Cinemas, luxury seats, and getting us to pay more

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Do you pay for the premier seat at your local cinema? They’re becoming a useful source of revenue for multiplexes.

It’s little secret that the cinema industry has faced some significant challenges in recent years. Whilst the big blockbusters are getting bigger, movie studios are demanding a higher percentage of the first week or two’s takings as a consequence. And when the box office charts are dominated by such films, with the marketing effort concentrated on a big opening weekend (when the studios in turn take the most money), it’s perhaps unsurprising that cinemas look in lots of different places to find a bit of extra cash.

Some, for a start, directly pass the price of the greater return demanded by studios onto the customer. Odeon, for instance, is pretty transparent about the fact that it charges you more if you want to see a big film in its opening two weeks. You pay up to an extra £2 for the privilege, on top of your standard ticket price.

But there are other revenue streams that the cinemas increasingly rely on. The concessions stand is one, where one of my local multiplexes has now found a way to charge you an extra quid if you want some chocolates sprinkled on top of your huge bucket of popcorn.

Yet there’s also the slow growth of posh seats.

It was back in the late 90s though that my local stumbled upon a bit of a wheeze. Appreciating I live in a not particularly affluent area of the West Midlands, it decided to offer a premier screen. This meant a smaller screen, more comfortable seats, double the ticket price, and a cash bar. I toddled along to watch Scream 3 in there once – when someone else was paying, obviously – and they threw in some free snacks to try and lure us back.

It was a short-lived experiment. Within a year or two, the screen had been converted to a regular one – just with fancier seats – and the free grub was gone. But over the years that followed, pretty much every multiplex that’s opened in the UK has had some variant on this system.

I’ve thus got a Showcase site within driving distance where the premium seats are in a balcony overlooking the main auditorium. Here, they throw in some chocolates and nachos, and the people who can afford more expensive tickets get to look down on the rest of us. The price difference is £9.65 for a Joker ticket to sit in the normal seats, £15 for the posh ones.

Most multiplexes offer some variant on the model, just without the added ‘looking down on you’ mechanic.

Thus, my local Empire reserves several rows of more expensive seats at the back of each screen. It does allow these at the same price if you book online though. The Odeon a few miles in the other direction has really gone for it. It installed electronic reclining chairs with mini tables for your drinks/snacks/takeaway. For the added joy of parents everywhere, those seats come with controls that in no way are small children tempted to play with when they should be watching the film.

These are called VIP seats. To become a VIP, you either need to pay the premium, or wait until the film starts and move into them. If you end up in the one of every two screenings there where they don’t shut the doors at the back, it’s a welcome courtesy to close that too before giving yourself an upgrade.

Please note: Film Stories does not condone this practice.

A standard ticket, then, for Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil, is selling for £11.75, and these VIP seats cost you another £3 a head.

I’m sure there’s a full essay to be written somewhere about the class system that’s seeping into a trip to the cinema – the deluxe seats at one multiplex in London cost £40 each at peak times – but this isn’t it. Instead, it’s hard not to think this isn’t a symptom of cinemas just trying to get a little more out of us with each visit. From a cold hard business perspective, it’s understandable. You’re not just looking to attract new patrons, you’re looking to get those already heading your way to spend a bit more.

There are other tactics too, of course. Upgrades at the food counter, for instance, including a growing menu of options. More cinemas in the UK too are eyeing the American model of serving you a meal while the movie is on. I’ve experienced this once in the States, and there’s nothing quite like, during a tense thriller, having someone coming up to you and asking if you fancy a hot dog. More and more sites are installing the likes of Starbucks and Costa concessions, or are selling posters and Funko POP toys.

Independents tend to be savvier and a little more subtle. The Electric in Birmingham has an extensive, and often themed, series of cocktails for instance. Others have tried the likes of special themed nights that mix in a film with a bit of wine tasting. Home made cakes too, along with posh sofas. Sometimes together.

And all of these ideas have one thing in common: they’re premiums on top of the film. These aren’t 4DX viewings, 3D glasses or IMAX upgrades. You still end up watching exactly the same film on exactly the same screen.

Interestingly, one idea that doesn’t work in cinemas is the selling of DVDs, music, or feisty independent film magazines. Turns out that the last thing patrons want to spend extra cash on when they go to the movies is something else directly film related. Most cinemas that used to offer such things have long since retired such services, citing a lack of interest from customers.

Instead, the landscape of British cinemas is to offer a little more, and get a bit more, from those of us who walk through the door. Some of these ideas I’d suggest offer a genuine improvement. Others don’t. And it’s the upgraded seats that seem to have stuck, and caught on.

Personally, I’m all for paying an extra 50p on my ticket price just to have an usher in the screen. But no cinema has decided to offer this service to my knowledge…

Which upgrades do you like/not like? Let us know in the comments…

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