You used to be able to count on certain things when you went to see a summer movie. Frigid air conditioning would offer respite from oppressive heat and humidity that makes the outdoors feel like you just stepped inside someone’s mouth. If you were lucky enough to be in an empty theater in the middle of the workweek, you could flip down your chair, settle in and enjoy the comforting sound of 35-millimeter film whirring through the projector.
Well, there’s no more whirring, as distributors force theaters to switch to digital projectors — and soon, those flip-down seats we’ve become so accustomed to could be relics as well.
That’s because AMC, the nation’s second-largest movie theater chain, is investing $600 million to renovate and “reseat” 1,800 of its 5,000 auditoriums with bigger, cushier reclining seats, the better for accommodating our ever-expanding waistlines. These seats, which are 60 inches across compared with the conventional 44 inches, are similar to the unsightly monstrosities that became a must-have when celebrities started showing off their home theaters on “MTV Cribs,” setting off a glut of basement screening room conversions before the housing crash.
But when the lights dim for the feature presentation, looks don’t matter — revenue does. In theaters where AMC first introduced the new chairs, revenue is up 60 percent on average, according to the Wall Street Journal, and that’s despite the fact that reseated auditoriums have fewer seats — some lose as much as two-thirds of their original capacity. Attendance has jumped 80 percent. The company’s rivals have taken notice. Regal, the nation’s biggest movie theater chain, is reseating too, albeit at a slower pace with a lesser investment. AMC plans to charge $1 to $2 more for shows in reseated auditoriums.
Reclining seats make you think of one of two things: bad airplane etiquette or La-Z-Boys. AMC is betting on La-Z-Boy — there’s enough space between rows of the recliners that moviegoers can avoid being kicked or kneed in the back. It’s hoping the renovations will make its theaters feel more like people’s living rooms as it becomes increasingly difficult to extract them from their couches — movie ticket sales have remained flat for the past 10 years. There’s something else about the reseated theaters that may make them more appealing as well: Because there are fewer seats — some small auditoriums hold less than 70 — it can make the experience feel more intimate than your typical large-scale stadium-style theaters.
On one hand, it sounds great: no more fighting for armrest space. On the other, if coping with mysterious sticky substances is not your strong suit, it makes you want to come bearing disinfectant wipes. The new reclining seats provide ample napping real estate: cool, cushy and dark, which sounds lovely until you remember that with napping comes drooling, snoring and other unsavory bodily emissions. Make people feel as though they’re at home, and they will act as though they are. All that upholstery means more crevices for stray kernels of popcorn and candy. Does each of the theaters getting these updated seats also get an accompanying supply of Shop-Vacs?
For now, AMC is using the strategy to bolster sales in lower-trafficked theaters, while areas with reliable audience streams such as New York and Los Angeles will retain the old-fashioned flipdowns.
“There are no more bodies coming through the door,” Eric Wold, an analyst at B. Riley & Co., told the Journal. “So you have to find something to get them to come back more often or pay more.”