What is the best place to sit in a movie theater? Cinephiles have debated this topic for decades. Most people tend to prefer the middle; as close to the the center of the screen—and the center of the auditorium—as possible. But at one Canadian theater chain, those prime seats may soon become a lot less desirable, because they’re about to get more expensive.
A recent article in The Toronto Star outlines Cineplex Odeon’s plan to test a new pilot program at one of their Toronto locations where customers would have to pay “an extra $2-3” for the best seats in the theater:
“‘We’ve had great success with our UltraAVX cinemas ($3-$5 surcharge) as well as our VIP cinemas ($7-$12 surcharge) which both offer reserved seating; and so people really like that opportunity,’ said spokeswoman Pat Marshall. ‘It’s really about providing our guests with choices when they go to the movies… I sort of position it akin to an aircraft where you have your regular coach seating, then you might want a bit more amenities, so you go into business class, and then you have a first-class.”
It’s true; airlines have long varied their ticket prices by amenities and even by the time of day and week. (You’re more likely to pay more heading to Las Vegas on a Friday afternoon than on a Tuesday morning.) Some people do choose to pay extra for a first-class seat, and consumers tend to enjoy having options to choose from.
But here’s the thing: people hate flying. It’s a necessary evil, the thing you do to get to your destination. Air travel is one hassle and headache after another. No business, particularly an entertainment business, should willingly model themselves after consumer air travel. The movies are supposed to be an escape from the annoyances and irritations of the everyday. Every time theaters institute a new surcharge—for screens that are bigger or sound that’s better or seats that are slightly larger or more comfortable—they are making that escape a little less pleasurable and a little more frustrating.
I can respect that the movie theater business is not as strong as it once was. There are more options fighting for audiences’ entertainment dollars (and less of those entertainment dollars to go around) than ever before, and the home-viewing experience continues to improve all the time. In the face of greater competition, companies need to stay profitable somehow.
But so far, most exhibitors’ revenue-boosting ideas only make movie theaters less inviting, not more. It would be different if theaters really offered a premium experience for a premium price. But most of these add-ons are actually necessary parts of moviegoing disguised as amenities. With the notable exception of genuine IMAX, theater chains upcharges simply don’t deliver enough added value to justify their cost. Last week I saw a movie at an IMAX-branded screen at a multiplex that was barely bigger than the one at the dumpy old New Jersey theater I used to frequent as a child. The current upcharge to see Godzilla in “IMAX 3-D” on this moderately large screen: $6. That’s almost half the price of a standard ticket.
Now at least one chain wants to charge more for the seats in the center of the theater. In my mind, that sets a dangerous precedent, because it establishes a system where the standard experience at a movie theater is a shitty one. When did the ability to see a film clearly and comfortably at a movie theater become an “amenity?” If the options are pay extra on top of the already high ticket prices or watch the movie from a terrible vantage point, why wouldn’t you just stay at home? What’s next? Fifty cents extra for a floor that’s not sticky? Two bits gets you a cupholder?
What real “amenities” would I pay more for? True IMAX for sure, and I’ve done that on many occasions (most recently for Gravity). If a theater could guarantee customers wouldn’t text or tweet on their cell phone during a movie that might be worth an extra buck or two, although I have no idea how to do that practically.
Mostly, though, I don’t want amenities at all. I want movie theaters to address this issue in the other direction. Instead of trying to boost revenue by tacking on a dollar here or there in order to bleed every last drop of commerce out of their loyal customers, why not try to enhance the experience in small but important ways without raising prices, in the hopes of bringing in new customers and encouraging regular visitors to come back more often? It can’t be that hard. Give me a screen that’s big and bright, images that are sharp and clear, floors that are clean, auditoriums that aren’t too hot or too cold, and let me sit wherever I damn well want. Do that without costing me an arm and a leg and I’m happy. Let’s keep the price gouging where it belongs: at the concession stand.