Why There Should Be No Reserved Seating in Movie Theaters

Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Last fall, I was witness to a terrible scene. My septuagenarian parents wanted to go see a movie at 11:30am, as is their birthright. At the point of purchase, they were confronted with some tablet-like technology to select their seats. It wasn't pretty.

My mother, who calls text messages "emails," recoiled. My father, taking his glasses off to read the touchscreen, said, "Let's get two in the back row," and then promptly selected two in the front row. Voiding that transaction took just enough time to annoy the people in line behind them.

Of course, only a few other people had decided to see that particular show at that particular theater at that particular time, so the auditorium had plenty of empty seats. The handful of attendees already seated had clustered together, maybe expecting a packed house. But even minutes before showtime, with empty seats galore and ample room to spread out, no one seemed willing to risk the uncertainty. What if you got up and sat down in an empty row, but it had actually been reserved by a straggler? What kind of chaos would ensue?!

After watching my poor parents get burned by unnecessary theater technology, I had no choice but to pose a question to friends, critics, and the masses of Twitter: "Does anyone like assigned seating at the movies?" To my shock and continued consternation, many said that they did. As with so many issues dividing the nation, however, there were plenty of people who recognize this evil practice for what it is. Now I'm here to break the question down by the most common arguments in favor of reserved seating, and why they are so terribly, horribly wrong.

I like choosing the seat I want without showing up early.

You're all SHEEP, I say, gobbling up the tripe The Man is serving you. (And if you are a sheep eating tripe, that may very well be cannibalism!) Unless you're some kind of psycho who buys your tickets weeks in advance, the seat you want isn't available. I'm sorry, but this is true. Center row by the aisle is already gone, which means you've got to land-grab something else, and now you get to wait days with the knowledge that you've got a disappointment coming your way. Congratulations, this was supposed to be a fun night out, but now it's marred by the knowledge there's no chance of getting an ideal seat if you show up early enough.

Movies should be no different from plays or concerts.

My esteemed colleague K. Austin Collins, a critic at Vanity Fair whom I adore and admire, asked why it was kosher to have assigned seating at a concert or a play, but not at a movie theater. He correctly pointed out that it's the movies that are the outlier.

My answer is simple: Movies have always been a democratic art form. You shouldn't have to look for numbers on the aisle to find Row G, Seat 11 to go see Detective Pikachu. You should plop in to see Detective Pikachu like a regular person, not like someone who has every aspect of their entire life planned out and carefully manicured. Just go see Detective Pikachu! It's different at a play or concert because closer means better in those contexts, and those seats are sold at a higher price point. Do we want a future where movie-going divides between first class and coach? Where the center seats at just the right distance from the screen are twice as expensive as front-row seats? I say no! 

Also, at a play, getting up and moving is rude to the actors. Unless you're living inside of The Purple Rose of Cairo, the actors up on a movie screen can't see the audience. Thus, if you get up because someone is being a weirdo or eating stinky food next to you, it isn't an issue. You just find a different spot.

Reserved seating is better for families.

Another colleague, Noel Murray, one of the kindest individuals I know, likes assigned seating. So it pains me to have to gainsay him in public. He argues that he has a family of four, and for the whole clan to sit together it would mean coming to the theater super early to secure those spots.

My response is this: He's right. When you're right, you're right! If it's a hot ticket on a weekend evening, four seats together is going to be tough if you come too late. I say, let it happen! Some of my fondest early memories involve going to a movie theater of my youth (don't look for it now, it's turned into a gym) and waiting for the film to start. I remember my older sister torturing me, saying that we'd accidentally gone into the wrong auditorium, and any minute Wolfen or The Howling was about to start, and not The Great Muppet Caper.

I also remember there were times when it was too crowded for the four of us, and we'd pair off. I distinctly remember getting quality bonding time with my old man, playing Jotto as we waited for the start of Superman II and Krull. There were also times where my parents would let my sister and me sit together, and they'd have some alone time knowing we probably wouldn't kill one another during the movie. (I can still hear my sister telling me I was a loser for covering my eyes at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. "It's just like Gilligan's Island, all they're doing is running through a jungle!")

You don't have to watch the previews.

Many people argue that reserving seats early means not having to sit through coming attractions or commercials, but if it means that much to you, don't go to super-popular movies at super-popular times. Buying "a seat," just not a specific one, for opening weekend is something I've done since the days of dialing 777-Film, and I don't want someone claiming territory I work to claim early just because they don't want to see what MCU movie is coming next. You want that seat, get there early and sit in it. Otherwise, I'm taking it!

All yuks aside, my grenade-lobbing did garner a far more serious reason to crack down on reserved seating; a disabled film critic pointed out that assigned seating often meant that people who didn't need the disabled seats were picking them, leaving her in the unfortunate position of having to tell someone to move. This is reason enough to declare that the old way is righteous and true, and assigned seating is a ticket to society's perdition. On a less serious note, how are the kids today going to experience the thrill of sneaking into a movie they're not supposed to see if everyone's seat is preordained and tracked? 

I invite more debate on this topic. If you don't agree with me, you are wrong, but it's important to get these things off your chest. Feel free to fight me on Twitter. And I'll see you at the movies!

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Jordan Hoffman is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and a frequent contributor to Thrillist Entertainment.