STEVE SEBELIUS: First class seats … in the movie theater?
The announcement by AMC that it will charge more money for better seats in its 1,000 movie theaters is but the latest example of corporations trying to maximize profits in declining industries.
AMC plans to start charging people more money for the best seats in its movie theaters, the ones right in the middle with the best view of the screen.
That’s actually pretty shocking news. People still go to movie theaters?
The announcement came this month and flopped like “Ishtar.” People accused the company of greed, held it up as an example of end-stage capitalist decline and generally mocked an industry that has been decimated by streaming services and in-home TVs as big as garage doors.
Some of the most potent criticism came from people who obviously don’t go to the movies anyway, those who complain theaters are dirty, prices for snacks are too high and the experience is generally miserable.
The last time I was in a theater, Rey was finally defeating the Emperor on Exegol, which seems like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Since then, we’ve suffered through a global pandemic, a bruising presidential election, another bruising midterm election and, of course, a dearth of theater-worthy films.
Understand what AMC is doing: The new Sightline plan, to be rolled out to its 1,000 theaters in the United States, creates a three-tiered system: Preferred seats (the good ones in the middle) are most expensive, while standard seats are less, and value seats — i.e. the neck-craning front row — are cheapest.
And yes, if you join the theater company’s A-list, for between $20 and $24 per month, you get preferred seats for less. (Don’t laugh: About 500,000 people already belong to that program, according to CNN.)
It’s understandable that people object to paying more for something they used to get for a regular price. In the olden days, the best seats belonged to the people who got to the theater first.
But if this all seems familiar, you’re not dreaming. Plenty of industries have instituted charges for things that were formerly free, including the newspaper industry. When the internet was first invented (thanks, Al Gore!), you could read news stories all day for nothing. Now, like drug dealers, we give you a little product for free, get you hooked and then make you pay!
In Las Vegas, we all feel the pain of paying for parking that was formerly free at many Strip resorts. (Of course, if you’re a players club member, you can park for free at many casinos.)
And don’t get me started about things such as resort fees — recently denounced by President Joe Biden in his State of the Union speech as “junk fees,” where the weightiest and most pressing issues are brought to the attention of Congress, which responds with its least-bright members shouting at the president as if it were open-mic night at the Comedy Store.
And the airlines? If you think going to the movies is miserable, flying anywhere these days is like being a long-term guest at a CIA black site. The worst of them start with cheap fares and then up the price with fees for things such as carrying on a suitcase or sipping an in-flight drink.
Some will argue it’s a mistake to sit atop a declining industry watching revenue drop and then charge your remaining customers more for the same product in hopes of restoring profits.
But honestly, like paying more to get into the A1-A15 boarding group on Southwest to grab those luxurious “Southwest first class” exit row seats, I think people might pay a little more if they got more in return.
Theaters have already adopted stadium seating, so even the biggest alien heads can’t block the screen. They’ve added nicer seats that recline, and better food and even alcohol to their menus.
But who wouldn’t pay a little more for a theater that sold popcorn only in sturdy tubs, so the incessant rustling of prehensile fingers in paper food bags wouldn’t breach the moviegoing peace? Or what about soundproof rooms for those people who simply can’t stop talking during the film, who ignore the Kevin McCarthy-like shushing as if they were members of the Freedom Caucus?
A theater with cellphone jammers would go over as well as “Maverick” did at the box office, and would definitely be worth a couple more dollars.
AMC is a business, and is entitled to make business decisions. The risk, however, is not that people won’t pay extra to sit in the good seats. It’s that they won’t come to the theater at all.
Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.