Sinemia, the subscription ticketing service that has been billed as an alternative to MoviePass, has had a rough two weeks. While its app prevented many users in the U.S. from buying tickets the weekend of March 23 (“Us” opening), even more furious customers whose subscriptions were cancelled due to accusations of fraud have taken to Reddit and Twitter — as well as reaching out to publications like IndieWire and Business Insider by the hundreds — accusing the company of following the path of MoviePass and trying to stay afloat by denying active users the ability to purchase tickets.
Sinemia Founder and CEO Rifat Oguz granted IndieWire a 75-minute interview to answer questions last Friday afternoon. It was, at times, a contentious interview, with Oguz expressing surprise at IndieWire’s description of the extent of the problems users are facing, but promising the growing company is committed to fixing its problems.
The following is an edited (for clarity) version of that conversation — by the end of it, Oguz said he would reconsider keeping the door shut on those who have recently been kicked out of their Sinemia subscription. The conversation is split into five topics: 1) app problems, 2) fees, 3) requiring users to upload a selfie holding their driver’s license, 4) customer service, 5) fraud and termination of users.
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1. Problems with the App
Let’s start with an update. What’s the status of the maintenance of the app?
Oguz: Maintenance. What do you mean, maintenance? Currently, we always work on the new app updates in Sinemia. What is the question, actually? I don’t understand.
Sure, let me clarify. This weekend, the service was not working and–
Oguz: Well, okay, that was news that [was] actually in your paper, right? That’s not true. We weren’t down.
What customer service told–
Oguz: Users [were buying] tickets and actually the issues only happened in the advanced tickets [sales]. So the cardholders, which are the majority, were using Sinemia as intended, but we weren’t down. I think that was coming from where? Reddit or Twitter?
Well, let me be very specific with you, users were told by Sinemia Support [crosstalk]. Please let me finish. Sinemia Support said that the app was “under maintenance, please wait for the update.” People who were using the app were unable to purchase tickets this weekend. I have literally hundreds of examples of people, including personal ones of trusted sources, unable to use the app.
Oguz: Can you send me the exact messages? That our support … because I just want to make sure, maybe because “under maintenance” is maybe because we were working on unlimited [Sinemia introduced a new “Always Unlimited” plan], but we weren’t down, I am repeating again we weren’t down. People were buying tickets and tons of people, thousands of people bought tickets last week.
So you’re claiming people that were using advance tickets feature through the app, there was not a problem?
Oguz: No, I’m saying that there was a problem, I can talk about it, but it wasn’t down. There were two reasons that we found. One of them is because we [changed] our ticketing process to direct users to movie theaters’ own websites, so we [stopped] directing them to third party ticket sellers like Fandango and Atom Tickets. And they were directing them in the outdated version of the app.
So let me just clarify what you just said. You have a policy now where users are mandated to buy tickets directly from the theater website. That’s a new policy and because of that change users needed the updated app, or they had errors when they clicked to purchase tickets?
Oguz: Yeah, because we always update it. The technology is always updated, currently we are updating almost every two days… so people always need to update and not use the outdated version, that’s right.
The second problem is [at the] beginning of the March we started a detailed misuses-and-fraud analysis and around two percent of our users were terminated. I can talk about that more, but if you were a terminated user, you can’t use your app.
I want to talk about the fraud, but I want to first talk about people that were not terminated and having difficulty using the app. My concern is that the problem that people were having continued after the update. Even after they did the update they were still having trouble purchasing tickets.
Oguz: And they are not terminated users?
Not terminated users.
Oguz: Maybe they’re terminated but they don’t know that. Okay.
We’re talking about the 99 percent of users who weren’t accused of fraud.
Oguz: Not 99, 97.
97, 98, we can talk about those numbers later, because that’s an issue as well. I’m talking about the 97 percent – there have been system wide problems of people not able to purchase tickets even with the updated app. What people were told by Sinemia support was that maintenance was being done-
Oguz: I’m repeating that we weren’t down.
That’s fine, but what I’m asking is what would you say to the people in good standing that have not been able to purchase tickets?
Oguz: Chris, let me just clarify this, if you can just send me those and I can maybe find out who sent it to you and I can check and come back to you. That’s what I’m aware of. I told you that there’s two reasons — now you’re saying system was down and I can tell, we weren’t down so.
Last night it took me 90 minutes to buy a ticket and I have the updated version [of the app].
Oguz: 90 minutes to buy the ticket. So what do you mean 90 minutes?
I got a lot of “Fail, try again” messages.
Oguz: Hmm… I’m sorry that you had that and I’m sorry to hear that, but here’s actually – if you could provide–
This isn’t about me. I gave you that example because I need you to understand I’m not taking this from internet chatter. I’m hearing directly from readers too, but I have trusted sources, people who work in the industry who use your service, friends who use the app, and when I hear there’s problems with Sinemia, I ask them, “Are you able to use it?” And across the board this weekend iPhone users were not allowed to use it. Some iPhone users have had trouble using it throughout March. I just signed up again and had problems.
Oguz: And how did you end up buying [the ticket last night]?
Oguz: Persistence. Oh.
Across the board this weekend, trusted sources were not able to use it. Across the board they were told by support, “DM us, wait for the update, maintenance.” Slowly, some have been able to buy tickets with persistence this week.
Publicist: Rifat, is that something you can maybe check in with maybe the customer service team and get back to them on?
Oguz: That’s what I right now really want to do and because that’s the persistence cannot be an issue and also something I need to dig into and find out. That’s because we are aware that the terminated users cannot buy the tickets and we had to actually seven updates last week. Let me check back. I’ve never heard–
I just want to be clear, you have not heard of an increased volume in people unable to purchase tickets through the app?
Oguz: There was an increase, yeah because we just [moved away from using] Fandango this weekend. All I can give is that maybe a bigger problem than our knowledge, because right now we thought, after terminating two percent of our users, which is a lot of people, this was a normal amount of complaints, but let me check, Chris.
OK, let’s move past that. Is the back end of the app a huge undertaking for a company like yours? Keeping it updated for all these different operating systems, along with all the changes you are making to the subscriptions – which is a ton, rules are always changing – is that back end a bigger deal than you had imagined?
Oguz: So you know we were founded about four or five years ago in Europe and we actually came to the United States and we moved to Los Angeles in 2017. After a month we saw an increase in our users. Then there was MoviePass with their unlimited model for $9.99. We calculated and decided we would not be able to sustain if we followed them. We grew, even though there were was MoviePass, we grow 50% month over month for maybe 14 months. If you calculate that’s more than 2000 times growth. So yes, along the way, the back end and server have always had problems.
So we had some moments that can go down and can go up, but our engineers are working almost 24/7 and that’s because we have two teams, one in Europe and over here, so that’s overlapped. We also know that we are a startup and we are struggling, but also we are making movie goers go to movies and we’re the only one offering the any time, any theater, any movies. We are not limiting movies, not limiting showtimes. And since we were actually growing that much I can see that we can also have a growing number of customers and customer complaints, and you can see in LinkedIn maybe, but we also increased our employee number maybe 30 percent this year, maybe 40 percent, so we’re growing and we’re advancing with increasing our customer support, increasing our team. We doubled our engineering team this year. And we are growing to do that, but as a start up, we are also [facing challenges] and that’s how we try to overcome [them]. We are trying to do something over here and that’s really not easy.
[Editor’s Note: Reports are the Sinemia app was functioning far better this past weekend, March 30-31.]
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