Something interesting happened a year ago: The movie theater a few blocks from my house was radically redesigned. This came as a surprise, for the AMC 84th Street wasn’t failing in any way. Indeed, from its opening in 1985 to the present day, it has been one of the most successful theaters in America (for a decade, the highest-grossing).
But the 84th Street certainly had gotten ragged around the edges. Its success meant it had hard use, especially given that it specialized in fare for kids and teenagers. So when the Alamo Cinema and Drafthouse chain, universally considered the best in the country, announced it was building a fancy complex less than a mile away, AMC decided it had to upgrade fast.
Alas for us Upper-West-Siders, Alamo canceled its plans. But the blessings of capitalism rained down upon us nonetheless, for the threat of competition alone proved to be enough to transform our neighborhood theater—and the results were staggering enough to suggest that there might be transformations in your neighborhood theater as well over the next few years.
What was most surprising was the nature of the change: The number of seats in each of the theater’s six audi-tor-i-ums was reduced by nearly two-thirds. Hundreds of conventional seats were removed so that AMC could install new ones twice as large—seats that required a great deal of space in front and behind. They are plush, thick recliners that, at the push of a button, can go almost horizontal. And every seat is reserved, as though the audience were attending a live theatrical production. When you buy your ticket, either beforehand online or at a theater credit-card kiosk, you must select your specific seat.
AMC has found, to its amazement, that this combination of extreme comfort and choice of seat placement has been a financial boon. For even though the number of seats is only a third of what it was before, attendance is up 80 percent—and audiences are not balking at paying significantly higher ticket prices. (The top seat at the 84th Street is $16.50; 16 blocks downtown, at another AMC multiplex, the top seat is $14.50.)
Now, according to the Wall Street Journal, “The company plans to spend about $600 million over the next five years to ‘reseat’ 1,800 of its nearly 5,000 screens. The renovations typically cost $350,000 to $500,000 per auditorium.” This is a necessary concession to reality. The improvements in home entertainment options—HDTV, good sound, access to streaming programming from Netflix and Amazon—are threatening to make a night out at the movies an ana-chronism. Ticket sales have not grown in a decade (indeed, they’ve fallen over the past year), even as the population has increased by 30 million nationwide.
This is reminiscent of a comparable moment in the 1980s, when the VCR revolution and the advent of cable television made staying home an attractive option. These joint disruptions forced theater owners to end the practice of smooshing people into small, often oddly shaped triplex theaters in strip malls and office buildings. In 1987, I wrote an article for U.S. News & World Report on the National Amusements chain, which actually pioneered the use of the term “multiplex.” It built gigantic boxes with 12 or 14 theaters on the sites of former drive-ins, put video games in the lobbies, and invested in cushy new chairs that rocked.
For the first time in decades, the National Amusements people reported to me at the time, people went to the theater without knowing or caring what movie they were going to see. They found the experience of seeing something there so much more innately pleasurable than at any other local venue that they would just show up and pick something. That is exactly what the 84th Street is like, with the added dollop that if you decide to go the day before, you can make sure your seat is where you want it—and you can show up without having to get there early and see 11 trailers you’ve already seen.
Moviegoing is not the default form of high-level entertainment, which is what it was for almost 80 years; it is now just a choice among many—an expensive choice, and a choice that all too often brings you into excessive proximity with ill-mannered staff and rude fellow patrons who have the power to ruin your evening and make the money you spent a waste.
AMC has figured out that movie-going is now a luxury product, and it will have to do everything in its power to give its audiences a luxurious experience if it wants its business to survive. National Amusements showed the way to survival when cable and VCRs threatened extinction. I’m not sure anything is going to save conventional moviegoing in the long run from these technological changes. But in the meantime, you have to love those recliners.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.