Former MoviePass chairman's next big bet: a TikTok rival from Singapore

Ryan Faughnder
·4 min read
Ted Farnsworth of Zash <span class="copyright">(Zash)</span>
Ted Farnsworth of Zash (Zash)

The former chairman of defunct cinema subscription app MoviePass, Ted Farnsworth, is back with a new company. But instead of disrupting the movie theater industry with cheap monthly fees, he's trying to take on TikTok and Triller in the fast-growing mobile video space.

His firm, Zash Global Media and Entertainment Corp., on Tuesday said it has taken control of Lomotif, a Singapore-based video-sharing platform that competes with Beijing-based TikTok. Zash has acquired an 80% controlling interest in Lomotif, the company said.

Financial details were not disclosed.

Farnsworth, who cofounded Zash with entrepreneurs Jaeson Ma and Vincent Butta, has reentered the dealmaking space after MoviePass' collapse by making inroads in digital entertainment, including with its platform for social media influencers. Zash last month signed an agreement to merge with publicly traded acquisition company Vinco Ventures.

The company plans to build on Lomotif's social media platform by growing the app's presence in the U.S. and adding original content, including reality TV and sports programming, to go along with its user-generated videos. He said he sees a major opportunity to capitalize on advertisers' hunger to connect with audiences through social media branding efforts by online personalities.

While the app's popularity in the U.S. pales in comparison to TikTok's, the company has a strong foothold in Asia and Latin America, Farnsworth said. The company also sees a major opportunity in India, where TikTok is banned.

Farnsworth, who lives in Florida and is producing movies in Syracuse, N.Y., said the company will continue to pursue additional acquisitions including production companies. "We're in talks with other companies as we speak," he told The Times.

"Lomotif will really be our cornerstone, as we build out around it," Farnsworth said.

Farnsworth is best known for his work leading MoviePass in one of the most spectacular rise-and-fall entertainment startup stories of the last several years. He was chief executive of MoviePass' New York-based parent company, Helios & Matheson Analytics Inc., which declared bankruptcy in January 2020.

Helios & Matheson bought then little-known MoviePass in August 2017 and turned it into a phenomenon by offering virtually unlimited movie theater visits for $9.95 a month. The app quickly grew to 3 million subscribers but struggled because the more people used it, the more money it lost. MoviePass shed customers as it tried to stem losses by limiting how many movies people could see. Meanwhile, the theater companies, which saw MoviePass as an aggressive interloper, launched subscription offerings of their own.

After MoviePass shut down its service in late 2019, Farnsworth stepped down from Helios & Matheson and tried to bid for MoviePass, but he was unsuccessful.

Looking back, Farnsworth said MoviePass changed the business of moviegoing. Several theater chains, including AMC Theatres, Regal, Cinemark and Alamo Drafthouse, launched their own versions of a subscription program in order to boost attendance.

Currently, many theaters remain closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday said New York City theaters could finally reopen, while limiting them to 25% capacity.

Many of MoviePass' problems stemmed from the fact that the company's technology and customer service couldn't handle the app's level of growth. That won't be an issue for Lomotif, whose users have uploaded billions of video clips, Farnsworth said. The app has had more than 225 million downloads globally, the company said.

"I still to this day believe in that [MoviePass] model very much, though obviously not now with theaters closed," Farnsworth said. "We definitely changed the industry forever. I think here, this is totally different because [Lomotif users are] generating their own content. They’re used to the scale and the consumption."

Lomotif, founded in 2014, is in a competitive business. The app had 25.2 million global downloads in 2020, according to data firm SensorTower. That's far fewer than the 987 million for TikTok and 254 million for Singapore-based Likee.

TikTok last year came under fire from the Trump administration, which accused it of sharing user data with the Chinese government. TikTok denied doing so. Trump moved to ban the app, and TikTok made a deal with Oracle Corp. and Walmart, but that agreement reportedly has been shelved amid a broad Biden administration review of U.S. business dealings with China.

Triller, owned by former studio chief Ryan Kavanaugh's Proxima Media, tried to take advantage of TikTok's pain but struggled to maintain its early momentum.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.