On The Unintended Horrors Of Assigned Movie Seating

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I recently attended an advance screening for a big movie where we were assigned specific seats. Oftentimes, those of us on the press list get to sit in a reserved section, or a dedicated row inside a theater to keep us from the unwashed masses (who are often times more washed than critics, a notoriously rumpled and dandruffy demo). Specific assigned seats, though, was something new.

It was kind of a disaster. The first problem that arose was that while we were assigned specific seat numbers, there weren’t numbers on every seat. So when I went to my assigned row and started looking for my assigned seat, 12, I walked to where there was a 12 (apparently made with a label maker and stuck to the armrest like glorified masking tape) on one armrest. Was seat 12 the seat with the 12 on the right arm rest or the one with 12 on the left arm rest? No one could say for sure. The two arm rests to the right and the two to the left of the 12 had nothing on them at all. Left without an usher to mediate, I made my best guess.

The other people filed in and as the house lights went down, I didn’t have anyone on either side of me. Score! I have broad shoulders and try to avoid sitting directly next to a stranger so I don’t have to try to scrunch my back so that my elbows are narrower-than-armrest width for an entire movie. Then, just as the opening credits were playing, a couple of Johnny Come Latelies started to make their way down the row with popcorn and soda. Now they would have to try to find their assigned seats, in the dark, in a theater without clear signage, while a movie was playing.

They pardon’d and excuse me’d their way down the row until they got to me. “Psst,” they loudly whispered, “What seat number are you?”

“12,” I loudly whispered back.

“I think you’re in 11, I think this is 12,” some butt-insky two seats to my right jumped in. Apparently we disagreed on the whole “right arm rest says your number/left armrest says your number” question. “What number are you?” she asked.

“16 and 17,” the man said.

“Oh, that’s way down that way,” the butt-insky responded, gesturing back down the row from whence they had come. A row that was mostly full and definitely did not have two empty seats next to each other.

So the couple just sat down, with me in the middle. With one of them holding popcorn that they presumably intended to share. “Ahh, my nightmare,” I thought.

Now, you might be wondering, why didn’t I just move one seat in either direction and let them sit next to each other? The answer is that, for one thing, they just sat down before I had had a chance to really process what was happening. For another, I was holding a burrito that I’d just taken a bite out of, with my napkins on my lap (I worried it’d be messy) and with my drink in one cupholder. I was situated. Besides, I was in, or at least near, my assigned seat. And by the way, find your seat and then go get popcorn like normal people. What is this, your first rodeo?

But I wasn’t trying to stand on principle, it was just that the movie was starting and there was no time to argue any of these points. They opted to just sit rather than trying to figure it out because there was a movie playing. I don’t blame them. And I went from confusion to “oh shit” before there was time to compromise.

As it turned out, they ended up not sharing the popcorn, which was very considerate of me but must’ve sucked for them. They were, all things considered, pretty good seatmates for people who’d been positioned into a non-consensual thrupple by circumstance. I can’t imagine they were happy to have a guy eating a big stinky burrito (yes, I opted for extra spicy) as the meat in their sandwich. I wouldn’t say the disaster was entirely avoided but it was at least mitigated — by us trying not to be dicks to each other. A rarity in these times but sometimes we can be pleasantly surprised.

Certainly it was better than, say, the time I had to sit next to two slurring drunks mixing some citrusy vodka concoction through an entire movie (like in an actual cocktail mixer!), or a Spanish-speaking couple where the wife had to translate the entirety of one of the Transformers movies to her husband at a non-whispery level. I’m also firmly on the side of “first come first served” in the assigned seating or not divide, but that’s a debate we’ll leave for another time.

Today my question is, what are your theater horror stories? Comment below or email us.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can check out his archive of reviews here.