Ticket Reservations

I often get asked if I miss anything about Britain. The answer is, not really. Sure, there’s minor stuff like Stella Artois, which is sold in California but not Arizona – and courtesy of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution and state law, customers are not allowed to directly import alcohol, even from another state. But it’s hard to be miffed when Pilsener Urquell is available in the local supermarket.

There is one tiny thing, however, in which Phoenix lags in the dark ages behind London: selling tickets to the cinema. Two words sum up the difference – “reserved seating”. Especially for popular films, this means that there’s no need to turn up hours in advance, since your ticket has a row and seat on it. You know where you will be; you know there will be enough room for your entire party. Life is good.

Here in Arizona – and, indeed, most of America – the law of the wild west still applies. The prospector who arrives first can stake a claim to as much territory as they can grab, using coats, rolled-up newspapers, food trays, animal corpses, whatever. They then must fend off predatory late-comers until their friends arrive to occupy the seats. “Sorry, those are taken” becomes a mantra heard only slightly less often at the movies than “Do you want popcorn with that?”

The worst venue, by far, is the Cine Capri, which is the largest screen in Arizona, and so the first choice for truly cinematic events. We went twice, and our second experience was so unpleasant, we vowed never to go back again. We were made to queue outside in summer for 30 minutes – and in Arizona, no-one, save illegal immigrants and prisoners, does anything outside in summer. Worse still, we weren’t even allowed to visit the concession stand to get a drink.

After a six-month boycott, we were finally lured back by the prospect of Return of the King, but things hadn’t improved any. We arrived 45 minutes before showtime, and the choice of seats was already very limited: this was for a screening at 9 o’clock on Sunday morning. When we left, people were already queuing up for the next screening, which didn’t start for more than another hour and a quarter. If there was a point to buying tickets in advance (especially one worth paying the “convenience fee”!), it escapes me. Memo to Harkins Theaters: forget it. The Cine Capri is nice, but it’s not that nice.

The weird thing is, cinemas are pretty much the only venues still in the dark ages. Go to the theatre, a concert, a sporting event, and you have to sit in the right seat, so it’s not as if Arizonans are unable to grasp the basic concepts. It is simply down to greed on the part of cinema owners. The longer customers spend in the place, the more likely they are to spring for a $3.75 cup of flavoured fizzy water, and that’s where the profits are made, with a 6-800% markup. [An example: in one year Hollywood Theater sold $26.7m in concessions, $22.4m of which was profit] Customers also have to endure more of the “pre-show entertainment” – that’s cinema-speak for “commercials”.

However, they are shooting themselves in the foot, long-term. Having to turn up an hour early, and guard seats like a lioness with her cubs is stressfully unpleasant. And the less pleasant the experience, the less often we will go, reserving the cinema for truly special movies. After all, there’s never any problem getting a great seat in our living-room…