A Few More Reasons Why Cinemas Don’t Assign Seating

In a recent Betweenthenumbers post, Ben suggested several reasons why most movie theaters in the U.S. do not assign seats. Here are a few more theories to add to the list:

Theory #6: Loud popcorn munchers and big hair

Movie theaters have been around for well over a hundred years. But stadium seating is relatively new, becoming popular only during the 1990’s. Prior to stadium seating, big hair might have been a big problem with seating assignments. Being assigned a seat behind a 1980’s Bon Jovi wanna-be would mean you can’t see the movie.

Thankfully, big hair has been out of style for a while. But popcorn at the movies never goes out style. Unfortunately for the rest of us, some moviegoers find that flavor and volume are highly correlated: the louder they munch, the more they enjoy it. Stadium seating hasn’t solved this problem. But being able to choose your own seat and then change your mind seven minutes later has.

Theory #7: The theater wants to fill even the worst seat in the house

After you’ve purchased your movie ticket, popcorn, and soda, it’s too late. You walk into the theater and realize that the only remaining seats are in the front, left corner. Your viewing angle will skew the picture and leave you with a sore neck for days. But the theater wants to sell every seat in the house, even the rotten ones. The moviegoer who finds out at the ticket counter that his seat will be terrible may wait for the next showing, find another theater, or find something else to do.

Theory #8: Most show times have no meaningful seat scarcity

Assigned seating only becomes important when scarcity is an issue. Even venues that typically assign seats forget about the assignments when demand is low. I attended a UCLA basketball game a couple seasons ago when Pauley Pavilion was under renovation. Not only did UCLA have to play home games on the campus of their cross-town rival, they were having a pathetic season. Fans didn’t show up. I bought the cheap seats and sat in the expensive ones. Nobody cared. Outside of opening weekend for films with a Harry Potter or Twilight-like fan base, seat scarcity is an infrequent issue and, unless it is, seating assignments would be a senseless exercise.

Theory #9: Good luck finding your seat in a dark theater

Theater lights are dimmed long before show time for advertising. After the movie begins, it’s a challenge to see at all, let alone identify seat numbers.

Theory #10: Pricing tiers are unlikely to be profitable and may even be counter-productive

Operationally it makes sense to cluster movie-goers toward the center of the theater. This makes it much easier for late arrivals to locate a seat and make their way to it. Plus it means fewer people climbing over you to get to their premium seats in the middle. If off-center seats are sold at lower prices, they are more likely to be filled early.

Also, pricing tiers introduce another decision into the movie-going experience. The theater wants to move customers through the line as quickly as possible. Shockingly, some customers still don’t know which movie or show time they want even after standing in a long line. Introducing yet another decision could multiply wait times (“Let’s see, we can see The Croods at 8:15 p.m. in a sub-premium seat or The Incredible Burt Wonderstone right now from dead center”). Automatic seat assignment solves this issue with respect to a specific seat, as Ben mentioned, but not with respect to the premium, sub-premium decision.

I am aware of only one theater chain in greater Los Angeles that offers pre-arrange seat selection. But even at this chain, every seat has the same price.  Of course, they will argue that every seat in the theater is premium even though the ones in the middle always seem to go first.

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