The launch late last week of a potential UK equivalent to U.S. ticketing upstart MoviePass created a stir among Blighty’s exhibition community. No-one knew who was behind the audacious offer called cPass, whose site included the logos of all major UK theater chains. So, over the weekend I tracked down the U.S. and Europe-based Italian brothers behind the company. Below is their first interview.
Deadline: Tell us a little about yourselves…
Puya Vahabi: Sure. I’m a 33 year old lecturer at the Berkeley School Of Information where I teach a course in data science. I was a Research Scientist at Yahoo Labs between 2014-2016 and my PhD was in computer science and engineering. I’ve worked on startups and websites for a number of years. I live in California.
Pedram Vahabi: And I’m Puya’s brother. I’m 29 and work as an Amazon user experience designer and mentor at Google Campus. I have helped build and launch more than 200 startups with the likes of L’Oréal, Aviva, easyJet and The Guardian. I’m primarily based in Madrid and London.
Deadline: The soft-launch of your service caused some waves in the UK. Were you surprised?
Puya: We were. We weren’t expecting so much media attention straight away. We weren’t contacted by the UK Cinema Association but as there has been some concern about our use of the exhibitors’ logos we have removed them from the site.
Have you been contacted by any of those international chains?
Puya: Vue are the only ones to do so so far.
What kind of message was it?
Ok, so tell us about your service?
Puya: cPass is still in the test phase. We’re aiming to be the first UK and European cinema subscription service. For $13.83 (£9.95) per month, members will be able to see one standard 2D film every day with a rechargeable debit card which we manufacture and send to them. We see a user need for this given how little time consumers have to plan and given that they want to save money where possible. There is a gap in the market for this in the UK and in Europe. But we ultimately want to open this up beyond movies to concerts, comedy, stage plays etc. The concept is a sort of Netflix of entertainment events.
Do you need industry buy-in?
Puya: We can operate at any venue that accepts credit and debit cards. We don’t have to be partners with exhibitors but we’d prefer that. This is beneficial for them. It means more people going to the cinema because algorithms can alert us to empty seats at venues. I have done academic research for years on user profiling and this is about creating a better user experience for audiences and theaters. But of course we’ll be paying the exhibitors the amount they want for their ticket. We’re still thinking about promotions according to the type of venue you visit such as an IMAX. We don’t have a partnership with any particular type of credit card.
Would you be looking to take a share of concessions or to cut a reduced ticket price deal with exhibitors once you reach a critical mass of subscribers?
Puya: Based on the first marketing interviews we have conducted, offering discounts on popcorn and drinks would be greatly appreciated by customers. But that’s going to be difficult without cooperation from cinemas so it won’t be part of our initial offering.
You’ve launched this before a marketing campaign…
Puya: Because we wanted to go step by step. We are in the early beta phase. The size of the operation will depend on funding. We will certainly need to go negative before we see profit.
So how will you monetise this?
Puya: We are not actively searching for funds right now but we can either go the ICO (bitcoin) route, which we are investigating, we can go look to crowdfunding, or there’s traditional VC investment. We believe funding will come. But we want to start small first. Empty spaces are bad for venues. The idea is to make these venues full. We have done simulations. We estimate that we’ll be profitable per user in 18 months. At first we need to do some marketing based on a small sample size. I’m confident this is a scaleable solution but we need to go slowly.
Image: Puya Vahabi
So, like many startups, you will sink or swim pretty quickly…
Puya: Yes. That’s why we’re starting small. We have experience in this space. We previously created a social blogging website called Microblr which was instructive for us. We shipped it but it didn’t work. But the best startuppers have failed before. We co-founded a network of websites that got more than 3 million visitors per month between 2007-13. So, we are optimistic. Success for us would be thousands of users across Europe. Ultimate success would be to become a billion dollar business. So that’s what we’ll do.
How many people have signed up to the service online?
Puya: More than a thousand in a few days. This is only from London. We are only planning to launch in London, initially.
When will they receive a cPass card?
Pedram: Once we have the product ready. We’re still building. We will launch it for a few users initially and see how it goes. We have a release plan of three months at the moment.
How much personal information will subscribers need to provide you with?
Puya: For now, we don’t for ask any sensitive personal information. Just their names and email addresses. We don’t send many emails, and there is an unsubscribe option in all the emails received by the customer.
When is the App going to launch and on which platforms?
Pedram: It will be an iOS App at first. The idea is to ship it within 3 to 6 months but this can be accelerated if we receive funds.
Are there any legal hurdles?
Pedram: Not that we’re aware of.
Is there a copyright concern given that the site and concept is similar to services like MoviePass?
Pedram: MoviePass just found a need. We’re a different offering and we want to operate across Europe. As for the look, you could say that Moveipass followed Netflix in terms of their red and black visual. I think our site is nicer than theirs, anyway.
And how many are you at the company?
Puya: Five. The company is not incorporated yet. We’re deciding now with our lawyer whether to do so in the U.S. or UK.
Do you have a message for the UK industry?
Puya: There is no reason to be nervous. We are only in the alpha and beta stage. At the end of the day theaters will get more money in their pockets if this service is successful.