Until last weekend, I had a pretty simple opinion of MoviePass. It was obviously insane.
The service, which has been hemorrhaging money for months, sounded way too easy: For a low fee, you sign up and see a huge number of movies at participating theaters. How can this be good for theaters or distributors? How can it be good for MoviePass? Of course it works out nicely for frequent moviegoers, but the business model seems completely unsustainable, an example of the Amazonian lose-money-before-we-make-money philosophy gone mad.
The profit-making plan still eludes me, but something interesting happened a few days ago. The indie film American Animals—acquired at Sundance in a shared deal by distributor The Orchard and MoviePass (not heretofore a distributor)—scored fabulous box-office returns at four theaters in L.A. and New York.
The industry analysis? MoviePass’s ability to tap its subscriber base brought this little film an inordinate amount of publicity for its opening weekend, and folks who might never had heard of such a small movie turned out in relative droves. This raises intriguing possibilities. What if MoviePass puts its weight behind non-blockbusters by great filmmakers, foreign-language projects, or controversial documentaries that deserve wider audiences? I still don’t see how they make money, but that could open up a whole new game.
As it happens, American Animals is a shrewd choice for a test case. Funny, suspenseful, and based on a true story, this is the kind of picture audiences will probably dig … if they hear about it. Writer/director Bart Layton begins in a kind of early-Coen-brothers mode, emphasizing the characters’ wackiness and the improbability of their criminal activities. In Lexington, Ky., circa 2004, a bored college student, Spencer (Barry Keoghan, late of Dunkirk), tells his loose-cannon pal Warren (Evan Peters from American Horror Story) about the rare books—including a folio of Audubon prints—worth millions—locked up at the Transylvania University Library. (That’s in Lexington, not Romania.) Before long, they’ve enlisted two friends (Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner) in an actual heist. The ludicrousness of the robbery—including a dry run with the students dressed in old-age makeup, calling themselves names from Reservoir Dogs—is enough to set the comic mood.
But Layton and his spirited cast go beyond that. For one thing, the tone darkens as the crime unfolds—in part because of the casting of Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale) as the librarian and chief victim of the stunt. Dowd conveys humanity with a minimum of screen time, and instead of thinking what a lark this all is, we realize somebody is going to get hurt because of these jackasses. The film’s other inspired choice is incorporating interviews with the real-life robbers, commenting on the action and sometimes contradicting each other. At times American Animals feels overly slick, so these periodic glimpses at reality are refreshing.
American Animals isn’t profound, but it captures the absurdity of these privileged guys’ unreal ambition, and the desperation—as Spencer describes it—of hoping that something would come along to halt the plan’s momentum. As though he were a spectator at a movie, powerless to stop it himself.