Nigeria’s Largest Cinema Chain Wants To Run A Subscription Service

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Nigeria’s Largest Cinema Chain Wants To Run A Subscription Service
Nigeria’s Largest Cinema Chain Wants To Run A Subscription Service

In September 2019, MoviePass, an American subscription-based movie ticketing platform, shut down its services, with its parent company filing for bankruptcy months later in January 2020.

The service offered users access to one movie per day at the cinema for less than $10 a month. It eventually failed because its model was too good to be true and couldn’t keep up with unit economics. Still, MoviePass’ eight-year run showed cinema operators what was possible.

Now, the three largest cinema chains in the US – AMC, Cinemark, and Regal – have similar subscription services, with two other smaller chains – Alamo Drafthouse and Showcase – doing the same. In Nigeria, there’s Filmhouse, which offers access to unlimited cinema tickets, free movies online (from a limited catalogue), and discounts on some concessions at the cinema for ₦5,999 ($11) or ₦8,999 ($16.5) a month.

Filmhouse is Nigeria’s largest cinema chain, and in 2021, it introduced a two-tiered subscription service. The first is FH+ Silver (₦5,999 per month) which allows users to purchase unlimited tickets to movies showing in standard and premium formats from Monday to Friday, excluding public holidays. The second is the FH+ Platinum (₦8,999) which gives users access to an unlimited number of tickets to movies showing in all formats, including IMAX and MX4D (my favourite).

I’ve subscribed to FH+ Platinum for two months running, and I appreciate the potential of the service. I go to the movies at least three times a month, depending on what’s showing, and this usually sets me back ₦15,000 to ₦20,000, including tickets and concessions. An ₦8,999 plan is a no-brainer for me.

In theory, Filmhouse’s subscription plans are great. In reality, execution is the devil. And it is this devil that punches holes in Filmhouse’s plot.

The plothole

After signing up in September, I wanted to purchase tickets to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten RingsThe Protégé, and Free Guy. Ordinarily, it should have been straightforward: I log on to the Filmhouse platform, select the movies I want to see and the cinema where I want to see them, and then checkout. But that was not my experience.

Instead, when I logged on to the app, my subscription wasn’t reflecting. I reached out to a member of the Filmhouse team to understand what was going on. He told me the app had a bug that they’d been trying to fix and offered to help out manually. He did, and I received a notification that my subscription was now active.

Next, I needed to buy the tickets but got an error message, “Unable to find recognition”. This, I found out, was part of what they were trying to fix. I had to refresh the page repeatedly before I was able to buy the tickets I wanted. Since then, I have dealt with many more issues. On some days, I have to purchase tickets in person using my subscription details.

Nigeria’s Largest Cinema Chain Wants To Run A Subscription Service
Nigeria’s Largest Cinema Chain Wants To Run A Subscription Service

This month, when I renewed my subscription, I faced another problem – I couldn’t log in to my account and got an error message saying I couldn’t be logged into more than two devices at a time. That was strange because I wasn’t even logged in anywhere.

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Anyway, I reached out to customer service and was asked to “select ‘forgot password’ to sign in”. I did, and it worked, until recently when I wanted to purchase another movie ticket. This time, repeated attempts to change my password proved futile, and I had to get my ticket in person again. What’s more is that, as things stand, I cannot log into the mobile app. This is a frustrating symptom of a larger problem.

Denouement

In Communique 14, I wrote about the challenges of building a subscription service in this market:

“There are technical problems with subscription management that are, in some ways, unique to African publishers, mainly because it is a nascent concept on the continent and the talent and resources needed to solve them are not readily available. Subscription management requires an incredible amount of engineering investment that most media companies can either not afford or be bothered to make.”

What Filmhouse seeks to do with its subscription service is relatively new and, as far as I know, the first of its kind by a cinema company in this part of the world. (Nairabox is not a cinema company.) So, I’ll make a discount for growing pains and the drawbacks of experimentation. Nevertheless, the dissonance between my expectations and experience with the service lends credence to my point in that essay and this statement from Preston Ideh, Stears’ CEO (emphasis mine):

“This infrastructure hurdle [to providing subscription products] can make or break publishers [or media companies]. It might seem negligible when you have only a few subscribers. But at scale, it can become a nightmare. It gets even more complex when African publishers want to be creative with their reader [or user] experiences… Behind the scenes (and you can ask my team if you do not believe me), it requires engineering power that most media businesses do not have.”

The emphasis here is on the engineering requirements for building a subscription service with a seamless experience. Filmhouse outsources the engineering for this service, and my experience hasn’t been great so far. The alternative might be to bring this in-house, but that only works if the service’s uptake is big enough to justify this decision. I doubt it is.

Still, much like Filmhouse, more media companies in Africa will attempt to build subscription products, and they will hit the same engineering snags. But perhaps there is a point in the future where companies that have built great subscription management services exist here. Maybe we don’t have to look too far ahead.

I pointed out in Communique 14 that there is an entire market outside of publishing for a subscription management service, something that Stears has received a grant from the Google News Initiative to build. But Stears is likely not the only company looking to solve this problem, and a lot will depend on how quickly the market expands.