I recently read critic A.S. Hamrah’s latest dispatch on n+1. I’ve always liked that he writes about the experience of going to the movies as well as the movies themselves. Last month, he wrote about the trend of reserved seating, which he finds undemocratic:
Reserved seats are antithetical to moviegoing, which traditionally and democratically has been first come, first served. You could move to a different seat if a weirdo (or anybody) was sitting too close. This new nonegalitarian system is fancy and inappropriate. It takes too long and it huddles people together.
I had a weirdly personal and defensive reaction to this statement, because I am a parent of two young children, and reserved seating has made it a lot easier for me to see movies. I rely on it to get seats (two seats together) to popular movies or special screenings. It would be my pleasure to arrive early for one of these movies and wait in line with a book or a podcast, but I can’t, because I have to give my kids dinner and get them ready for bed before I can go out. Without reserved seating, my husband and I have to plan for an extra 45 minutes of waiting, which is basically an hour of babysitting time, or $15-20. (Also, a lot of weeknight sitters have day jobs or nannying gigs and they can’t get to our place until 6:30 at the earliest.) So, a theater that allows us to reserve two seats together is a major convenience. We go to more movies than we used to because of reserved seating.
I imagine that reserved seating is also really helpful if you’re elderly, suffering from a chronic illness that makes standing for long periods of time tiring, or if you’re working an hourly job with a strict schedule. It shouldn’t be that the best seats in theaters are most likely to go to able-bodied people with flexible schedules and few caregiving responsibilities. I’m not arguing that all seats in a movie theater should be reserved—I agree that that can be obnoxious. But maybe a reasonable solution would be for a half or a third or even just a quarter of a theater to be reserved and the rest unreserved, with the choice seats balanced proportionally between reserved and unreserved.
I know that one critic’s dismissal of reserved seating is kind of an odd thing to fixate on, but I see and hear these little blind spots often, some offhand disparagement of a service that has made my life a lot easier. It was equally annoying when a whole bunch of film critics were telling me that I had to see Roma in the theater. I did, by the way–but I went at 10 a.m. on a Saturday while my husband watched our kids. It was glorious, and I’m glad I got to see it that way, but I’m not convinced it was significantly better than watching it in my living room. If I’m going to take four hours out of my weekend to see a movie, should it really be to a film that I can already see at home on Netflix? Shouldn’t I see an indie film or something in revival that would be difficult to see elsewhere? The main reason I went to see Roma on the big screen was FOMO: I didn’t want to miss out on the most “authentic” viewing experience. But I do wonder why I let a bunch of random film critics–who, as a group, are overwhelmingly white and male–determine what is the most authentic way to experience a movie.