Media Circus: Popcorn is served

Will the return of reserved seating in movie theaters ruin the last bastion of cultural democracy?

By James Surowiecki

Published December 1, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

I'm not sure what a New York movie theater looks like without lines of impatient people pushing to get three or four steps ahead of each other. But I'm about to find out: MovieFone has just introduced reserved seating at two New York theaters -- a Chelsea multiplex and the palatial, 2,000-seat Ziegfeld -- and plans to bring it to theaters all over the city and, eventually, all over the country.

Here's how the new scheme works: Customers can either buy tickets over the phone -- as you can already do with MovieFone -- or buy them at the box office. Either way, they're asked if they'd prefer to sit left, center or right and front, middle or back, and then they're given an assigned seat. Latecomers will still have a chance to strain their necks in the front row since seats in the two front rows won't be assigned.

So will people turn away when they find out they can't sit together at a particular movie? Probably not. "We asked people about this, we tested this, and moviegoers said they wanted it," says Howard Lichtman of Cineplex Odeon, which is working with MovieFone on the system. "It's just like reserved seating for a concert or a play. People want to know that they'll be able to sit together, and they like being able to call up ahead of time and get the seats they want."

Sounds sensible enough. So why does reserved movie seating feel like yet another step in the spread of hierarchy through a democratic culture? The movies have always been the democratic medium par excellence, because they've been cheap enough for everyone to afford and because going to a movie is an unavoidably public experience. You can sit at home and watch television, but if you want to see a movie you have to wait on line with everyone else and sit in the midst of hundreds of others. Some part of the American mind likes the thought that if Bill Gates wants to see "The Jackal" on a big screen, he has to see it the way we all do.

European countries generally feature reserved seating (which might be thought of as a good reason not to adopt it). That's true even in Eastern Europe, although, as one writer put it, in Poland the attitude seems to be: "Sit in your own seat unless, of course, you fancy someone else's seat or it's dark and you can't find your own." Moviegoing in Europe is, however, a much bigger deal than it is in the U.S. The less common and casual an experience is, the more likely people are to tolerate elaborate planning processes. But with the possible exception of India, there's no country in the world where people go to the movies as much as Americans do, and the ease with which we go to the movies is part of what makes reserved seating feel so unnatural.

Anyway, Americans have already tried and rejected reserved movie seating. Film historian Thomas Schatz, author of "The Genius of the System," points out that so-called prestige films were shown in large theaters on a reserved seating basis in the 1930s and that David O. Selznick made the practice work on a big scale with his roadshow presentation of "Gone With the Wind." In its first run, "Gone With the Wind" played only in theaters with more than 800 seats, and tickets were sold on a reserved-seating basis. The film played like that for almost a year before making its way into general release. Hollywood continued to pursue that strategy during the early 1940s -- because, Schatz suggests, the revving up of the U.S. war machine brought workers flooding into the cities with money in their pockets and little to spend it on because of rationing.

Selznick tried to duplicate his "GWTW" success with the preposterous Western "Duel in the Sun," which flopped, but the birth of Cinerama gave the roadshow new life in the 1950s and into the 1960s. Big films, often musicals like "My Fair Lady," "Hello Dolly" and "Paint Your Wagon," all played movie palaces on a roadshow basis, but by that time those palaces -- of which the Ziegfeld is a glorious remnant -- were on their way out. "You have to remember, this was all before the multiplex," Schatz says. "The transformation of moviegoing and movie exhibition has been so profound in the last three decades, and that's been largely a function of two things: suburban migration -- since the movie business has always done its best business in the cities -- and the rise of television." As the number of moviegoers shrank, and as the number of choices at any one theater complex expanded, the kind of buzz that makes reserved seating seem necessary or even essential disappeared.

When you're trying to buy tickets to the 9:45 showing of "Amistad" on a Friday night, the fact that only a fifth as many Americans go to the movies today as did during the 1930s is hardly going to be any consolation. But in most places in America, if you don't get in to "Amistad" you'll be able to go to "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," "The Rainmaker," "Starship Troopers" or even "Boogie Nights," and the difference probably won't matter that much. Schatz says that as many as 20 to 30 percent of the movies that get seen are movies that people didn't plan to see. So, while reserved seating might fly in New York -- especially at places like the Ziegfeld, which are so big that where you sit really does affect your moviegoing experience -- it might not be all that well suited to the multiplex. It's not something the company has to worry about now, since we don't have MovieFone in the suburbs yet.

But Lichtman of Cineplex Odion thinks reserved seating will fly anywhere. "It'll work anywhere where people go to the movies on a Saturday night and can't get in to the movie they want to see," he says. Omaha, here we come.

James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki is a regular contributor to Salon.

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