Back in July, AMC Entertainment, the second-largest theater chain in the country, announced plans to renovate its theaters, including the installation of “La-Z-Boy type seats that fully recline” in 35 percent of its 5,000 screens. These plush recliners stand to decrease theater capacity by as much as two-thirds, but the chain believes that any lost revenue will be made up—and then some—by adding a surcharge to its ticket prices. The move seemed in line with George Lucas’ prediction that film exhibition would hue closer to the Broadway play model, with fewer movies staying in theaters for longer at higher prices. (Though Broadway seats are not nearly so accommodating of naps.)
Now it would appear that AMC is encouraged by early returns. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the chain today announced its intent to accelerate upgrades to its theaters ahead of the 2015 blockbuster season. (In addition to the recliners, these upgrades include adding more “MacGuffins” bars and IMAX screens, though between the recliners and the alcohol, the size of the screen will likely not matter to the slumbering customers.) AMC is adding $38.8 million to the $200 million it had already planned for 2014, and the overall expense of making the changes is budgeted at $600 million.
There’s no question that movie theaters need to figure out ways to compete with home viewing in the HDTV age, and AMC is guessing that bigger screens, cushier seats, and liquor concessions will make a difference. It’s not a bad gamble, either, considering that even with the surcharges, going to the movies is still a relatively cheap date and the upgrades stand to make that date seem more special. Lest we get too nostalgic for the bad ol’ days of creaky seats, poor sightlines, and handkerchief screens at the local multiplex, there’s nothing wrong with making the experience more comfortable and amplifying the sight and sound. My only real concern is that only certain types of movies—i.e. spectacles like the ones AMC is anticipating in Summer 2015—will encourage audiences to splurge on all these amenities. Paying $20 to see The Avengers sequel big and loud and plush is one thing; paying $20 to see a character-driven ensemble drama is quite another. If we’re heading toward the Broadway-ification of movie theaters, it’s worth remembering that only certain types of productions play on Broadway.