Cinemas and allocated seating: the pros and cons

Cinemas increasingly want to sell you an exact seat, with an exact number. A good or bad thing?

A Section of Theater Seats

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Cast your mind back to the opening weekend of DreamWorks’ colour explosion, Trolls. It’s a decent enough film, that I never have much urge to rewatch, but my offspring do. The news that Trolls 2 is on the way was greeted with some joy by them too.

At the time it came out, my youngest was three years old. By this time, he enjoyed the cinema, but I kept him primarily to the cheaper kids club screenings. He was adamant he wanted to see Trolls, though, and thus we booked tickets – and crucially seats – for the first Sunday afternoon it was on. We booked a seat up against a wall for him, on the off chance he got tempted to go walkies. He might be three, but it’s never too early to learn cinema conduct, I figured.

The problem – and you can see where this is heading – is that when we went to take our seats, there was someone in them. It turned you a young man had decided to bring his girlfriend on a date to see Trolls at 2.30pm on a Sunday in a screen full of kids. His choice, clearly. But he was adamant he was in the right seat. Not wishing to embarrass him on date nigh… afternoon, I patiently explained that we’d specifically booked that seat for fear of my three year old going walkies.

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Eventually he moved, graciously I should add. A happy ending.

A happy ending with questions, though. Is allocated seating in the cinema a good thing? And why, if it exists, was there nobody there to enforce it? Why was it left to the customers to deal with the someone-else-in-my-seat problem? Also, how tricky is it to a) sit in your allocated seat and b) quickly move if for some reason you’ve ended up in the wrong seat?

When we ran our annual survey of your thoughts on British cinema habits, the big jump in grumbles over the previous one was over reserved seats. And it’d fair to say it’s an issue that splits the proverbial crowd. On the one hand, some like having the foreknowledge of having a prebooked seat. Others are happy to rock up and sit where there’s space, and don’t want the faff of trying to find J16.

A couple of things brought this issue back to the forefront of my mind over the last week. Firstly, an anecdotal discussion I had with someone in the cinema industry, who casually remarked that the average occupancy rate that UK cinemas aim for is around the 15-20% mark. To translate that from non-marketing speak, it means that on average, screens are 15% full. That the vast majority of the time, there’s no shortage of empty seats, leading me to wonder about the merits of a blanket allocated seat policy for every performance.

Inevitably, there are swings and roundabouts to this, as it is an average. The opening of a Star Wars film, there might be a fair few sold out showings. Conversely, a Monday morning screening of a film that’s been out a few weeks might struggle to attract more than a couple of people. Most of us have the odd experience too where we were the only ones in the cinema. For me, it happened at the Showcase Liverpool, for a screening of The Peacemaker back in the late 1990s. I wanted it noted I still didn’t talk through the film.

The second instance was a letter read out on the Kermode & Mayo film programme, on Radio Five Alive last Friday. There, someone recalled how their son had gone to the cinema, prebooked the seat, and when they got there, someone was sat it. More to the point, someone was sat in it who refused to move. The person who had taken the trouble to prebook where they wanted to sit was told to “sit somewhere else”.

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And that, to me, is the dividing line on reserved seating.

In theory, the principal behind the idea is sound, and it certainly favours those who prebook too. That you can get the seat you want, you know where you’re going, and you know that your party can all sit together. For those with limited mobility but who aren’t in a wheelchair, reserved seating can also be a godsend. Likewise, those who are hard of hearing may favour a particular spot to get the most out of the feature concerned.

However: allocated seating can’t work if people don’t sit in the allocated seat. Can’t work if those who sit in the wrong seat refuse to move. And can’t work if – here it comes – there’s nobody there to enforce it.

The cinema remains a leisure activity. For many of us, at the end of a long day, it’s a treat. You pay a not-always-economical price to go and see a film on an enormous screen, with a proper sound system, whilst you’re told to relax by the cinema’s on-screen blurb the tends to play at the start of movies. I love the cinema, and remain convinced that it, by distance, is the best place to see a film.

But not when you’re left to enforce the policies of a multiplex, because there’s nobody else on hand to do it.

Wherever you stand on allocated seating, it’s surely pointless if the cinema itself doesn’t enforce it. It was the point ultimate made on the Kermode & Mayo show, and I think that’s bang on. The correspondent to that programme reported that their son ended up in different seat, because, not unreasonably, he didn’t want the hassle and the confrontation on a trip out. We joke often about being British, but once you’ve been snarled at for asking someone to move, it can be intimidating, uncomfortable and ruin the whole visit for you. Heck, it’s nearly 20 years since I asked a group of teenagers to be quiet during American Pie, to be told in no uncertain terms that they’d be waiting for me in the car park to discuss the matter further. Happy days. Who wants that on what’s supported to be a fun evening out?

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Back to seating. There are exceptions, of course. In a 95% empty screen, it’s almost become sport to see people duck into the luxury seats as soon as the lights go down. Furthermore, with no usher, if you do want to skip the ads, you’re often walking into a pitch-black screen with no idea where row CC actually is, yet alone which side of the screen seat 17 is (although my local Empire, thoughtfully, has a map). Shining a bright torch is arguably worse than slipping into one of many empty seats in that instance.

Still, what’s clear is there’s no consensus, or anything close to it, on whether allocated seating is a good thing. But what there does seem to be agreement on is that if it’s in place, it has to be properly enforced. And not by the person paying the best part of a tenner – or more – for the privilege. I can but hope all of this is sorted by the time Trolls 2 comes out…