Cineplex tests $1 reserved seating surcharge at some Star Wars screenings

Cineplex Inc. is giving Star Wars fans a surprise twist at the box office by charging an extra dollar for assigned seating at some showings.

The country’s biggest exhibitor has tacked on a surcharge at select regular screenings of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” across Canada in hopes moviegoers will be willing to pay more for not waiting in line.

It’s a move the company says makes it convenient when a screening is sold out, which often leaves latecomers hunting for empty seats.

While reserved seating isn’t entirely new at Cineplex, the cost has usually been built into ticket prices for the company’s premium Imax, VIP and UltraAVX theatres. The exhibitor also experimented with charging an extra $2 for “prime seats” at the centre of a few of its busier theatres.

But it has not previously rolled out the concept at what it calls “regular” screenings — movies shown in traditional auditoriums without the additional costs associated with 3D or a larger screen.

With “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” likely to be the biggest film of the year, Cineplex wanted to gauge how audiences reacted to the concept on a wider scale. The company says about 20 per cent of its Canadian locations are testing the $1 fee for reserved seats at regular screenings.

If the concept is received positively, it’s likely Cineplex will revisit the reserved seating at regular screenings for other event movies expected to draw huge crowds.

The move comes as Cineplex (TSX:CGX) and other theatre owners hunt for ways to boost profits at a time when a night at the movies competes with a raft of other convenient entertainment alternatives, like Netflix.

Screenings of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” have put an extra financial squeeze on North American exhibitors after Disney revealed a number of unusual requirements for any theatre wanting to screen the film.

Disney told exhibitors it would pocket about 65 per cent of the box-office revenues from Star Wars tickets. Traditionally, distributors take about half of the box-office revenue for a movie.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Disney’s move cuts deeply into exhibitor profits for the biggest movie of the holiday season.

It was widely expected that theatre owners would look to recoup their lost share in other places, like hiking the price of concession items and boosting ticket prices wherever possible.

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