic MoviePass is usable at about 95 percent of all theaters throughout the United States, not just AMC’s, according to MoviePass.

In Denver, the basic 2D AMC/MoviePass subscription goes for $35. In Boston, the basic 2D pass is $30. In the Kansas City area, basic MoviePass subscriptions cost $30 a month and require a 12-month individual purchase commitment, with the first month offered free and with the option to quit before signing up for the full year.

“I go to about three to four movies a month, and I can tell you with a monthly subscription pass at $35, I would go a lot more,” said Brandon Boehm, a 26-year-old Lee’s Summit resident. “I’ve noticed an increase in ticket prices over the years, especially when you add in 3D and Imax showings.”

But 27-year-old Joe Jarosz, who said he also goes to movies three or four times a month, said the subscription price wouldn’t make sense to him. He usually attends matinees at Cinemark on the Plaza for $4.25.

“I could see almost nine, 10 movies for less than the price of the pass,” Jarosz said, estimating that the movies he sees would have to cost $7 or $8 before the pass price made sense.

AMC spokesman Ryan Noonan said the companies haven’t put an end date yet on the test to see whether the higher-priced premium pass appeals to enough young adults like Boehm and Jarosz, the millennial age group whose movie house attendance has dropped in recent years.

Stacy Spikes, co-founder and chief executive of the 3-year-old MoviePass company, said he believes the time is right for subscription services to take off in the movie industry.

“People are getting their music through subscription, their cable TV is subscription, their gym membership is subscription,” Spikes said. “This answers to that behavior. … It’s different from when we launched MoviePass three years ago. Then we had some challenges from people not knowing how it would work and what the mechanics would be. But we’ve overcome those obstacles.”

AMC hopes Spikes is right. The theater company tried a monthly pass before and didn’t get the results it hoped. A 2001 test in Omaha and Oklahoma City ran into opposition from film distributors that feared they wouldn’t get an accurate or full cut of film rental fees.

An earlier AMC promotion to generate patron loyalty, launched in 1991, was more like a frequent-flier program in which patrons earned points redeemable for concessions. It, too, ended.

Spikes said MoviePass chose Denver and Boston for the premium pass test because of their population demographics and theater company mixes. It didn’t want a test in AMC’s “back yard,” which could skew test data because of local brand loyalty or saturation.

Spikes said AMC is the first to market with the premium MoviePass product, but he expects other theater chains to follow.

“AMC tends to experiment a lot more and drive innovation,” Spikes said, “but the movie industry tends to move as a group, so we’ll likely see all exhibitors adapt to premium subscription pricing pretty soon.”

Film critic Eric Melin, who reviews movies at scene-stealers.com and is vice president of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, thinks the pass is an “awesome” way to encourage movie house attendance. He said a friend who pays for a basic MoviePass now goes to three or four movies a week.

Melin said he watches about 40 percent of his movies at home but far prefers the group experience and the better viewing conditions in a theater. If people are staying home to watch movies through Amazon or Netflix because of theater ticket prices, the pass may be a way to fight that, he said.

There’s always the convenience barrier, though, he added. Sometimes it’s more comfortable to stay home.

At the University of Kansas, film professor John C. Tibbetts was less enthusiastic about the subscription’s ability to pull more patrons into theaters.

“I personally think it’s trying to put the thumb in the dike” of declining theater attendance, Tibbetts said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to get students off their duffs and into the movie theaters. I actually have to assign them to go to first-run movies for my film criticism class.”

Tibbetts suggested that ticket prices may not be the biggest barrier to theater attendance.

“I find the food service to be incredibly annoying, and the food is expensive,” Tibbetts said. “After all the rants about getting people off their cell phones and not making noise in the theaters, the companies themselves are injecting noise with the food service.”

The professor also said he dislikes the trend toward movie seat reservations: “What a way to hold up a line going into the box office.”

But AMC spokesman Noonan said the company believed subscription-based entertainment was a well-received idea now.

“What we’re trying to do, along with MoviePass, is drive more poeple to the movies more often,” Noonan said. “We need to get feedback from our guests to see what works.”

Expectations are that, once in the theater, patrons will buy revenue-enhancing food and drink — provided the pass is priced right and that “overusers” don’t far outnumber “underusers.”

The Star’s Sarah Gish and Melissa Schupmann contributed to this report.

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com. Follow her online at kansascity.com/workplace and @kcstarstafford.

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