Why Don’t Movie Theaters Have Reserved Seating?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Aug. 13 2013 5:15 AM

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Why don’t movie theaters have reserved seating?

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If reserved seating would be pricier for theater owners, then it would surely be pricier for consumers, too. Part of me would love it if Arclight went national. But Arclight is a premium chain—your reserved ticket comes with extra-wide seats, no ads, and a higher-than-usual price tag. In fact, reserved seating in U.S. theaters, as in other countries where a mix of open and reserved exists, is almost always a luxury experience. AMC, for example, now offers reserved seating in its premium dine-in theatres—along with personal recliners, alcoholic drinks, and push-button chair-side service.

In an America that is increasingly divided along economic lines, I’d be worried about an explosion of premium theaters, or a national move to reserved seating that might raise prices for everyone. As more and more details of daily life are determined by income, the movies remain as shared a cultural space as we’ve got left.

Some open-seating proponents argue that our current system is more democratic as well. I don’t buy that. It simply rewards those who plan ahead and get there early rather than those who plan ahead and reserve a seat online (not everyone has Internet access, but then not everyone has a free half-hour to burn, either). Still, I agree that open seating seems more democratic. The theater, when we enter it, feels like an easily understood common space, like a park or a bus. First come, first served. And open seating is certainly less formal—another occasional American virtue.

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Reserved seating may also vaguely offend our sense of freedom. This feeling may not be logical—under reserved seating, with a little foresight, you’re arguably more “free” to sit where you want—but then, few feelings are logical. “It’s about choice, which is something we Americans place a lot of stock in,” explained Chris Gordon, the New York–born editor of the St. Petersburg Times, an English-language paper in Russia’s second city. Gordon pines for American-style free seating, and notes an additional, practical advantage: the freedom to make on-the-fly decisions to avoid people who are tall, loud, or smartphone-addled.

Open seating, especially on a busy night, is also more social. You have to wait with, squeeze past, and maybe sit between people you don’t know—you might even end up talking to them!—but it’s also more chaotic. In some countries, this may not be the best cultural fit. Uday Bhatia, an editor at Time Out Delhi, can “imagine free seating causing a few crowd control problems inside and outside the hall … India’s not the greatest nation as far as queues are concerned.”

But in Britain—surely the greatest nation, as far as queues are concerned—seating is generally reserved too, and perhaps in more than one sense. James Wilkinson, an English-born editor, suspects the English preference for assigned seating stems from a national “distaste for social interaction outside of pubs.” Examples like India and England suggest that at the movies at least, Americans operate in a rare middle ground: outgoing and generally rule- and line-abiding.

There is one other country out there that seems to love open-seating as much as Americans: France. And when it comes to the idea of reserved seating, our compatriots in 18th-century revolutionary fervor are heading back to the barricades to protest it. A recent attempt at premium, reserved seating in Paris was abandoned just weeks ago, after howls that it “overturned the law of first come, first serve.” There was even a resolution in Paris’ city council: such seating “harms the cinema, by definition a popular art.”

So, OK, the mayor of Bethesda, Md., is unlikely to condemn Arclight’s planned theater in the city as a crime against the American Revolution. But if open seating for nearly everyone is holding prices down, then it might be worth keeping, if the movies in America are to remain even a shadow of what they once were—inexpensive, informal entertainment for everyone, together. In other words, my fellow Americans, I will see you—reluctantly, and ridiculously early—in line.

Mark Vanhoenacker is a writer in New York. Follow him on Twitter.