Every weekend, Cinema Blend answers one reader question. Last week, we argued over whether or not it’s okay to make out at the movies, and this week, as The Hunger Games sequel catches fire in theaters all over the country, we’re talking about the packed-theater conundrum. If you have a question related to movies, whether it be theater etiquette or about one or more completed films, fire off an email to [email protected] for consideration in future editions of Ask CB.

Is it okay to ask people to shove down to open up seats next to each other if the theater is almost completely full?
Stephanie from Geneva, New York.

It’s funny you should ask that, as I experienced that very pickle last night when my husband and I were going to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Usually, arriving at the theater a half an hour early is more than enough time to get a good seat at our local theater, especially if it’s a later showing. We were seeing the film at eleven at night, and there were numerous other showings earlier that evening, so we figured getting to the theater by 10:30 p.m. would be more than enough time to get a decent seat. Apparently not. We arrived as a massive line of people were filing into the theater, and when we finally made our way in, we found that there weren’t any two-seat options in the upper rows of the theater. The first two rows down in front were mostly empty, but the upper rows were packed, with a few single seats scattered about. Here were our options.

1) Try to find seats in the same row and politely ask people to shift down. If you see empty seats in the same row, but they’re not right next to each other, find out if they’re being saved. If not, see if people are willing to move down a seat to free up two (or more) together. This is a strategy I picked up years ago when I was seeing movies in New York City and Long Island somewhat regularly. In my experience down there, it wasn’t all that uncommon to ask or be asked to move seats so people could sit together. I attribute people’s willingness to rearrange seats with strangers to the crowd-mentality of residents in more populated areas, where people are used to close proximity with strangers. It’s a real treat when the seat next to you remains empty, of course, but it’s not a big deal to move down for someone. Since moving upstate, I’ve noticed people don’t tend to ask as much. They’ll approach the higher rows, do a once-over, then turn and move to the bottom section of the theater, even though there are plenty of single-seats not being used. If there are enough available seats for your party, it’s ok to ask people to shift down.

NOTE: The above strategy should only be practiced if the movie has not started yet. It’s more of a gray area if the lights have dimmed and the previews have started, but if the lights are out and the movie’s playing, do not engage. Next time get to the theater earlier or go to #2 on this list.

2) Sit separately. This option may not be for the causal movie goer. If you’re seeing a movie on a date or as a fun thing to do with friends, you’re probably going to want to sit with the person you came with. The same applies if you have a complicated snack-sharing situation set up that requires close proximity. But if your reason for being at the theater is more about seeing the movie than it is about spending quality time with your spouse, best friend, mom or whoever you’re with, consider splitting up. Ask yourself if it's more important that your arm’s brushing up against your best friend while you’re both watching the new Star Wars movie, or that you get the best possible seat you can find to see that movie in all its anticipated glory? This is the approach my husband and I took last night. We weren’t able to find two available seats together, so we split up. Fortunately, his seat was right behind me, so it wasn’t that much of an issue and we both had a good view. He was even able to get a plastic tray from the concession stand so we could split the popcorn. Did I want to sit next to a stranger instead of my husband? Not really. But it was favorable over the next two options in this situation. It might seem weird to sit "alone" In a theater, but once the lights go down and you’re watching the movie, it’s far less of an issue than you’d think.

3) Sit down in front. This one may be necessary if you show up late or you don’t want to split up with your friends. Personally, I consider this to be the worst option in most cases, having sat down at the bottom before. There are almost always free seats down in front because those seats suck. For one thing, if the screen isn’t flat, which it doesn’t tend to be when it’s stadium seating or IMAX, you’re going to get a distorted picture if you’re sitting up too close and not center. For another, it’s literally a pain in the neck having to stare upward at a giant screen for hours. The last time I saw a movie way up close was Sweet Home Alabama, which should be an indication that I’m not a fan of this approach, considering I haven't repeated it in more than a decade. With memories of the Reese Witherspoon’s misshapen face in mind, I don’t think I’ll ever see another movie from down in front. If it’s the only option left, I’d rather leave and see the movie another time, which brings us to…

4) Get your money back and see another showing. This is an option that I think a lot of people wouldn’t consider, as they might assume they’ve entered into some kind of binding contract the moment their tickets were printed. But if the movie hasn’t started yet, I don’t see anything wrong with asking for a refund or exchanging your tickets for another showing if you can’t find good seats. Admittedly, it’s never actually come to this for me, but last night when we were lined up to get into Hunger Games, I was considering it as I stared around the packed theater looking for seats. We went with "sit separately" in that case, but just to confirm that it’s a viable option in this situation, I actually called the theater today -- it’s a major theater chain -- and asked about their policy, to see if they would refund a person if they couldn't find good seats. The woman I spoke with said,"Yes" without any hesitation. So assuming other chains have a similar policy, you shouldn’t even need to cause a fuss. Just return to the ticket counter and ask for a refund or exchange.

What it comes down to is enjoying your movie-going experience. You’re spending more than $10 for a ticket — closer to $20 if you’re seeing it in IMAX — and you should be able to sit where you can enjoy it. Just keep in mind that you have options. It’s all a matter of your specific situation and your preference. And remember, being polite never hurts. Whether it’s the snacks you choose to eat, where to sit or how many seats you should hold, when it comes to public outings, we're all in this together.

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