Why we don’t have assigned seats at the movies

28 Mar

One of the more fun things I did while in Bangkok was go to the movies. I know, I went all the way to the other side of the world and used my time doing stuff I can do here at home. Truth be told, I wasn’t a big fan of Bangkok - it was too big, busy and hot - and it was toward the end of our trip, so we were perhaps a little weary of Thailand. And besides, we had read in our travel guide that going to the movies was a big deal in the capital.

It sure was - we liked it so much, we actually went to two. For the first one, we picked regular seats for Rango. For the second, we got some super, ultimate VIP seats for Liam Neeson’s latest action pic, Unknown. It was an entertaining enough movie, if pretty preposterous, but the experience is what made it fun. Our VIP tickets gave us two very nice reclining chairs, complete with blankets and service staff - not to mention a tasty welcome drink.

In any event, with both movies, we got assigned seats. That always makes me think about the theatre situation here in North America and how it’s dramatically different from the rest of the world. I’m a movie buff and have been to theatres all over the world - in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Asia - and the norm is when you buy your ticket, you select your seat. A few theatres in North America, mostly independents, do it this way too but for the most part with the big chains, it’s first come, first served.

Why is that? There are numerous theories. Some people say that first come, first served is better because most attendees arrive before the movie and thereby don’t disturb everyone by looking for their seats once the show has started. There’s also the argument that having assigned seating slows down the ticket-buying process.

Both suggestions are somewhat valid but I’m willing to bet it’s all about money. Specifically, advertising money.

When you buy an assigned seat, if the movie starts at say, 8 pm, you can show up at 8 pm, sit down and enjoy the previews as they start. The movie itself will probably begin at 8:05. When you buy an unassigned seat to a big, brand new blockbuster film that also starts at 8, you have to show up at 7 pm if you want any hope of getting a decent seat, stand in line to get in at 7:30 (maybe), at which point you watch a “pre-game” show comprised of wall-to-wall advertising for the latest bands, gadgets, etc., plus maybe some trivia.

But that’s not the end of the advertising. Once the movie start time arrives, we’re subjected to yet more ads. Here in Canada, AMC theatres aren’t too bad. They may show a few commercials before the movie, but Cineplex takes the cake. I once counted 14 commercials - for Coca-Cola, various car brands and just about every cellphone company there is - before the film began. And none of this includes the movie previews, which are also ads themselves.

There’s a good reason why North American theatres are not likely to take to assigned seating in a big way and that’s because they want us there early. Firstly, the longer we’re there, the more likely we are to buy their expensive food. But secondly and more importantly, if we’re not forced to arrive early in order to get a good seat, they won’t have any eyeballs to sell to advertisers. If movie-goers, armed with assigned seats, showed up just before the movie started, there would be no pre-game show - it would cost too much to produce with no revenue to offset it.

Furthermore, if movie-goers had assigned seats they would soon learn when to actually show up. If the movie “starts” at 8 but there are 10 minutes of commercials, they’d show up at 8:10. Again, bye-bye advertising revenue.

Why does this matter and how does it relate to technology? Well, Liam Lacey - the Globe and Mail’s film critic - recently wrote up a “modest defence of price gouging at movie theatres” that I read with great interest. His suggestion is that we should be thankful for the high price of food at theatres, because they’re what keep prices on the actual tickets low. It’s a good point, but I would also argue that piracy is what keeps ticket prices low. That’s because most movie-goers are young people, the same folks who know about and are capable of getting all their new releases via the internet.

I’ve always found the success of movie theatres in Asia somewhat surprising because every guy on every corner is selling pirated DVDs of all the latest films. The theatres succeed, though, by giving audiences something they can’t duplicate at home - a huge screen, great sound and nice, comfortable chairs, maybe even with blankets and VIP service. It’s a fine line, though - if the prices creep too high, people will just stay home with those cheap, off-the-street DVDs.

What applies in Asia also applies in North America. Theatres have to keep ticket prices low or their primarily young audiences will turn to or stick with piracy. You can’t really blame the chains for trying to make some money with advertising, but that too is a fine line - too much of it, like what Cineplex does, is eventually bound to turn people off the experience too.

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Posted by on March 28, 2011 in piracy


5 responses to “Why we don’t have assigned seats at the movies

  1. sparkyd

    March 28, 2011 at 9:40 am

    You are absolutely right that the pendulum is swinging to way too many ads. As parents of young children (and no free family babysitting in town) we rarely get to movies anymore. The last two times we’ve gone we’ve left feeling like we would have been better off watching something on our big screen at home - the “experience” didn’t add enough value, particularly when the movie started really late, and was made at least 20 minutes later by all the ads and previews. Just not worth it.

  2. JPTN

    March 28, 2011 at 10:00 am

    There are a few select theatres with reserved seating such as Cineplex UltraAVX as well as certain IMAX theatres but yes, I wish it was more prevalent. It really is a hassle having to get to a theatre an hour before the movie just to get a decent seat.

    • petenowak2000

      March 28, 2011 at 10:14 am

      Yes indeed, and any Dbox motion-synced chair you get is also reserved. Of course, that costs extra - between $7 and $9, I believe.

  3. Chris

    March 28, 2011 at 10:10 am

    As usual, Pete, a very thoughtful article. I am so glad this is brought up to the forefront, because I’ve been saying this in private for years. I have stopped going to movies and canceled my satellite TV subscription for that very reason (excessive commercials).

    It’s high time Hollywood stopped looking at movies as ‘Advertizing Vehicles’ and got back for what they should be: entertainment.

  4. watro

    March 28, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Reserved seating. Would love to see that model work here in Canada, although having been to the “AVX” reserved seating attempt at Cineplex I can’t say I was impressed at all. I was also held hostage to the same amount of commercials, just in a chair that reclines back a little more than the usual ones and perhaps is a bit wider. Love the please turn off your cell phones and crying babies ad they have at the moment.


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