When was the last time you tried to see a movie, but couldn't, because it was sold out? I mean really sold out. Sure, you may have recently sat in a packed auditorium and watched a movie that was "sold out." And you may have recently been turned away from a specific showtime for some new movie because that one showing was "sold out." These things come with the season, when everyone's rushing to see the latest summer blockbuster as soon as it's released to theaters. But I bet it's been a long, long time since you were shut out completely from seeing a movie on opening weekend.
I experienced two sellouts this week (details forthcoming), and the frustration made me recall an experience from 21 years ago, when Beverly Hills Cop II came out. The reason I remember this specific movie's release is because I was keeping a summer journal at the time. I was only ten, so I didn't write much on each day, but through the opening weekend for BHC2, I repeated the same phrase three times: "Tried to see Beverly Hills Cop II, but it was sold out." Then, through the movie's second weekend, I again repeated the same phrase on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Finally, in its third weekend, I was able to write, "Saw Beverly Hills Cop II. It was good." The way moviegoing is set up nowadays, there are too many things keeping us from missing the movie we want to see when we want to see it. One is online ticketing, from such sites as Moviefone, Movietickets.com and Fandango (are there others?) or from a theater's own site (many independent theaters have their own ticketing systems instead of or in addition to using those sites mentioned). If we're worried that the 7pm show on Friday is going to sell out (this time of year, it probably is), we pay an extra charge and guarantee ourselves a ticket before we even leave the house. With some theaters, we can even choose our seats at the same time.
Another is high theater counts (or, more accurately, print counts). The Incredible Hulk is playing on 3,505 screens this weekend, meaning there's a good chance of finding a nearby cinema playing the movie in multiple auditoriums. And that means more showtimes, which means fewer sellouts. Or, it means fewer people turned away when one or more times do sell out. I went to see Iron Man opening weekend (theater count: 4,105) and didn't buy my tickets in advance. When I got there, the showtime I wanted was sold out. But the next available showing was only half an hour later, so I didn't mind sticking around and waiting.
Occasionally at the same cinema there's even more showings than there probably should be. Instead of merely playing every half hour, on the :00 and :30 minute marks, a big enough movie will have two showtimes every half hour, so that it's also playing on the :01 and :31 minute marks. It's likely that this theater is "interlocking" its projectors, meaning it might have only three prints of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (opening theater count: 4,260) but it's feeding each print through two projectors simultaneously, allowing for the movie to be shown in six auditoriums.
Of course, I'm not certain this particular theater is interlocking, but I know from experience what it looks like. As a projectionist, I interlocked shows during the opening weekends of Spider-Man 2 (opening theater count: 4,152) and Finding Nemo (opening theater count: 3,374), because the demand was so high and too many customers were being turned away from sold out showtimes. And in this day and age, people who are turned away are more likely to drive to another cinema than to return to the same cinema at another time. But at my theater those extra showtimes were never publicly displayed like they are at this other theater. As far as I know, interlocking isn't exactly allowed (for it to work, some other movie is being denied the auditorium it's been booked for), so it wouldn't be in a theater owner's best interest to publicize these extra shows (it would be more prudent to just oversell the properly scheduled shows).
Obviously, for the moviegoer, the benefit of having fewer sellouts is that we get to see the movie right away and don't have to wait three weeks until the crowds have died down. I'm sure that back in 1987, my demand and anticipation just grew and grew each weekend that I didn't get to see Beverly Hills Cop II (opening theater count: surprisingly 2,326, which was way above the average for that time), and with that anticipation came higher expectations. Maybe that's why I only wrote that it was "good" instead of "awesome."
Of course, to the studios, the benefit of having fewer sellouts is arguably that a majority of moviegoers sees a bad movie before they know it's actually bad. For the most part, if we're excited about seeing The Happening (opening theater count: 2,986) but don't get to see it opening weekend, then hear it's not that great, our excitement will die down to the point that we likely won't even see it in the theater at all. Also, for the studios, it means they'll receive a substantial amount of the total box office gross, which is "front-loaded" into the first weekend, with significantly fewer tickets sold in subsequent weekends.
So, it seems to hurt exhibitors either way. If they book a movie on fewer screens and sell out those screens, moviegoers will choose another theater. If they book a movie on more screens and allow for everyone to see the movie right away, they potentially lose out on a larger percentage of the gross. The best ways of overcoming this are to own the only theater within miles of a large population, have a monopoly over a certain district, or book exclusives. The last option mostly only works for art houses and other theaters showing small and/or independent releases.
In New York City, for instance, there are a number of films showing at only one or two theaters. If one of these films is in high enough demand, it may sell out a lot of showtimes and increase its demand. However, those constant sellouts may also discourage some people from continually trying to get tickets. I know they've discouraged me before. As much as the sellouts tell me that this is a movie I have to see, the difficulty of actually seeing it can make me choose something else. This happened recently with a revival showing of Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (re-release theater count: 1), which I was initially eager to see at NYC's Film Forum. But I'm not a huge fan of the Film Forum when it's packed, so I waited, and waited until finally it wasn't playing anymore.
This is the Catch-22 about moviegoing in NYC: there are a ton of amazing options, from new films in limited release to revivals and retrospectives, but considering the huge population of the city, it can actually be a small amount of worthy options per moviegoer. It's the same thing with concerts; everyone worth seeing plays here, but everyone worth seeing sells out quickly.
And here, finally, are the details of my sellout experiences of this past week: One was actually a concert (sorry to mention something non film-related), which sold out in about two minutes as I attempted to buy tickets online. I don't normally go to concerts in the city for the very reason that it's this hard to see the ones I'm interested in. And this week I was only further discouraged from ever trying to see another band perform live again. The other experience was for a one-time-only showing of the Sundance-winning documentary Trouble the Water, which doesn't officially come out until August. Because of the quick advance sellout, I'm more interested in seeing the film, though I'm probably less inclined to try and see this kind of special screening, which was part of a weeklong Sundance event in Brooklyn and featured a Q&A with the filmmakers. In a way, this kind of screening, with its live talent element, is like a concert.
You could probably say I'm spoiled for having these wonderful moviegoing options -- some of which I've been able to attend and some of which I've been shut out of -- and complaining about them. I agree; I'm being a brat. The truth is, I live in a place where I can walk about five blocks in either direction and find an available showtime for Kung Fu Panda (opening theater count: 4,114; current theater count: 4,136), and/or I can attend an exclusive midnight screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey (which should only be seen on a big screen) at the local Landmark Theatre. The latter may have sold out both of its showtimes this weekend, but at least those showings existed.