The Conundrum With Reserved Movie Seating

It’s ubiquitous. Nearly every major chain has some iteration of it now. To some, it’s the panacea to every ailment bogging down the contemporary moviegoer, a quick-fix to the hassle of organization. To others, it’s the bane of their moviegoing existence. It’s the reason that it’s no longer fun to go to midnight premieres as it has ruined the fun, spontaneous element that has made movies so special for decades. I’m talking about the film phenomenon which has usurped the industry pretty quickly over the past decade: reserved seating. Recently, big ticket movie theater chains, such as AMC and Cinemark have moved their business model from an “at the door” ticket system towards a “reserved seat” system. Many people are embracing the change (or rather, fail to notice) because along with the advanced ticket-purchasing methods, it also provides shiny new recliner-chairs! Woohoo. Who doesn’t love seeing the big screen supine? I mean, now every row can see the screen like they’re in the middle. It just depends on what angle you’re at! Nevertheless, these perks serve as a red herring for an unnecessary, extra layer of bureaucracy that weakens the already crippled movie industry today.

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Ah, MoviePass. Will your buzz continue? Your intentions are noble. You only aim to bring more people to the cinemas. In fact, by joining the subscription economy, you may be able to beat Netflix/Hulu/HBOGo at their own game, provided you work out all your kinks, of course.

But why discuss this now? This last week, a number of publications (Engadget, Refinery29, Variety  to name a few) posted articles about unlimited movies for ten dollars a month on a service called Moviepass. If you haven’t heard of Moviepass already, expect to hear about it in the next two or so days. It’s been blowing up the internet over the last week. Anecdotally, I’ve heard about it six times in the last week – all from different people. The idea behind Moviepass is intriguing: you sign up for ten dollars a month, get sent a pre-loaded debit card permitting you to see one movie a day, and voila! Seems pretty great, considering over ninety percent of theaters accept it. Right now, the service is only available in certain theaters, but it covers enough of the country to appeal to most moviegoing masses. Here’s the big catch: you have to buy the tickets at the theater. The prospect seems innocent enough, right? Except with more and more theaters making the switch, the prospect of actually being able to use the movie pass has become difficult. I mean, look at the big metropolitan areas that Moviepass covers? Oddly enough, these are the metropolitan areas that are fastest making the switch towards reserved seating. Take the busting Big Apple, for instance. Moviepass covers New York City, but if you’re trying to go to the AMC on 42nd St. to see the latest Marvel flick, you may be out of luck. Every AMC theater in Manhattan has moved towards the “reserved seating model”, meaning you’ll be laughed at showing up to the Thursday night pre-show with your set-up debit card in hand demanding a free ticket, when the price will be closer to seventeen dollars (at least that’s one bonus of Moviepass!). But Moviepass is born out of a need to bring in bigger and bigger crowds to the theaters.

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One strange thing that reserved seating has done is forced people through the awkwardness of sitting next to a stranger. No longer are there rows speckled with random blank seats! Instead, you don’t even realize you’ll be sitting next to Dale and Judy who snuck in their Taco Bell until you’re in the theater next to them!

The film industry has been lagging as of late and instead of focus on the product itself, the films, they choose to focus on the experience. By reinventing the experience, they think they will draw in bigger crowds, filling in the empty seats vacated because of robots punching each other for the fifth time. So they buy fancy reclining chairs, upgrade their snack quality to feature multiple brands of sparkling water, and install a cocktail bar where you can get yourself an extra dry Martini to feel like James Bond while you’re watching James Bond. As for the most common moviegoer complaints? High ticket prices, better at-home selection, an overcomplicated process? Those fall on deaf ears. Because where do they get the money to fund all these fancy new perks that moviegoers have come to expect as cannon? Well, through the costs of course. If not through the gouging ticket prices, it’s through the varying gimmicks (anyone still a regular 3-D moviegoer?). But they do these things in the hope that audiences will come to enjoy the movies for more than just what’s on screen. And, really, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. That’s what this reserved seating business is all about after all! It’s here to solve a problem.

And in many ways, it does! It certainly is a system with it’s advantages. For one thing, it controls the unbridled chaos that occurred when moviegoers would flock in droves to the latest hot button release. It saved many an angry family who saved this Saturday night as their annual movie outing, only to be told that the film they wanted to see was completely sold out for the rest of the night. Not only that, but because of the new system, the seating options overall are better. The much dreaded front row has been (mostly) eliminated and all the neck craning that went along with it. The cramped seating and uncomfortable seats that bother people have been replaced with much more reasonably spaced seating options. After all, that’s what people want. Reserved seating caters to the premium moviegoing experience. People like nice things and these fancy new recliner chairs are a product of the movie experience revolution, led by the reserved seating system. Thanks to these new innovations, you now need to do some serious planning before you go to the cinema. For some people, that added necessary level of organization is a good thing. Cinemas can be chaotic messes of foot traffic. The last thing anyone wants is people shuffling around trying to find a seat during their movie. Reserved seating is also an excellent way to shed your flakey friend. There’s no “eh, maybe” in the world of reserved seating and if you don’t show, you’ll end up paying for it. Companies like Fandango are winning big with their reserved seating tickets, joining the forefront of this fingerprint economy through their nifty apps which have your digital tickets ready to scan at a moments notice.

AMC Entertainment CEO Lopez sits next to Wanda Group President Wang before a media conference in Beijing
A lot of the big changes within the industry have taken place in the last decade as the international moviegoing community has grown closer and closer. Pictured here is the merger agreement of Wanda – a Chinese media congomerate – and AMC. Many of the changes AMC made took place after the deal, though to be fair, reserved seating in places like Shanghai are probably necessary.

All these things are meant to make the process convenient and many are quick to embrace this moviegoing iteration as a natural step in the digital revolution of the cinema. The concept of reserving your seats has been around for a while now. I remember going to a place to pick my seats over ten years ago. But that experience was reserved for the higher-end clientele. That was at a Landmark theater, which spoiled its customers with the opportunity for “extra” add-ons like VIP service and a wide selection of food and beverage. The experience didn’t come cheap, but it was meant to be a classier affair. At the time, wine and charcuterie weren’t exactly staple movie foods. But tastes evolved. Preferences evolved. The American public sought out healthier food options and the industries reacted. The snacks at the movies back in the day were fairly standard: candy, popcorn, soda, etc. Now? You can find deluxe Guatemalan chocolate, panini pressed sandwiches, and even deluxe popcorn alternatives. These bubbling movie theater amenities are merely a mechanism with which one can track the passage of time. Each new year a new bell and a new whistle and a new customer expecting greatness. But with all this revolutionary future technology, many don’t take a moment to step back and examine the potential drawbacks of such a monumental systematic change.

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When the transition to talkies was made, it was a pretty rapid change. Enough people saw the benefit in adding sound to film that before you know it, it was the standard. Other cinematic innovations, some less innovative than others, such as X-Rated films, found their way in and out of the cinematic world faster than you can say Caligula.

When the movie theater industry has undergone changes in the past, it was for things like regimenting starting times for films, or limiting children in rated R movies, or changing over to digital projectors. Now these were big changes in their own regard and we’ve gotten used to them in time. The first example in particular came about as a way to prevent one from spoiling the movie for themselves. At the time, it was probably fairly inconveniencing to most. They couldn’t just wander into a theater all willy nilly anymore, they had to actually come in during the start of the show. But that was a mild inconvenience to most. Most people actually wanted to see the story as it was meant to be seen, from beginning to end. I mean, think of plays! People also didn’t have the luxury of wandering into those at-will either. In many arguments defending the reserved seating movement, people are quick to point out that other major industry changes seemed controversial at the time before they became standard. But in this case, we’re catering to a movement turning moviegoing into a luxury experience – and while that’s nice for some, it shouldn’t have to be. The problem with making reserved seating an imperative so quickly is that it marginalizes a huge part of the moviegoing public in order to cater to a specific haute-bourgeouise wing of audiences. The luxury moviegoing experience makes more money for movie theaters and, at a time where movie theaters are struggling to hold onto the upcoming generation, it seems like an easy decision to go ahead with the easy money. The problem is that pricing one group out in order to cater to the tastes of another is a risky gamble.

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South Park, remaining as culturally relevant as ever noted this trend towards cookie cutter “quality” in their episodeThe City Part of Town“. Outlets like Whole Foods carry an air of prestige with them. The bring a kind of quality comfort that people seem to be willing to pay for – even if it’s just price gouging for a nice label.

I think reserved seating has it’s place in cinematic world, just as I think arthouse films and Vin Diesel movies have their place as well. But a massive shift to a whole new system could pose unintended consequences. See, reserved seating could be just the tip of the iceberg. When Fandango came out in the early new millennium, it was convenient new way for you to get your movie tickets and not have to worry about going through the hassle of the lines at the theater or the show being sold out. You could just print your tickets at home! But there was an additional cost to it and that was enough to make many prospective buyers wary of it’s value. How often was one really going to need to skip that line? Or how often was one really going to worry about a show selling out? The company ended up doing just alright. They catered to a market of planners who, in certain circumstances, were concerned about the new debut film being packed. For years, people sort of knew it from the source of those silly paper bag commercials and when your grandma’s book club was making their annual group theater outing. Now? It’s become a lifeline. Ever since the reserved seating revolution has started to make it’s inroads, Fandango has seen profits soar. AMC started implementing their reserved seating revolution shortly after their purchase by big Chinese media conglomerate Wanda. That was around 2010. And how has Fandango done since that particular deal? Not too shabby, most would say. Their app alone had seen crazy amounts of downloads and is one of the top entertainment apps on the app store. What was once a fringe tool for the nervous premiere-goer has become an essential on everyone’s phone so they can secure their tickets in time. What luck for Fandango! How fitting for a company of planners.

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Remember seeing these guys in front of the screen warning you to print your tickets at home? Who knew brown paper bags would carry so much wisdom with them? Either way, it’s obvious that Fandango has figured out how to stay afloat the ever rocky sea of the movie world. Can’t wait to see these guys make a comeback urging you to make your seat reservation at least three days in advance.

Cinema has been evolving since it’s earliest days. It’s reactionary; it has an impeccable tendency to adapt and change with the times. But right now, it is struggling to get by. Any organism looking to survive the rapidly changing tides of time has to find a way to adapt. Theaters are attempting to do just that. They don’t want to be seen as relics of the past in an age where there’s more hype around a Netflix release than Ryan Reynold’s second week atop the box office (yikes). But they’ve patched a bunch of holes that really didn’t need patching, They’ve chosen to react to the culture as a whole as opposed to simply reacting to the problems plaguing the movie industry. All their little bells and whistles are nice, but at a certain point, they’re creating more of a process around going to the movies than their needs to be. No one likes a ton of bureaucracy. Look at any random Yelp review of your local DMV.  People do like organization. And whilst there certainly is a need to change the way ticket sales at big premiere movies are handled, there isn’t really for most movies. The bells and whistles are nice, but unnecessary. Flashy, but limiting. Exciting, but exhausting. People used to come to the movies for the films themselves, but now the come (when they do) for a whole cinematic experience. The problem is that there’s a ceiling to the amount of amenities you can provide someone before it’s too much. Eventually, they’ll need to patch the biggest hole of all, or face the consequences. Because these glamorous attractions are fleeting. At the end of the day, people want to be entertained. If they can’t provide that primary servicethey’ll go down in a spectacle of flames. And that, my friends, would be a spectacle worth reserving a seat.


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