Where Would You Like to Sit? Cinemas bet on luxury recliners, and the payoff is handsome

Cinemas Features

I saw Old Yeller in 1958 at the RKO Palace in Rochester, NY. Disney movies were a magnet for kids back then and despite having 3,000 seats—including a spacious balcony—the Palace continued selling tickets even after it ran out of seats. I sat on the floor, in the aisle, beside the tenth row. It was marginally less comfortable than having a seat.

Cinema seating has changed dramatically since then. To talk about today’s seats—and their impact on the business—we’ve convened a roundtable of two seat manufacturers and three exhibitors. The conversation begins with what used to be.

Steve Simons (CEO, VIP Cinema Seating): When I started going to the cinema, seating was pretty much a metal structure that had a short seat. It had some padding on the seat and some padding on the back.

Neil Campbell (CEO, Landmark Cinemas, Canada): If you were lucky, your seat pan would slide forward a bit so you could lean back. Seats were all rigid; there was the odd theatre around that had cast iron. 

Bill Stembler (Chairman and CEO, Georgia Theatre Company): A lot of the seats had wooden arms; they were tight, crammed together, but they could handle huge capacities.

Edwin Snell (Director of Sales, Dolphin Seating): Every theatre had basically the same style chair. But then, when stadium seating came in, there was a major change.

Paul Farnsworth (District Manager, B&B Theatres): And a lot of exhibitors got creative with their stadium concepts—installing wider seats with more space between the seats—and higher seats so you were looking more directly at the screen.

StemblerThen the cupholder arms came in and they were another great change.

Campbell: Seats kept getting better and better, but the advent of the recliner seat has changed the whole model.

Farnsworth: I was the manager of a B&B theatre that had 1,300 seats and it wasn’t uncommon to fill them up. And so when representatives from the main office said: “We’re going to rip out all your seats and put in these big leather recliners,” I was excited about that. But then they said: “And it will reduce your seat count by about sixty percent.” And I said: “Have you thought this through?”

StemblerJust do the math. Your landings were four feet and the chairs were roughly 24 inches wide. Now, the landings are seven feet and the chairs are closer to 30 inches wide. And when you get through doing the aisles and everything else, you have a great deal less than the prior capacity.  

Simons: When we pioneered the luxury premium seat to the cinema industry in 2008, the business model for what we were trying to sell didn’t seem to make sense. Exhibitors couldn’t resonate with “You lose 50 percent of your seats and increase your ticket sales by 80 percent.” It’s very counterintuitive, but it’s factual.

Campbell: Since we did our first conversion to recliners, there is no question—it has been an absolute game-changer. Attendance numbers have gone way up. When those go up, box office goes up, concessions go up.

Simons: One of our customers took one of their basic plain locations and did a re-seat with no concession changes—and their ticket sales went up more than 100 percent.

Campbell: As soon as we convert, the whole theatre becomes 100-percent reserved because we’re selling out, so often we want to make sure that if you’re coming you buy your ticket in advance, so you know your seat is there waiting for you.

Farnsworth: Our advance ticket sales shot up immediately and drastically. We’d fill up the prime-time seats early and that over-fill would push to the nine o’clock set or to the four o’clock set on the following day. It had a really positive impact.

Simons: The occupancy rate prior to the recliner was, on average, twelve or thirteen percent. With recliner chairs, the same screens often sell out Thursday through Sunday. 

StemblerAnd because people have their seat reserved, they don’t rush so much to go to the auditorium, which gives them a bit more time to buy some concessions.

Snell: I’ve had heavy-set customers tell me they haven’t been able to watch movies comfortably for years because they just didn’t fit properly in the other seats. And I’ve had older people tell me that they just didn’t feel comfortable. Now, in the luxury recliners, they do.

Campbell: It’s like people rediscovered going to movies. For us, it’s not only changing how often people go to the movies, our customer satisfaction comments are off the chart. Our “circle of influence” of where we’re drawing from has gotten much, much bigger.

Snell: And another thing with these recliners—they work great on slope floors, so people are buying up old slope theatres and putting recliners in. They work well on the stadiums too, but the risers need to be extended out to fit the extra space of the chair.

Farnsworth: Oftentimes, they require the stadium to be reset. For example, if you have the static seats on a 12-inch riser, you need to come in and essentially convert two rows of stadium to a single row of recliners because the recliners have a much larger footprint in every dimension, so they need a larger platform. 

Campbell: But there’s still a role for the fixed seat, because not all auditoriums can be converted—especially in some of the large-format situations or where the angle is too steep. And there are theatres where the volume is so high we can’t take a fifty-percent cut in seating capacity, so we put in the best-quality alternative seating that we can.

Stembler: There’s also a role for the fixed seating in the smaller markets—maybe 50,000 people or less—and in the single-run markets. In a two-run market, you might be able to live with a nice comfortable chair with a lever, a push back and a five-foot landing. Time will tell.

Simons: We asked one of the major exhibitors—who is also one of our major customers—about their ratio of traditional seats to premium seats and his response was: “The premium seat is our traditional seat.” 

Campbell: But the recliners, because they’re bigger and more complicated, are more expensive than the traditional seating.

Stembler: Luxury seats cost well north of $500 each—so a 200-seat auditorium costs in excess of $100,000, just in chairs. 

Farnsworth: And each electric recliner requires a power source, so when you’re resetting the auditorium, you need to install conduits and outlets into the floor as well. That’s a major effort with the seat remodel. 

Campbell: You start with the low-hanging fruit. You pick a theatre in a market where you have lots of headroom. Some of the ones we’ve done, we were sitting at number six or seven in a market and now we’re number two. And the ROI on them is huge.

Snell: But for the audience, simplicity and ease of operation are very important. You don’t want to make anything too complicated because new customers are coming into the theatre all the time and you don’t want to have to explain how something works.

Campbell: What I like are simple controls where you can pre-set the recline so the customers’ feet can be up, and there’s enough room so you can walk down the aisle easily.

Simons: The luxury seat is a catalyst to the changing demographics. Movies are attracting more audiences with more disposable income, so concessions are becoming a more significant profit center. A traditional seat with no extra room is not conducive to having a glass of wine and a plate of sliders. Now, audiences can get into a recliner, get into a comfortable eating position, with a snack table, and be in an environment that’s conducive to enjoying that enhanced food and beverage service.

Farnsworth: In some of our markets, we have full-service bars, so there’s a variety of different cups and glasses, including martini glasses. If you try to put one of those in a standard cupholder, you’re asking for trouble.

Snell: If you’re going to do food service, you’re going to need to have a big chair with a swivel table attached. That’s driven the market—and led to new considerations for cleaning issues. That’s why we’ve taken steps to make sure they can get fully underneath our chairs. 

Stembler: The company we’re using has a feature where you can raise all seats in the auditorium. So when the audience is all gone and you want to clean it, you push the button on your iPad and everything comes up. That saves a lot of time.

Farnsworth: But again, cleaning is one of those things where if the local crews are trained and diligent about what to look for, it’s no different from anything else.

Campbell: Recliners add maybe ten percent or fifteen percent more time to the cleaning between shows. But when the crowd comes in, they’re coming into an environment where the seats all look pristine and brand-new.

Snell: Seats used to be cloth material so if someone spilled a Coke, or a little kid had an accident, they had a chair that was “down.” Now, with vinyl, they just wipe it off and they’re good to go.

Farnsworth: We’ve had almost four years since we began rolling this replacement campaign out in earnest and haven’t had any significant wear and tear up to this point. The seats we’ve put in are as good as they were when they were installed.

Campbell: When audiences walk into an environment where everything looks fine and expensive, people have a tendency to treat it better.

Farnsworth: What’s kind of neat about them also—at least the ones we use—is that each chair is simply bolted in. If one in a prime location has some kind of mechanical problem, we can unplug it, unbolt it from the floor and swap it with a seat from the front row.

Snell: We make these recliners to the point where, once they’re in, they’re good. The motors are plug-and-play. And on the footrests and armrests, we offer a rubber-type material that matches the chair, but it’s a solid material so even if it does get cut, it just seals up.

Simons: Seats are evolving so quickly. We have a new chair where the entire chair is modular. Every part of that chair can be replaced in minutes. We have another proprietary product that’s “a brain in a chair”—a chair with a computer that has complete diagnostics.

Snell: We have some customers who want some extra bells and whistles—for example, USB ports so people can charge their phones during movies, or heated and cooled seats, stuff like that.

Simons: And today’s seats can be networked to other things in the theatre, but that depends on the theatre.

Farnsworth: In Wylie, a Dallas suburb, we have a call button installed that can bring wait staff to the seat. So that’s another example of the ease and comfort with which you can customize your cinema experience. 

Campbell: In the very near future, the seats may be wired to a fire-alarm system where, if the alarm has been triggered, all seats will go back to their upright position. Those things make a lot of sense.

Simons: The seat is the core of the cinema experience. I’m not minimizing location or concessions, but if you go on Yelp! and pull up those locations that feature recliners, you’ll see more positive comments about the recliner than you will about anything else. Audiences love it. It’s the WOW factor.