October 04, 2012
Last week, taking a flight on Alaska Airlines from Los Angeles to Seattle, I found myself taking part in an experiment in "silent boarding." Agents entered into a laptop the cellphone numbers of ticketholders on that flight. You could then watch for announcements on prominently placed electronic signs, or you could wait for a notice to be sent to your phone as a text message.
The problem was that there were no audible announcements of pre-boarding, which is usually the signal to put away your laptop or book and get ready to board when your section is called.
Thus I had to keep checking my watch to see how much time I had left, keeping me from fully concentrating on writing last week's column for this paper. I couldn't really see what was happening at the gate, so when the official boarding time neared, I packed up and moved near the gate.
This early clotting near the gate is one of the problems silent boarding is supposed to alleviate. Instead, it was as bad as ever.
When I saw the overhead announcement for my group to board, six people lined up ahead of me. That was fine – the plane leaves at the same time for everyone. The problem was that I had not yet received the promised text message. What if I had been relying on that as my only notice? Only when the agent was actually scanning my ticket did I finally get the text message.
If all the gates had been practicing silent boarding, it would have been lovely to enjoy the quiet; only the Seattle flight out of LAX was involved in the experiment, however, and so we did not really have that much less background chat.
Meanwhile, I had no reason for confidence in timely notices, and my lack of confidence was justified in the event. Had I waited for the text message, I would not have been able to pack up my computer and reach the gate before the group after mine began to board. Since the seats had unusually small spaces under them, and I had to stow my laptop bag overhead, the delay might have resulted in real inconvenience in having no overhead space by the time I got on, since I was counting on being able to use my computer in flight.
Add to that the fact that it is often easy to miss the arrival of a text, unless you have your phone set to a loud alert, and we might have ended up with an amazing number of cellphone alarms going off at the same time. Would that be better than the regular loudspeaker announcements? Or would it merely be a change from one noise to another, along with an increase in uncertainty, anxiety and inconvenience in the boarding process?
At the moment, then, I must cast a vote against silent boarding.
Speaking of experiments, there's a new company called MoviePass, which offers what amounts to a monthly fee for unlimited theatrical movie attendance.
You pay a flat monthly fee, ranging from $24.99 to $39.99 per month (based on local area ticket prices; the national average is $29.99). You're given a special movie card, which you use to buy a regular, full price ticket at the box office or kiosk.
You also have to have your cellphone with you, because the card is linked to an app. If your cellphone isn't within a hundred feet of the theater when you try to use the card, the card won't work.
This is how they prevent people from using a single MoviePass to pay for a dozen different people. They're assuming – correctly – that cellphones are so personal and indispensable that most people won't lend their phone along with their MoviePass card.
The theaters are getting the full ticket price, so the fact that you're paying MoviePass a flat monthly fee has nothing to do with them. They get their money.
So how does MoviePass make money?
The same way gyms profit from memberships. Most people don't actually use their gym memberships very much. They pay for a year, show up a few times, and that's it.
Those of us who do use our gym memberships (or I did, anyway, before Gold's bought out my local gym and closed it down – That's why I will never go to Gold's, not just because their location is too far for me to run or bike to, but also because I think this is an evil business practice) are getting a great bargain, because we are subsidized by all the people who pay but don't come.
MoviePass is charging you for the convenience – having prepaid, you can always afford to go to the movies. Some months there might be six movies you want to see, and you save money. Other months, there'll be nothing, or maybe just one; for that month, you lose money.
It spreads your movie-attendance costs over a whole year, and MoviePass is betting that most people won't use the full number of tickets they pay for.
So is it a rip-off? Absolutely not. You know what they charge; you decide whether to go to the movies; it's entirely up to you whether they profit from you or you profit from them.
It's like movie insurance. You're betting there'll be a lot of movies you want to see; they're betting that the movies will suck and you won't go. Given how movies get scripted and green-lighted, they'll probably win. But you always have the convenience of knowing your movie tickets are prepaid.
It's like paying for HBO and other premium cable channels. How much do you actually watch their offerings? Do you get your money's worth? I do – because I pay every month in case there's something I want to watch.
The trouble is, you can't just buy it. You have to be invited to sign up.
This is smart, because otherwise they'd be flooded with sales to people who will use the MoviePass seven times a month, and they'll go broke right away.
Instead, it has to spread socially. They have a hundred thousand members or so. Each of them can invite "ten more movie lovers." During the Christmas season, MoviePass is going to "do a big push to encourage people to make MoviePass a gift for friends and neighbors, pre-loaded for a month, 90 days or a year for all-you-can-watch theater attendance, with a limit of one movie a day" (Hollywood Reporter, Oct. 3, 2012, page 2).
It's a gift I'd love to give to other people – I have a list of 10 in mind already. But I'm not a member, so I can't. So if anybody from MoviePass reads this column, do yourselves a favor and let me buy my own pass now, without waiting for somebody else to invite me. I'll have half my Christmas shopping done in a few minutes.
So maybe that invitation-only policy isn't such a great idea after all. National Geographic used to do that, too – I would have subscribed for years, but nobody invited me.
(And to any friends of mine who are MoviePass subscribers, don't give me a gift card. Just give me an invitation. I'll buy my own!)
Looper is a brilliant sci-fi movie. One of the best ever. I'm glad I saw it.
But I'm not sure I ever want to see it again.
It's so powerful and raw and brutally real, and I cared so much about the characters, and the moral situations were so complicated and fascinating and painful that the experience can be devastating.
The ending is perfect. It took my wife and me completely by surprise, and yet it was the only viable choice....continued on page 2