Data Vis … The Movie

A few years ago I learned 2 important tricks to navigating a movie theatre:

1)      Ask how full the theatre is when you purchase your ticket.  Finding a single seat is easy, two seats is usually no problem, but when you have a party of 5, finding seats in a theatre that is 80% full becomes an interesting social challenge.

2)      You can get a refund on your ticket if you ask for it before the first 15 minutes of the movie have passed.  This is useful if you find that either the “percentage full” info is misleading or your skills of persuasion aren’t up to the task of getting a group of friends to move further down the aisle.  If you want to see the psychological and sociological nuances of territory at play, a movie theatre is the place to be.

The problem underlying both of these issues is distribution – where people choose to sit at a movie.  Seat selection is far from an arbitrary decision: are you close enough to see?  Too close?  Do you have an empty “buffer-seat” protecting you from the incredibly young child that will be sharing the intense action movie experience with you? Do you need the extra leg room offered by an aisle seat?  Or perhaps the tub of pop was too large and you do not want to bother the entire row when you have to “sneak out” (usually when something important is happening in the story)?  Whatever the reason, people have preferences and will guard their choices (and territory) fiercely.

While on vacation, we were saved from this frustration when we stopped in for a movie at Empire Theatre (Saint John, New Brunswick) where we encountered this:

A visual display of the movie theatre with color coded icons of each seat that was taken.  With the addition of a swiveling flatscreen monitor, a straightforward picture of the seating arrangement helped navigate the decision making.  With the added information offered by this visual presentation, it is now possible to decide whether your group can stay together and, if so, anticipate whether the location is worth the price of admission.

The logistics of the seating process is equally straightforward.  When you purchase your ticket you are asked to select the seats you would like.  The selected seats are then printed on your admission ticket which guards, in some measure, against impromptu seat changing.  When I asked how faithful people were to sit in the seats they chose, the attendee said they had no problems and people work it out between themselves.   Printing the seat number on the ticket seems to eliminate the personal aspect of the request (“would you mind skooching over 2 seats so I can sit with my family?”) and transforms it to a formalized contractual experience (“yes, I would mind, which seats are printed on your ticket?”).

Now the only thing left to round out the movie-going experience would be some kind of signal to let you know when there is a lull in the movie so you could pop out for a minute and return without compromising the story or missing a pivotal moment…

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