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AMC Theatres to start charging more for the best seats in the house

Great world-building terminology, maybe not so great real-life business change

A photo of the AMC Empire 25 theater marquee in New York City Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the movie theater business, which, with the simultaneous triumph of Avatar: The Way of Water and the cratering of most of this year’s Oscar nominees at the box office, is still climbing back to some semblance of normalcy. But just because the movies are back doesn’t mean the business has steadied; if anything, AMC Theatres’ new decision to charge more for decent seats forecasts a future where everything is for sale in order to stay afloat.

On Monday, the theater chain announced a new program, Sightline at AMC, which breaks theater seating into tiers of varying value. According to a news release, Standard Sightline seats are the “most common in auditoriums and are available for the traditional cost of a ticket”; Value Sightline seats are “primarily in the front row of the auditorium and are available at a lower price than Standard Sightline seats”; and Preferred Sightline seats are “typically in the middle of the auditorium and cost slightly more than Standard Sightline seats.” The new system rolls out in select theaters in New York City, Chicago, and Kansas City this Friday, and across the nation later this year.

While no price tiers were stated in the announcement, AMC’s website already reflects the new system, with Preferred Sightline adding $1 to the standard price and Value Sightline knocking off $2. (In New York City, the standard ticket price for an evening show is approximately $18.) Here’s what it looks like in practice:

A screenshot of the AMC Theatres website, showing a screening of Magic Mike’s Last Dance at a New York City theater, with sections divided into standard, preferred, and value Sightline sections. Image: AMC Theatres via Polygon

The new Sightline system immediately ties into the AMC Stubs A-List loyalty program. Any customers signed up for the subscription service will have the Preferred Sightline premium waived.

“Sightline at AMC more closely aligns AMC’s seat pricing approach to that of many other entertainment venues, offering experienced-based pricing and another way for moviegoers to find value at the movies,” Eliot Hamlisch, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at AMC Theatres, said in a statement.

In a moment of debate over the value of the theatrical experience, and whether chains like AMC and other exhibitors are embracing standards that could actually entice moviegoers back to the movies, the Sightline program is... a choice. William Gibson wishes he could have imagined a dystopian world-building term for movie theaters of the near future like “Preferred Sightline.” Industry reactions suggested that the move, at least in its nascent form, was controversial.

The gut feeling that this may not be the best direction for movie theaters seems to be shared by Hamlisch, who took an immediate defensive approach in his sell.

“While every seat at AMC delivers an amazing moviegoing experience,” he said, “we know there are some moviegoers who prioritize their specific seat and others who prioritize value moviegoing. Sightline at AMC accommodates both sentiments to help ensure that our guests have more control over their experience, so that every trip to an AMC is a great one.”

As RRR director S.S. Rajamouli said in a recent Polygon feature, the future of movies is really up to the exhibitors. “There are kids who are growing up watching entertainment on their personal devices, and bringing them to the theater is a challenge,” he said, “but the global industry has to accept that it is a challenge. We have to actually think about how to get them to the theaters. We need to think in terms of filmmakers. We need exhibitors to think about how to make the environment more enticing for them to come and watch the movie. We need to do those exercises. Just hoping won’t help.”

Will sightline-optimized pricing do it? AMC hopes so — and least as far as profitability is concerned.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the standard ticket price for AMC Theatres locations in New York City. We’ve updated the story with accurate information.

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