Saturday, November 22, 2014

Still LIfe With Robin: The Theory of Movie Seating

Black hole illustration by NASA, public domain
by Peggy Robin

I had my first experience with reserved-seating at a movie theater, and (groaner alert) I have my reservations about it.

We went to see TheTheory of Everything at the Bethesda Row Cinema. Due to a massive traffic jam inside the Bethesda municipal parking garage, we arrived at the theatre much later than we’d planned, but fortunately, the show was not sold out. There were a still a few seats left in the first and second rows – so we were told by the box office clerk. She showed us a seating chart and asked us to pick the two seats we wanted. We selected the two center-most in the second row, paid, and got two tickets with our assigned seat numbers.  It was no different, now that I think of it, from getting seats for a live theater performance. I understand this has been the practice in Britain at the movies (or cinema, as they say) for quite some time now. That doesn’t make it a good idea, however.

Here are three downsides, as I see it:

First, when you have assigned movie theater seats, buying tickets takes a good deal longer and is far more of a hassle. I know, because I buy live theater seats online at least a few times a year – and it can be a time-consuming , even stressful process. You have to find the seating chart and check over what’s available, and make a choice, all while a ticket timer clocks your progress, counting down the time you have left. At some point it says, ominously, “you have three minutes left to complete this purchase.” Going to the theater is a big deal. It costs up to ten times as much as going to the movies, so this type of pressure is perhaps to be expected from such a costly outing. But going to the movies is supposed to be a more casual thing, something everyone can do, quickly and easily. It’s not supposed to be such a big deal.  Why make it one?

Second, you want to be able to change seats if you need to. What if the person in front of you is yakking non-stop to a seat mate? In a non-reserved theater, if the show isn’t sold out, you just pick yourself up and relocate to an empty seat. But in a reserved-seating arrangement, someone may come in late with a ticket for that seat. There’s enough competition in life over tightly controlled spaces without introducing more of it into what was once the escapist world of the movies.

My third point is about FREEDOM! (you are supposed to hear echoes of Mel Gibson charging when you read this). When you have assigned movie seats, you can’t make the kind of judgments you expect to be able to make over your personal movements. It’s a question of autonomy, which, in a free society, we are supposed to want to maximize as much as possible. When you have free choice of all the available seats, you walk into a theater and you get to assess the situation, according to your own sense of priorities and values. You can survey the layout of the theater, see if there are groups of teenagers and avoid them, or look for short people to sit behind, or put into play whatever personal strategies and preferences you have developed over the course of your life so far. You can look for people who don’t eat popcorn. You can stay away from people who play with their cellphones during the previews. You give up on all that when you are limited to your an assigned seat.

I’ve now been mulling this over for a while, but I just can’t think of any upsides, any reason that assigned seating would confer on movie-goers any advantage. You can already buy tickets online if you want to be assured that the show is not sold out. You can already plan to get there early if you are intent upon sitting in any particular section of the theater. Of course, it could be that I am not open-minded enough to recognize the advantages, and once I have more experience with the system, I will broaden my view. I expect I will get more experiences soon enough, as I predict this system will quickly spread to other theaters and eventually take over them all.  I hope I am wrong, but we’ll have to see about that.

One other prediction I am prepared to make right now: Eddie Redmayne will win the Oscar for Best Actor for The Theory of Everything. We’ll find out about that on February 22. 2015.

Still Life Wlith Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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