There are many schools of thought — Confucianism, transcendentalism, objectivism— but one of the most popular must surely be If It Ain’t Brokeism. Its main tenet is a simple one: Fixing something that doesn’t require repair can wind up breaking that very unbroken thing.
I thought of this when I read a missive from a reader I’ll call Riled Up in Vienna. She wrote: “For the past six months, every time I have been to an AMC theater, I get so annoyed that I just had to write to you to see if you can influence abandoning the new pre-selection of seating in the movie theater.”
Her problem is this: Having to select a specific seat adds time to the ticket-purchase transaction. If you’re standing in line to buy your ticket at the last minute, you might miss the beginning of the film as patrons dither over this seat or that seat.
If the movie isn’t close to being sold out, the delay is silly, since customers will just sit anywhere. And once the movie starts, reserved seating is disruptive, Riled Up argued, since latecomers stumble around in the dark looking for their seats.
Wrote Riled Up: “I don’t see the logic behind the assigned seating during lower-attendance times when the theater is not sold out or even half full, other than they are trying to push patrons to using the ticket machines or buying online and thus reducing the need for people to sell you a ticket!”
Riled Up said she used to love going to the movies, but “this assigned seating policy has spoiled it for me.”
I first encountered reserved movie theater seating when I lived in England. Frankly, it seemed weird to me, but so did calling French fries “chips” and potato chips “crisps.” I soon got used to it, and eventually I saw the appeal. If you are able to buy your ticket online ahead of time, you don’t have to line up early at the theater in the hope of getting a decent seat.
Of course, that’s the key: online. Whether intentional or not, reserved seating pushes more of the transaction costs onto the consumer. We print the ticket ourselves, saving the theater owner paper costs. We even fork over a “convenience charge” for the honor.
Reserved seating is becoming more common, said Patrick Corcoran of the National Association of Theatre Owners. It’s the latest evolution in the way we go to the pictures.
“If you go back far enough, the theater was open all day long,” Patrick said. “You didn’t have to go in at a specific showtime. You went in in the middle of a movie, sat down, then watched to the beginning of the first movie you saw. It was really very informal.”
Then specific showtimes were introduced. Getting a good seat meant showing up early. Get there late and you were looking at Clint Eastwood’s feet.
Reserved seating changes the equation. The benefits, said Ryan Noonan, AMC’s director of corporate communications, include eliminating waiting in what the industry calls “holdout lines”: those queues of people outside the theater waiting for the exiting moviegoers to stream past while hoping not to overhear any spoilers. (Bruce Willis was dead?!)
Wrote Ryan in an e-mail: “Guests are loving the anxiety-free movie-going experience that reserved seating provides, ensuring when they walk into the theater they’ll have the seat they selected waiting for them.”
But clearly not all guests, some of whom are asking: Didn’t American movie theaters work just fine without assigned seating? If it ain’t broke, etc.
Some in the theater biz would say it is broke, or at least hurting. Theater revenues have been stagnant, stung by competition from the ever-larger screens we hang from our walls.
Theater owners, Patrick said, “don’t have control over the movies being made, but they do have control over the customer experience. A lot of the industry is looking to give more comfort, convenience and better value.”
During the summer, AMC announced it was spending $600 million to renovate 1,800 of its nearly 5,000 auditoriums, installing plush recliner-style seating. These are larger than the old seats, meaning fewer will fit in each auditorium. Somewhat unexpectedly, AMC has found that revenue rises in the spiffed-up theaters.
Revenue should rise even more: As the Wall Street Journal reported in July, “AMC plans to wait about a year after upgrading its theaters before raising ticket prices.”
I think we’re still in the painful birthing stages of assigned movie seating. But I think it’s here to stay.
“People adapt to things at different rates,” Patrick said. “I think a lot of customers are going to find the value in it.”
Perhaps for every patron irritated by the new system, there’s another who thinks it’s enough to get him off the couch and into the theater.
My column is going dark for a week. I’ll see you back in this space on Nov. 10.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.