Back in the Great Depression of the 1930s, people found escape from the bad news of the day by going to the movies. In fact, I can’t count how many movies — Sullivan’s Travels, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Matinee, Cinema Paradiso, just to name a few — are about people going to the movies for entertainment and escape. People stood in line and rushed to get their favorite seats; first come, first served. You’re part of a couple who are both comfortably making six figures? You’re paying off a college loan or trying to make it on your Social Security benefits? Doesn’t matter. You’re entitled to the best seat you can wrangle.
Even when theaters began selling advance reservations, it was still first come, first served — if you wanted to see a popular movie and you were picky about your seats, you went online and tried to reserve your preferred place before somebody else got it.
But now, at certain AMC theaters (and perhaps, in the near future, at more and more other movie theaters), it will not be how quickly you claim your seat that will determine where you sit, but rather, how much you can afford. As of today, according to AMC, a new strategy called Sightline will, according to its weirdly promotional website, “continue to make movies better.” How? By charging more for the Preferred Sightline Section (the mid-center rows), less for the Standard Sightline Section (the seats in the back or on the side), and considerably less for the Value Sightline Section (front rows).
I can understand why AMC feels the need to do this. Theaters are still suffering from the effects of the pandemic, and over the last three years, people have become used to watching movies on reasonably large screens in the comfort of their homes.
But the result is that one of the last truly democratic public institutions where everyone paid the same and had the same chance to get a good seat, will join airplanes, live theaters, music venues, and other institutions, where how much you can afford determines how well you enjoy your experience.
Perhaps I am being too nostalgic here. It isn’t as though standing in line on a chilly, rainy evening in order to try to get a decent seat in a theater was such an uplifting experience. (Although I remember the first time I saw Star Wars in a theater — I got there about two hours early, was about the 10th person in line, and passed the time having a great conversation about old sci-fi films with the people around me.) And because theaters have been charging extra fees for reserving seats ahead of time, it could be said that they have already been on this path for a while — if you didn’t want to pay the extra fee, you had to take what was left.
Years ago, I was visiting London and went to a theater to see a musical. I had seats in the balcony, and during intermission, I attempted to go downstairs just to see what the sight line was like from the orchestra. But when I tried to find the orchestra section, I realized that there was no way I could gain access — the theater had been built at a time when the people in the cheap seats were carefully kept away from the sight of those who could afford better seats. When I asked one of the ushers how I could get to the more expensive section just to take a look, she stared at me as if I had suddenly sprouted an extra head. It just wasn’t done.
Perhaps that’s where we’re headed: movie theaters where people who can afford better seats won’t have to deal with lesser mortals who can’t spend that much — not necessarily because that is something that we, as audience members, are asking for but because theaters will try anything to make up the slack, including creating a new class system for the movies.