The multiplex movie theater just minutes from my house was the location of my first real job and some of my first memorable movie-going experiences. I worked during immensely packed midnight screenings of The Dark Knight and saw many childhood favorites there. But over time, I wondered if our movie theater might even still be there in a few years. Picture quality was bad, and so were the movies to the point that I would avoid the place if I could.
Within the last six months however, our movie theater added a bar, a pizza place, a rewards program, vastly improved projection and sound, discount specials on weeknights, an easy to use mobile app, giant reclining chairs and reserved seating.
In that time, I’ve seen our movie theater rapidly become the hot place to be in our small Chicago suburb with little else to do. I’ve seen it absolutely packed at 10:30 at night. I’ve been sold out of movies on Tuesday evenings. I watched screenings of the new Hunger Games spaced out within 15 minutes of each other disappear before my eyes as I tried to order tickets online.
Suddenly going to the movies has become a lot of fun for many in my neighborhood. The annoyances of sticky floors, uncomfortable seating and rude people causing distractions have mattered so much less in the face of all the conveniences, and people seem genuinely excited to watch movies again.
On Thursday however, I read an article by a critic I respect at The Dissolve, Keith Phipps, arguing that we should get rid of one particular new amenity: reserved theater seating. Here’s one of his practical reasons I found most compelling:
Even when the system works, I hate it. I choose my seats based where I’m most likely to be able to watch a movie without distractions. There’s strategy to this: The over-70 patrons at a matinee almost invariably chat away during a movie. They’re to be avoided. Anyone talking on the phone before a movie begins will likely keep talking on it once the movie starts: Also to be avoided. Does this person look likely to text during the movie? I want them out of my sight lines. I make dozens of little calculations before I sit down and they don’t stop once I’ve chosen a seat. I don’t mind other patrons talking during the trailers, but if they’re talking too much it tells me they’ll probably keep talking during the movie. If so, time to move. And if they’re talking during the movie, I need to move elsewhere. Reserved seating makes it impossible to choose a seat based on what I see in the theater and then locks me in, unable to move if where I’ve chosen plants me in the middle of a bunch of distractions.
That makes a lot of sense to me. If I don’t like my seat for whatever reason and don’t want to make a scene, I get up and move. But in a packed theater with assigned seating, I can’t.
I get the dilemma, and Phipps also takes a quick shot at the giant reclining seats that my theater and those like AMC are quickly installing. Combine these with reserved seating, and Phipps argues it’s creating a divide between “premium” and “regular” that further detracts from movies being a public experience.
There’s more: as movie lovers, we love going to the theater because when the experience is right, it’s oh so right. We relish those classical charms, so anything that detracts from that is something worth bringing up in discussions of etiquette and how the industry is evolving.
But I would give up all the highbrow ways I as a cinephile would attempt to make theater going perfect if it meant more people were actually going. There are so many reasons for people to stay home and instead watch something on Netflix that any little perk a theater can provide to adults that makes the experience easier and more meaningful for the average Joe movie-goer is worth it.
Not once in nearly 20 years of going to the movies can I honestly say I’ve had a George Costanza level, horror story experience at the movies. Yes, I’ve dealt with the usual, but even when these annoyances have been a problem, I don’t let it faze me and allow it to ruin my movie going experience. Life is too short to complain about something so miniscule or people so nonchalantly rude. And if I did want that classical experience, I could always make the choice to go to art houses, film festivals or the Music Box; I can tolerate a ho-hum screening of Taken 3.
What I do worry about is fighting a war with Anil Dash and people who wish to text freely as though the theater was their living room. I worry about “second-screen experiences” that prevent me from having a single, undisturbed experience with just one screen for two hours. And I worry that despite all the amenities, Hollywood will stop producing the intelligent, original pieces of entertainment that made us want to leave the house in the first place.
I have as much reason to nitpick about multiplexes as Phipps does, but it’s a losing battle in a new generation, and the stakes for how we watch movies are bigger than just the seating arrangement.
So this weekend, I’ll be at the theater with everyone else looking to have a good time. There’s a seat saved for me.