The Disappearing Ticket Booth: The line around the block is becoming an uncommon sight

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If you grew up going to the movies, you must remember this: For the most popular films, there was often a line around the block. It’s where you and your friends stood, sometimes in the heat or the cold, the rain, the sun, the snow; it’s where you had to arrive early if you expected to get a good seat. It’s where you waited to step in front of the ticket booth to pay your money and have them print your ticket.

For cinema-goers, standing in line has been part of the price you pay for going to the movies. For exhibitors, it’s been a kind of gating mechanism to control the pace of those entering the theatre.

Now, as new theatres are built and older ones refurbished, the ticket booth is being erased from plans. Exhibitors are asking architects for new options; moviegoers are buying their tickets differently; cinemas are taking another step into the future. Here, four experts discuss what’s going on—and what it means for those who grew up standing in line.

Penn Ketchum (Managing Partner, Penn Cinema Management Co.): A traditional box office still makes sense for theatres of a certain personality. One of our theatres is what some would describe as a “hometown movie theatre,” where a good percentage of the customers know the kids who are working in the ticket booth and they like to engage on a face-to-face basis. It’s an important part of their moviegoing experience.

Robert McCall (Principal, JKRP Architects): In theatres with traditional seating, the box office is still necessary because those theatres tend to have much larger seat counts; they can accommodate people who decide to go to the movies on a last-minute whim, and they need somewhere to buy their tickets.

Chris Johnson (CEO, Classic Cinemas): The bigger the lobby, the easier it is to eliminate the ticket booth. If the lobby is too small and you’re trying to do everything inside at one point, you’re going to create lines that are so long they strangle the circulation and crowd flow. But other than that, I think the box office-less approach can work in big markets and small, and in theatres of different sizes.

Mike Cummings (Senior Principal, TK Architects International): People are increasingly buying their tickets earlier and they’re buying them electronically in some way. The first step was the Internet—and then the use of apps or social media as platforms to be able to purchase tickets. 

McCall: Everything is becoming a byproduct of the trend to recliners and the dramatic reduction in the number of seats—up to 60 percent—in each auditorium. Spur-of-the-moment moviegoing is becoming a thing of the past. There are fewer and fewer people relying on buying their ticket when they get to the theatre. 

Cummings: So that started a reduction of demand on the attended ticket booth. You can’t just show up before anyone else and get the best seat in the auditorium. The people who buy their tickets online get the best seats. 

Johnson: And although we haven’t done reserved seating yet, reserved seating shifts the percentage of tickets purchased online to crazy numbers—so for those who already do it, their box office is fast becoming irrelevant. We’re eliminating the box office in every refresh we have planned.

Cummings: But we’re visual thinkers, so when an exhibitor wants to eliminate the box office, the first thing we think about is: What will be the “storefront appearance” when you walk up to it? Once upon a time a box office, vertical sign and canopy marquee were the visual cues it was a movie theatre. When those go away, we’re challenged to create a theatrical entrance that’s eye-catching—without having the box office as a “crutch element.”

McCall: It’s very important for us to really showcase the lobby and the excitement that’s going on there. But when an exhibitor decides the box office is going away, the first question we ask is: Where are people going to buy their tickets if they haven’t purchased them online? 

Johnson: Most of our customers buy their tickets at the concession counter. The advantage to the customer is the single transaction point in the theatre, the single line. There’s definitely a little learning curve, but if you staff it correctly and the line moves quickly and efficiently, the complaints go away and it becomes accepted.

Ketchum: When we eliminated the ticket booth, we installed kiosks and those who can’t operate them—or don’t want to—can go through the concession stand. There was some confusion initially, but I think nowadays it’s much more common for theatres to sell tickets and concessions all at once.

Cummings: We’ve also seen exhibitors moving to a heavy reliance on the automated ticket machines with a much smaller other staff component. Most of the time, there’s a concierge or customer-service counter somewhere in the lobby where moviegoers can get help in buying a ticket.

Johnson: We’re not using kiosks as much as others. I’m a believer that everything will go to smartphones. I believe we should incentivize people to buy tickets online—and if they buy them enough in advance, maybe give them a discount because we’ll be better able to plan our load levels.

Ketchum: Senior citizens and the older crowd don’t want to buy their ticket from a machine. You could put somebody there to help them, but why not put that person in the concession area to sell the ticket there? You don’t save money by putting the person next to a machine—and you may damage customer good will.

Johnson: I’m not against kiosks; I just think they’re expensive, their life is somewhat limited, and the smartphone is replacing them. I believe that in a few years everyone will buy their tickets online and show up with them on their phones, so if you’re going in and doing a refresh, why not plan for that now? 

Cummings: If someone is considering eliminating their ticket booth, they should think about how comfortable their guests will be interacting with the automated ticket machine, because that will determine the amount of staffing help they need to provide. 

Ketchum: We made the decision to eliminate the box office in the hopes of reducing our staffing budget. That worked, but not in a meaningful way. The customer who’s confused and unprepared will be high-maintenance, whether you run them through the box office, a ticket machine or the concession stand. We need the same staff to serve them regardless of where that staff is working.

Johnson: What we’re seeing is that without a box office, we’re better allocating staff by consolidating it into one location—the concession counter. But we have to staff it to the right level. So we do have to add staff to concessions, but the overall staffing is neutral. 

Ketchum: I think the biggest savings from eliminating the box office are not so much from staffing as from the footprint you have to build. When you build a new theatre you no longer have to allow for x square feet for your box office. That’s where you’re saving money.

Johnson: It also opens up the lobby. The concept used to be “Get ’em in, get ’em out”; now we want customers to feel comfortable getting there a little earlier, maybe staying a little later. The lobby is there for more than utility. 

McCall: Even though the box office was cumbersome, it was an easy way to control people. Now, you walk into this open, inviting lobby and there are multiple options. As exhibitors introduce even more amenities—the bar, the lounge, high-end dining—from a design standpoint we have to balance the appropriate impact each of those elements has to keep consistency and continuity in the overall look, while still creating the excitement of a theatre lobby.

Cummings: So the patron flow becomes much more of a meandering, organic movement through the building. We have more flexibility for the kinds of elements we can use, the options we can introduce, and the kinds of spaces—even social-gathering spaces—we can include along the way. 

Johnson: One of the challenges is, when you take out the box office, you’re letting anyone walk in and have full access to the entire lobby prior to having a ticket. So you have to be aware of that, you have to train your staff for it; but it really hasn’t been an issue for us.

Ketchum: My staff working in our theatre without a box office doesn’t think of it as a challenge. For them, a busy weekend is just a busy weekend—it’s just that their planning of how to most effectively handle that is a little different. A staff that doesn’t have a box office doesn’t miss it—and I don’t think the customers do either.

Johnson: Another challenge is convincing your theatre managers—especially if they’ve been in the business forever—that this box office-less approach could actually work. They worry that they’ll have lines everywhere. The key is to make sure they staff enough and the ticket takers have the appropriate scanners to scan printed tickets or mobile phones.

Ketchum: When there’s a traditional box office, it’s a lot easier for customers to buy their tickets and walk directly into the theatre. But in a non-box-office theatre, there are more customers who go through our concession stand and there’s an increased likelihood that they’ll buy something.

Johnson: I see lots of positives from eliminating the box office. We’re consolidating all the cash in one location. We’re reducing the number of transactions per customer from two—for tickets and concessions—to one, so theoretically, that will speed things up. We’re potentially increasing the size of each transaction, so we get a better credit card rate. Our service level is up and we’re creating an environment where people feel welcomed and comfortable.

McCall: When the ticket booth is eliminated, there’s more space available to make the whole lobby experience better, the exhibitor’s labor costs can be reduced by combining jobs and eliminating redundancy, and customers spend less time doing what they find painful to do—standing in line waiting to buy tickets. 

Johnson: The question should not be: How can we reduce staff and save money? The goal should be: How can we use our staff most effectively to enhance customer service? You need to have that framework in mind before you go into it. 

Ketchum: Our theatre that runs without a box office runs fine. Our theatre with a box office runs fine. What I don’t think we could ever get away from is a movie theatre that does not offer the opportunity to be greeted by someone in a friendly way, to be thanked for coming, and to be able to buy a movie ticket from a human being—if that’s what the customer chooses to do

Johnson: And yet, I think in the future they’ll have beacons in theatres that will automatically check you in, offer you a ticket if it sees you don’t have one, charge your credit card, even suggest concessions you like—all over your mobile phone. 

Cummings: They’ll know who you are when you walk in the door. “Welcome, Mike. Can I get you some Milk Duds and a Coke?” The elimination of the box office with everything that entails and enables is just one small step in that direction.

McCall: The industry is constantly reinventing itself and trying to improve the customer experience and this is just a natural part of it. Talking to our customers who’ve eliminated their box office, we’ve never heard someone say, “Gee, I wish I never took it out.” Nobody asks us to put it back.