The latest new-generation movie megaplex recently opened near us. It’s got stadium seating,
reclining extra-wide luxurious seats with cup holders in the armrests, and so much legroom you could park a Winnebago. A couple of the 14 screens in the megaplex are Imaxes that surround you with giant images and wrap you in sound. In the lobby they sell real food, the kind you might conceivably want to consider eating. All in all, the experience is a treat, one that elevates the ritual of going to a movie (ugly outside architecture notwithstanding).
In the 1990s we spent $25 billion on new concert halls, theaters and museums in America. Handsome buildings most of them. One thing though. While much of the exterior architecture tries to be distinctive (Disney Hall being an obvious example) the insides (Disney an exception) are for the most part entirely predictable. And despite the fact that the average concert hall was many times more expensive to construct than the new-generation movie complexes, the customer amenities inside the halls constructed over the past 20 years – how can I put this kindly – kind of suck.
Narrow aisles, cramped leg room, utilitarian seats that if not uncomfortable are hardly luxurious. There’s an austere formality to the rows of perches lined facing the stage. Nothing particularly wrong with formality. And many of the auditoriums are pleasant enough to be in. But how is it that virtually all of the halls built in this era more or less follow the same bare aesthetic when it comes to amenities?
The movie theatre industry realized with the explosion of infinite choice that they had to compete to make the theatre experience competitive with the home flat screen and surround sound. They had to make the live experience of watching a movie in public a better deal. At a minimum that meant making the watching experience as comfortable as possible, then delivering state-of-the-art picture size and quality.
There’s an argument to be made for preserving formal rituals in going out to see a performance. But things change. I like some of the rituals, but I have to admit I often resent the degree to which it is imposed by rigid seats and cramped legroom. And why can’t I bring my drink back in to the show? Some theatres just work better as formal spaces. But others? The fact that there seems so little innovation or re-thinking of the physical experience of going to concerts seems like a missed opportunity.Recently, Adam Kenwright, who markets West End shows in London, said that the uncomfortable seats and poor amenities in West End theatres was seriously deterring people from buying tickets to shows.
Tickets to arts performances can cost many times more than movie tickets. Yet from an amenity experience, there’s no question which is the first-class seat and which is steerage economy.
The new generation of baseball stadia are amenitiy-rich. The new generation of coffee shops (Starbucks, et al) concentrate a lot of their resources in developing customer amenities. Go to a House of Blues or other perfoming spaces such as LA’s Knitting Factory, and the seats are removed altogether or pushed to the sides. People rock out while the performer is on. I’m not saying take out the seats, but if movie theatre owners figured out they had to deliver a better seating experience to compete, doesn’t it follow that the performing arts ought to consider how they could upgrade?