Versus: Is Cineplex's premium seat program a good thing?

Cineplex VIP theater. (Courtesy Cineplex)

Cineplex VIP theater. (Courtesy Cineplex)

Jim Slotek, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:47 PM ET

Jim says… $2 extra is worth it to stretch your legs

Last month, Cineplex – a.k.a. the theatre chain that ate all the others – announced a test program of reserved seat sections in their big theatres, with more comfortable chairs, prime views and leg-room.

Price: an extra $2 per ticket.

I am not normally given to defend this near monopoly. Nor do I have much sympathy for an enterprise that charges $6 for 25 cents worth of popcorn and somehow struggles to make a profit.

But it happens that I am in a demographic that would happily pay a few more bucks for some extra comfort in an often-miserable movie-going experience.

My reasons are unique to me – and you, if you’ve had knee surgeries (to everybody who hectored that jogging 10,000 miles in 10 years would be bad for my knees, shut up). I’m not handicapped in any real sense. But the condition of said hinges requires me to straighten my legs once in a while or suffer the consequences. In a theatre, that usually means an aisle seat, and they are the first to go in a first-come-first-served situation.

Price notwithstanding, reserved seating has been catching on for some time now, and is the norm in many big IMAX/3D houses.

But the idea of a first-class section doesn’t just address my leg-room issues (I’m 6’2”, so I’d be attracted to the idea even if my knees weren’t a disaster). It’s a no-brainer at a time when video-on-demand is giving people the same product for less, in the comfort of their own homes.

Toronto’s Varsity Cinema, where this project is being tested in advance of a national roll-out, already has VIP screening rooms with tables attached to your seat and bar service. And anybody who has paid the premium to sit in them may wonder why they ever sat in the giant human holding cells across the hall.

So why has this idea raised such ire? Maybe it’s the idea of having a couple of rows of the “elite” plopped in the middle of the unwashed masses – as if $2 on a movie ticket is the dividing line between social classes.

This set-up is unlikely to affect the movie theatres’ primary function – to act as babysitters for teenagers. They won’t be going to Guardians of the Galaxy looking for comfort.

But people interested in movies not about super-heroes – for the sake of argument, let’s call them “adults” – might be enticed by comfort to see some of the movies that barely squeeze their way onto the distribution schedule and are often available on iTunes the same day as their putative theatrical release. An essay in the latest Esquire posits the interesting thought that we are in a golden age of movies that go largely unseen in theatres (with Tom Hardy in Locke, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and James Gray’s The Immigrant, with Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner as Exhibits A, B and C).

The comfort level of the movie-going experience is, at least, something over which Cineplex and other exhibitors have some control. If they could offer us an a—hole free movie environment, I’d pay the premium and a tip for the usher besides.

Email Jim

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Liz says… What happened to showing up early and getting a seat the old-fashioned way?

Nobody believes in the power of the big screen more than a movie reviewer.

Some films only make sense in a real theatre, and scale and a sense of event count for a lot.

And when we all sit together in the dark, united in our engagement with the unfolding narrative on the screen, we become part of the age-old storytelling tradition. Or at least we used to.

The impulse to fix things that ain't broke has no doubt been profitable for the Cineplex movie chain, and cushy reserved seats are just the next 'innovation' in the on-going business of painting the lily. Now you'll be able to pay $2 more to ensure you nab that crucial aisle or dead-centre seat.

Of course, you could just show up early and get the same excellent seats for free, but that won't get you the privilege of lolling about in some version of a naugahyde barcalounger. Really? If we wanted to witness people slurping down chicken wings in a big armchair while they half-watch something on a screen, we'd have stayed home. Or stayed married.

Believe it or not, people used to go to the movies without benefit of pre-ordered tickets, seat-side food and beverage service, an acre-wide concession stand or an adjoining arcade. You could get popcorn, which came in boxes of about the same size as a 300 page novel, and candy. And not much else.

The main event was what was up there on the screen. The surroundings were entirely secondary.

Nobody needed to be bribed with dinner — and where is the kitchen, exactly, at a movie theatre? — to go out and see a wonderful new movie.

Things change.

As Hollywood films become more effects-oriented and less engaging, theatre chains need more gimmicks to put bums in seats. It's not Cineplex's fault that so many contemporary movies are so worthless.

At the Varsity in Toronto, where all this seating experimentation is going on, things are already mostly terrific, with stadium seating in the newer theatres to ensure great sight-lines. (Despite all the amenities of the smaller VIP theatres — cushy seats, side tables, beer and all — this short person can't see the screen as well as in the regular theatres.)

Anyway, the problem isn't the seats. It's what's on the screen.

But even at a five-star movie, a cushy centre seat can't guarantee that some slug in the same row won't answer his cellphone or walk past you three or four times during the movie to refill his XXL jumbo popcorn bucket.

Putting a few rows of cozy seats in the midst of regular theatre seating is borrowing from the Cineplex VIP theatres, which are adult-only auditoriums (because alcohol is served) with all-reserved, all-cushy seats. There are about 19 of those across Canada. At the Queensway, in Toronto's west end, valet parking is also available.

What's the Queensway showing in those hallowed halls for grown-up tastes?

At the moment, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Neighbours, Godzilla and Million Dollar Arm. Uh, huh.

Honchos at Cineplex have compared the new cushy seats to the difference between first-class and economy on a plane. Is it wise to go down the road that lets some clients be perceived as more important than others?

So much for the egalitarian nature of the movie theatre and our common bond in storytelling.

Email Liz


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