Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Utah Movie-Going Experience: Pleasantly Orderly or Strangely Authoritarian?

Last week the family went on our annual summer vacation. We went to Utah, which served a dual purpose— 1) my wife was going to a work conference in Salt Lake City, and 2) much of my wife’s family lives there, so we got to see many of her kinfolk who we haven’t seen in a few years. (I know I could have said “relatives,” but “kinfolk” is one of those rare words that both starts and ends with a “K,” making it particularly fun to say and write.)

While my wife attended her three-day conference, I took my two sons on a variety of outings. We went to the aquarium (for some reason my older son seemed to find the shrimp brine more interesting than the penguins); we went on a hike (which lasted all of about 10 minutes before my younger son got sight of a very tiny red beetle, jumped into my arms and wouldn’t stop screaming); and we went to the planetarium (where we found out that collectively, the thee of us would weigh 6,037 pounds on the sun.)

But of the various outings that we went on, the one that has lingered with me the most since returning to Arizona was our excursion to the movies. On the evening of Thursday, June 19, 2014, I took my boys to see “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” The movie itself was good to very good (I laughed, I cried, I wondered why all the adults in the film had various European accents, but all the youth had standard American accents) but that is not what has been lingering in my mind for the past week. No, the thing that I simply can’t get out of my mind about my movie-going experience that night was that we had assigned seating. The concept has been swirling around in my brain ever since and I’m torn between loving and hating it.

That’s right, when we went to the Megaplex (and that was the actual name of the theater, not a generic term I’m applying here) and asked for one adult and two kids for the movie, the cashier turned her computer screen toward me and said, “Pick your seats.” My eloquent response was, “Uhhhhh…what?” She showed me a seating chart of the movie theater and told me to touch the screen to indicate the three seats that I wanted. I started nervously laughing and looking around, thinking that I might be on an episode of Candid Camera. (I know I just dated myself horribly with that reference.) I stared at the screen dumbly and said, “Sorry, I’m from Arizona. I’m not used to this.” I sensed the people in line behind me getting restless, so I finally took a shaky index finger to the screen and picked seats F5, F6, and F7.

We went inside and found our seats. The theater was relatively empty—maybe 40 people in an auditorium that looked like it could comfortably fit 250; and it remained that way throughout the entire film. As the movie played I wondered what would happen if I took my boys and sat in three different seats. Would an alarm sound? Would we be forcibly ejected from the theater? I decided not to risk it.

After the movie ended, I couldn’t stop thinking about the assigned seats. On the one hand it appealed to my sense of order. It really made no difference in a relatively empty theater, but if one were to go on a night that is almost sold out, how nice it would be to know you have definite seats waiting for you. On the other hand, I bristled at this authoritarian approach to movie seating, in which you can’t just walk into the theater and decide where to sit at the spur of the moment, based upon the cell phone usage and/or odor of the other patrons in the theater. I was torn.

I also wondered if the theater we went to was an anomaly in assigning seats, or if this was standard practice in Utah. The next night I got my answer. After my wife’s conference sessions were over we went out to dessert with my brother-in-law and his wife. I told them about our movie-going experience and asked if picking seats ahead of time was normal. My brother-in-law looked at me like I was some sort of barbarian.

“You mean they don’t have assigned seats in Arizona?” he asked, incredulously. He seemed somewhere between bemused and disgusted that we would just walk into a theater and have to find our own seats, and implied that Arizona was living in the stone age.

For days afterward I wondered if he was right about our state being woefully behind the times. I decided to do some research (that’s right, this blog contains real research!) and sent messages to friends from 20 different states asking if they have assigned seating in movie theaters, and got responses from 18 of them. As it turns out, if Arizona is behind the times in assigning seats, so is almost every other state in the union.

Most of the responses I got were along the lines of, “Assigned seats? That’s just weird. We sit wherever we want.” The best response I got was from a friend in Massachusetts, who said, “It’s open seating here. This being the birthplace of freedom, and all that.”

Indeed, of the 18 responses I got, 13 were definitive in that there was no assigned seating in the movie theaters where they lived. Those responses were from Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, and Tennessee. My sources in Ohio and Texas both told me the answer was “No” accept for some “dine-in” movie theaters, which were the exception. My source in New York said, “No” accept for home high-end theaters, which she doesn’t frequent. (Being from New York myself, I certainly never came across assigned seating, but then again, I haven’t seen a movie there since 1998, so I was thankful to get current information.)

The information I got from New Jersey was a tad ambiguous. My source there said, “I like to purchase my tickets in advance and pick the seats ... however, it doesn't always work out that way. Inevitably someone is ALWAYS sitting in our seats.” So it seems that there they have assigned seating, but people don’t actually pay attention to the seat numbers. (Is it coming as a shock to anyone that in Utah the movie patrons are following the rules, but in New Jersey they’re not?)

And finally, there’s California. I actually asked three different people from “The Golden State” about this and got the same response from all of them—basically, “It depends.” The nicer theaters seem to have assigned seating and the crappier ones, not so much.

So what does all this in-depth journalism tell us? Well, it seems that Utah is on the cutting edge of the movie-going experience…or perhaps, they’re just WAY too organized compared to other states. In either case, I’m just going to stick to Netflix for a while, as I’m still not sure now how I fell about my state’s ancient movie seating methods.