Do you have reservations about reserved seats at movies?
By DARCEL ROCKETT | Chicago Tribune | Published: November 28, 2017
CHICAGO -- The 1980s posed the question "Tastes great" or "Less filling?"
Shakespeare's Hamlet pondered the question: "To be or not to be?
But what thoughts do you have about the query: "Reserved or unreserved seating at movie theaters?"
Theater chains like Los Angeles-based ArcLight, which opened its first location in 2002, have always provided reserved seating for customers, while Milwaukee-based Marcus Theatres and Emagine (with locations in south suburban Frankfort, Ill.,Michigan and Minnesota) have made the transition from unreserved to buying your choice of seats beforehand within the last seven years. And depending on who you ask, some moviegoers are having none of it.
"I'm not a fan of the reserved seating for several reasons," said Geri McCall-Barrath, of Schaumburg, Ill. "One, in order to get the best seats, you now have to buy your tickets online and pay an extra fee. Tickets are expensive enough without incurring extra charges. Two, we used to come early and were always able to get the seats we wanted -- now they are frequently taken. Overall, the process makes me feel like Big Brother is watching me."
Liz Valliyil, a WBBM-Ch. 2 Chicago news writer and producer, concurs. The Elmhurst, Ill., resident no longer goes to movie theaters that require assigned seating; she prefers giving her business to those theaters that stick to the first-come, first-served way of seating.
"To me, going to the movies is not a 'plan days in advance' event," she said. "It is something you should be able to decide a couple of hours before, arrive at the theatre 20-30 minutes ahead of the show, and still have the chance to get a decent seat. Now it's like preplanning for a night at a Broadway show." And Valliyil detests having to buy tickets online and incurring a convenience fee, just for the inconvenience of having to preplan.
But the movie chains think the opposite is true. Planning ahead gives customers control of their own time -- the time they would have spent running to the theater to get the best seat is now at their disposal to do what they wish, according to Gretchen McCourt, ArcLight's executive vice president of cinema programming and communications.
"It's funny because the conversations that you're talking about now in a market like Chicago, where (reserved seating) is fairly new, were definitely the conversations that we heard back then: 'Omigosh that's not what movie theaters are about,' " she said. "But we really look at ArcLight as ... how do we give people that comfort and control over their moviegoing experience? You can pretty much do anything on your own time now -- you watch your television shows when you want to, the way you want to. As the world becomes more convenient, it really works to give people their time back and make their time their own, and having a reserved seat is a big piece of that."
Paul Glantz, CEO of Emagine, recalls adopting reserved seating in his 17 theaters in 2010. Before that, the chain only dealt with reservations during peak times. It wasn't until the advent of recliners in auditoriums that the ability for guests to choose their seats in advance was adopted chainwide, Glantz said.
"Consumer tastes evolve and change, and it's our responsibility to keep up," he added. "We found that the vast majority of our guests prefer reserved seating for this key reason: You can arrive in a very unhurried fashion. When I first got involved in the business, it (moviegoing) was a very pedestrian experience -- you would queue up at the box office to buy tickets, queue up at the concession stand to buy some snacks, then you would literally herd into a location in the lobby, in a holding pattern essentially, to rush in and try to grab your seat. But now, even if you don't like preplanning ... we're going to try to accommodate you as best we possibly can."
Plainfield resident Angela Glover likes the book-ahead experience coupled with the recliners.
"In the old days, if you were in a group and tried to sit together, even if you all arrived together, it wasn't a guarantee that you would sit together -- depending on the time you got there. You still had to plan it," she said.
The current film environment is all about convenience, Marcus Theatres CEO Rolando Rodriguez said.
"It obviously takes a little getting used to, but I can tell you that after they try it a couple of times, they live for it," he said. "The reception is extremely positive, and frankly, we wouldn't be doing it if it really wasn't satisfying to our customers."
One would think that reserved seating might have hurt the bottom line of theaters given the lackluster summer movie season and the fact that more recliners means fewer seats (which in turn means fewer people per screen), but Rodriguez and Glantz said it's completely counterintuitive.
"What we've found out is even with less seats, the frequency is higher -- there are more people that are coming to the movies, both on a repeat basis or coming back to the movies because of that convenience factor," Rodriguez said.
"We find that we have higher occupancy proportionate to the number of seats that you lose by going to recliners versus rockers," Glantz added. When the Birch Run, Mich., theater was renovated with recliners last year, the seat count was cut by almost two-thirds, Glantz said, yet the patron count has grown by more than 30 percent. He said reserved seating has also "altered the moviegoing habits" for some people. "I think more people are coming on Wednesdays and Thursdays; they're coming on Tuesday bargain days in order to get a really good seat and not have to plan too far in advance," Glantz said. "And spreading out the crowd is good for us too."
Buck LePard, senior operation manager at the Music Box Theatre, has seen a lot of things change in the theater/film industry at large since he started working at the North Side venue in 2009. But the one thing that hasn't changed: There are no reclining seats at the Music Box and reserved seating is nonexistent until the holiday movies make their annual appearance two weeks out of the year. As for the possibility of reserved seating year-round for the 700-seat space?
"We've never gotten any requests from folks," LePard said. "But if the tides did turn and all of a sudden we were regularly being told that we should have assigned seating, it's something we would think about a little more."
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