Who Wants Movie Theaters To Be More Like Airlines?

By  · Published on May 16th, 2014

Fox Searchlight Pictures

When in-flight movies became popularized on commercial planes in the early 1960s, air travel was like riding in a movie theater in the sky. Now going to the movies is going to be like riding in an airplane on the ground. Cineplex has announced they’ll be testing a new service at their flagship theater in Toronto. And when I say a new service, I really mean to say it’s an old service just with a new service charge. The idea is to make center auditorium seating cost more to patrons, because that’s a favored spot. I guess. Personally I prefer aisle seats, especially at theaters with tighter space between rows. The only time I like to sit in the middle is at an IMAX show.

Earlier today I saw a headline for this announcement and I immediately thought about how some airlines gouge their customers with added charges for a checked bag or for more leg room or for an aisle or window seat. Even though it’s the opposite on a flight – people prefer not to be in the middle – it sounded liked Cineplex was inspired by Spirit, for example, as they’re one of the worst offenders as far as taking something previously standard and tacking on a surcharge, especially if it’s liable to make the customer at all comfortable. I was rather surprised to find that the theater chain actually acknowledged an airline industry influence in their announcement.

“It’s really about providing our guests with choices when they go to the movies,” said spokesperson Pat Marshall, as quoted by The Star. “I sort of position it akin to an aircraft where you have your regular coach seating, then you might want a bit more amenities, so you go into business class, and then you have a first-class.”

But sitting in the middle seats is hardly like sitting in first class on a flight. Unless they’re going to be bigger and sectioned off from the lower class customers and come with a complimentary glass of champagne. If you’re going to make an airline analogy for something like this, you’re only going to make it more apparent that it’s like making customers pay more for a window seat. Or for a headset. It makes me think that next they’ll charge extra if we want to bring a sweater into an over-air-conditioned auditorium. Meanwhile, many cinemas already have D-Box motion seats, which lets us feel even more like we’re on a plane, specifically one with a lot of turbulence.

There’s also something that Cineplex ought to realize, and that’s a very big distinction between a movie theater and an aircraft: we need the latter a lot more than we need the former. Sure, there are other forms of transportation, but none as speedy and convenient as air. And when you’re on a flight, there’s not a lot of freedom of choice. That’s why the airlines can get away with a lot of the crap they currently are getting away with. The only alternative is to pay a whole lot more for better seats. But if you gotta fly, you gotta fly. Movie theaters can’t get away with a whole lot these days, because it’s a lot easier for people to just not go to the movies. If you gotta watch a must-see movie, you can wait and rent or stream the thing in a matter of months.

You’d think that the smarter thing to do here would be to offer cheaper tickets for the less desirable seats. Knock off a few bucks for the front two rows or the seats all the way over to the side. But theater owners don’t do that kind of thing. Sometimes they’ll try to avoid increasing costs, like when they keep a concession price the same but decrease the size of the popcorn bag or soda cup. But in spite of the interest of theater owners to introduce cheaper ticket prices, there will always be more interest in introducing new fees for things they try to make seem like a good deal.

If this sort of practice is kept up, one day we won’t have any more cinemas, because everyone will stop going to them, and an in-flight screening won’t just seem like being in a movie theater in the sky, but that will be the only kind of movie theater there is.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.