Cutting the Front Row

The front row seat is a problem.  You avoid it at school because it’s too close to the teacher.  You avoid it on the bus because it’s too close to the door.  You avoid it at the dolphin show because it’s in the splash-zone.  And you avoid the first row at the movie theater because it’s the last place you’d go to enjoy the movie.

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The front row makes you crick your neck to see the scene, it stretches the characters onscreen straight up into infinity.  It’s the bane of every moviegoer, especially those whose clocks are always running slow, who are always running—because they’re running ten minutes late.  The front row seat turns a perfectly fine evening into a perfectly horrible night’s sleep.  Yes, the front row seat is—we might say—a menace to society.  Let’s get rid of it.      

And the row behind it.  And the row behind that.  Let’s shave off every seat in the theater that could ever disappoint.  That whole first 10 or 15 rows.  You don’t want to sit there.  I don’t want to sit there.  Even the kids who sneak in for a double-showing seek penance for their sins.  Without the front row, theater-owners would have fewer complaints, fewer refunds, and a more healthy conscience.  

No more lies, no more deceit to cover up the deficiencies and deficits of an insufficient seating arrangement.  But now that it’s gone, what are we going to do with all of this extra space?

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Well, if you’re in a flat-footed theater, lacking stadium seating, there’s not much to do, because anything grand would obscure the view of everybody else.  

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But these two-dimensional theaters are thankfully on their way out.  In their place, stadium seating has grown as steeply as its own stairways.  With them have come brilliant innovations like comfortable chairs, cup-holders, and head-rests.  And the wonderful effect of sinking the rest of the theater—and its inhabitants—into your peripheral view.  Little kids no longer have to sit on their parents’ shoulders.  And tall people no longer have to wear hats to obscure their identities.   

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With stadium seating, we can put something—perhaps something grand, perhaps something useful—in this dead space.  We could put a slip-and-slide there.  We could put a veterinarian there.  We could host a symposium on the effects of syncopated symphonies on sink installations.  Or, we could do something useful and rearrange the movie theater itself.  

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It doesn’t look like it, but the movie theater is a factory of sorts: you buy tickets outside, popcorn inside, tear your ticket down the hall, slink into a theater and scan the rows for a seat.  It’s a factory—a factory of fun on some occasions, a factor of sorrow on others, depending on the film and the format—but a factory nonetheless.  And a faster, more efficient factory is a factory with fewer steps between its steps.  There’s no point in wasting time or space.  So what if we moved one of these steps from outside the theater, to inside the theater.  What if we put concessions right where the front row used to be?  

This would be instantly more convenient when slipping away to get popcorn during the movie.  Then again, it might be distracting to those satiating their hunger for entertainment, rather than their hunger for buttery treats.  Naturally, you’d have to close it off, dim the lights, install a door—maybe in the adjoining hallway.  

Now, this would be ideal.  No waiting in line as your friends saved your seats.  No fighting your thirst in the middle of the film, forced to choose between continuity of story and continuity of sustenance.  You could simply tip-toe down the stairs at one of those interminable boring points between the car-chase and the hero’s sacrifice, ring up your purchase, and take in the movie through a thoughtfully-cut skylight above the concessions stand.  What could be better?   We’ve increased access to refreshments, eliminated bad seats, and have maximized our use of space.  In fact, maybe we can now build an extra theater at the front of the building where the old concessions once stood.  Or a slip-and-slide.  Or host a square-dance.

But there’s a problem in this refreshing paradise of refreshments and eye-level entertainment: staffing.  We can’t afford to have a staffer sitting around in those first few rows, waiting for two or three hours just hoping for someone to come down the stairs and ask for a box of Junior Mints.  There’s a definite curve to a theater’s purchasing habits:   

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Making concessions more accessible might slightly bend this curve, but it’s not going to reverse the flow of time—or hunger.  People generally buy popcorn before the movie, not in the middle of it.  So to save staffing we could close concessions after the first half hour—but we’d miss some sales, and probably disappoint our audience.

Yes, it would be a mistake to close concessions at any time during the film.  But dedicating a whole staffer to each theater wouldn’t be worth it, either.  Instead, we need to somehow create a single concessions stand that’s accessible from any theater.  The easy solution—perhaps the natural one—would be to connect these spaces across the theaters, turning this new front-row-space into one long multi-theater hallway.  

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But now we’re right back to square one.  If you remember back to the time before this proposal, finding popcorn during the movie meant exiting the theater to roam a hallway and stand in line.  If we turn the front row space into a hallway, we’ve merely moved the hallway—not improved the experience.  You’d get out of your seat, open the door to the front row hallway, and begin your search for whichever concession station was currently open—waiting in line as usual.  

Now, you could say that this is still a slight improvement, because we do have these convenient skylights cut in above the hallway, so you can keep an eye on the film.  The problem is, if you’re roaming the hallway, it’s probably not your film.  It’s another movie in an adjacent theater.  A movie you haven’t paid for.  One that—perhaps—you’re not old enough for.  Yes, the connected hallway makes a mess of the elegant skylight idea, because there’s only a very small chance that the skylight will be showing your movie, and it breaks barriers between theaters and MPAA ratings that the theater, and many parents, don’t want broken.  So one long hallway fails the convenience test and the elegance test. 

We can do better. 

Let’s look a little closer at this space—this “hallway” as we’ve been calling it; this connection spanning multiple theaters:  

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If we draw a line in the middle, we’ll see that it’s actually two spaces: the place where employees serve the food, and the place where patrons buy it, divided in the middle by a countertop. 

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Employees need to be able to move from theater to theater, serving the areas where there is the most demand.  Patrons—the viewers—they need to stay where they are, and shouldn’t be wandering at all.  So let’s do this—let’s put some walls up on the patron side.  So they’re not wandering from theater to theater.  

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Now we can have our skylight back.  And let’s add wheels to the popcorn machine and refreshment tray so employees can slowly move these from theater to theater as demand requires.  

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We’ll add electronic ordering machines for the customers, so they can browse and pay for their order without needing anyone present.  

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This set-up isn’t on the cutting edge anymore: every airline uses similar machines to check passengers in, and the Wa-Wa gas-station uses it to sell sandwiches.  Maybe we’ll also have an app for people to order on their personal mobile device (still on silent).   

After you’ve paid, you wait with your receipt.  While you wait, you can keep an eye on the movie through the skylight—and because there’s no noisy line around you, you can hear it, too.  After a minute or so, a “runner” on the employee side of the counter delivers your food and it’s just a few steps up the stairs back to your seat.  You haven’t missed anything.  You haven’t said a word.  And nobody’s neck is bent out of shape.   

Now, a few questions and considerations:  


Would eliminating the front rows mean fewer seats per theater, or would we just extend the upper rows to have more seats further away?  Two perspectives:  

  1. Fewer seats may not necessarily mean fewer sales.  If people are certain that there is no bad “front row” seat, they may be more likely to purchase tickets for already packed theaters.  
  2. There may be a limit to how far you can extend upper rows: the ceiling height of your theater.  One way to get around this would be to change the slope of the stadium seating—but at some point stadium seating lies down and dies.  

Smart Showtimes

With roving concession sales (a popcorn machine on wheels), theaters may want to optimize the time their shows begin to minimize the distance that the concession stand needs to be moving between each show.  For example, you might want to have theater one start fifteen minutes before theater two, and two start fifteen minutes before three.  This way, employees aren’t dragging their popcorn machines up and down that hallway so much.    

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Moving concessions closer—literally inside—the theater may ironically have the effect of hiding it from patrons.  After all, it will have to be closed off so as not to be disruptive—but without the disruptive clatter of a concession line greeting you before the movie, will you remember to buy popcorn at all?  Obviously, signage as you move through the lobby could help.  But another solution might be to make the concession area out of electrically-charged glass.  Before the movie, it could be clear, like a brightly-lit greenhouse beneath the screen—a humming center of activity.  During the movie, the glass could turn opaque, the lights would dim, and the whole concession area would essentially dissolve into the darkness beneath the screen.  

Not Unreasonable

For ten or fifteen dollars, it’s not unreasonable to want to see the movie you pay for.  It’s also not unreasonable to want to have easy access to a drink or a taste of popcorn.  But theater design has been unreasonable for too long.  There’s simply no reason why we are still building seats right up against the screen—even though nobody wants to buy them.  And there’s no reason why we should continue to sell tickets to them—even though we frequently must refund them. For too long we’ve accepted the idea that bad seats are a necessary evil—something that can’t be beaten, but only avoided.  And at all costs!  

Maybe theaters have had their reasons for keeping these seats around.  The fear of having to sit in them is a bit like the fear of musical chairs—putting you on edge, afraid of being the odd one out.  That’s a potent weapon—one that motivates plenty of early arrivals, I’m sure.  But every weapon is unpredictable—and there’s often collateral damage.  Each time a viewer must sit in the front row, the theater loses credibility—and the movie, the entire film industry, suffers for it.  Here’s one more customer who won’t spread the story of a great film—even if it is great—or a fun experience—even if it is fun.  Here’s one more customer who won’t be lining up for the sequel, or purchasing the limited edition BluRay.  Here’s one more person who will sit down with an iPad and think: this is just as good.  Or worse: this is clearer, crisper, and more comprehensible. If the savior of movie theaters is the return of 3D and a more immersive experience than you can get at home, front row seats are the corrosive forces undermining the industry.  Because though sitting too close to the screen may not ruin your eyes, it certainly ruins the experience.  We deserve better.

Special thanks to Lori Ertel and Jamie Steidle for listening to and challenging some of these ideas.