Before a movie starts, before everyone is fully settled and ready, there's a moment that the audience must experience before they can see their movie: the hunt for the perfect seat. The famous film critic Roger Ebert wrote once that the best place to find a seat in a crowded theater was halfway down the left column of seats, on the aisle. It was best, he said, because nobody ever sat on the sides of the theater, so the late to arrive could always find a decent seat. I remember reading his recommendation as an impressionable and movie-loving kid, and doing what malleable kids do -- I followed his advice to the letter. My mom and I went to a lot of movies on Saturdays for most of my childhood, and after Ebert told me to sit on the left aisle, that’s what I wanted to do.
I insisted on sitting on the left aisle until high school, when I started attending midnight movie premieres of big box office releases with friends (think the original "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the first few "Harry Potter" movies, and the "Star Wars" prequels). Of course we came to see the movie because it was just released, but part of the fun was waiting in line for hours, getting the premium seat and having a quintessential movie theater experience. Around that time, somebody introduced me to the obvious, but in the moment, revolutionary notion of sitting middle-middle. As the name would suggest, middle-middle involves finding a seat that is as close to the center of the theater as possible. The general idea here is that sitting dead center about halfway back gives the viewer the best overall vantage point for watching a movie - there aren't bad angles, strained necks, or squinted eyes. You just stare straight ahead and enjoy the film.
I was die hard in my insistence to sit middle-middle at theater outings with friends for a long time, but like most things, my seating preference has changed in the past few years. I think this is mostly because of the prevalence of on demand services like Netflix, Hulu and others. Going to the movie theater is more of an event these days, and less something you have to do to actually see the newest movies (for me at least, and I suspect for others too). When people go to the theater, it's to see things on the big screen and have that immersive experience. To that end, I have gradually moved closer to the screen. It's not enough to just have a decent vantage point anymore -- I want an experience I cannot get at home. I want the entire screen to fill my vision, without having to turn my head to look from one part of the screen to another, and I enjoy the gut-churning boom of the movie theater bass. Front row is indeed still too close, but fourth or fifth row, in the middle, is about perfect.
The movie-going experience, and really the entire idea of how, when and why we as a society watch films, the great American art form, is transforming with the rest our of culture. We get our news in 140-character snippets or buzzed alerts to our handheld computers, and we connect with our families and friends through publicly aired hellos and likes of acknowledgement. We have at our fingertips brilliantly curated collections of the entire history of popular music, and watch the vast majority our visual entertainment in pause-and-play bursts, while operating at a sped-up level of multitasking we couldn't have imagined a decade ago.
The box office may continue to see record setting numbers, but theaters know that in the age of distractions, getting the audience in the door, even self-professed movie lovers, is harder than it used to be. So theater companies and Hollywood have had to get creative. In the last decade of the 20th Century, we saw surround sound and stadium seating. Then IMAX theaters become more prevalent, followed by the rise of 3D (real or not). The newest high-tech advances have been reserved seating and luxury amenities. No longer does the audience have to wait for hours to see the newest movie, or sit in an uncomfortable and chewing gum-coated seat -- now you can reserve a specific seat in the auditorium with your phone, and relax in large leather electric recliners. The future is a wonderful, if impatient place.
I'll go out on a limb and speculate that it's not just me, but most people have a favorite spot in the cinema. And they likely have varied reasons for those, be it comfort, convenience, or a film lover's purity. I can tell you that many of those aforementioned old high school friends were ardent defenders of their middle-middle seating choice. My brother-in-law likes to be near the back of the theater so he can be eye level with the center of the screen, something that wasn't possible before stadium seating. My wife prefers to be in the front elevated row after the aisle that divides the frontmost seats and the rest -- she likes the view, but mostly she loves putting her feet up on the railing. My co-host errs on the side of closer to the screen than further, as close to center-screen as possible, echoing my own preference. I've heard of others who like to be on an aisle for accessibility and convenience, and some people who love the front row just because. We know that great film critics have favorite spots, too (but for different reasons than I'd remembered as a kid, apparently).
Much like the actual movies we choose to see, the choice of where to sit is at once deeply personal and universal. Lots of us go to the movies, most of us have a favorite seat, and there's probably some compromise to both. Certainly, I don't always get to see the movie I want, nor do I often get to sit in my ideal location. In a way, though, that's the appeal of it all. For a couple hours every now and then, I get to share a room with strangers and experience a piece of art that was created by other strangers for our viewing pleasure. The dynamics and experience of getting to the cinema may have changed over the years, but if there has been a constant, it's the feeling of anticipation when the lights go down and the trailers start to roll. No matter where you are in the room, you're transported from reality and take part in collective escapism.
The idea of discovering something new and seeing something beautiful for the first time, in a room full of people who are doing the same, is really addicting to me. I guess that's what I love about "going to the movies," and the seat-finding ritual is all a part of it. Whether I get my perfect seat each time doesn't matter so much as thinking and talking about it, and finding that particular right seat for the group I happen to be with that day. It's the best slice of Americana that I could never live without.
Whether you've thought about it or not, chances are good that you've got a favorite spot. It may be something you actively think about, or it may be a subconscious preference you never really questioned, but when we go to the movies, the actual film we choose is only one part of the experience. So next time you go to the movies and are deciding where to sit, think about why it's your perfect seat.
The best seat in the house: 5 out of 5 Seats