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The Criticwire Survey: The Best Seat in the Theater

The Criticwire Survey: The Best Seat in the Theater

Every week, Criticwire asks film critics a question and brings you their responses in The Criticwire Survey. We also ask each member of the poll to pick the best film currently playing in theaters. The most popular choices can be found at the bottom of this post. But first, this week’s question:

Q: The front? The back? The aisle? The center? In other words: where is the best place to sit in a movie theater? 

The critics’ answers:

Alan ZilbermanBrightest Young Things/Tiny Mix Tapes:

“The ideal place is the middle of whichever row ensures that the edges of the screen are right at the edge of your peripheral vision. But if you’ve had a few beers before a movie or need to leave the theater quickly, an aisle seat is ideal since your bathroom trip won’t disrupt the other filmgoers.”

Mark YoungSound on Sight/New York Movie Klub:

“I prefer left-hand side, in the back at least 3/4 of the way up. I’m not so picky, though, as packed houses forced me to enjoy ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Prometheus’ from the neck-breaking seats in the front.”

Stephen WhittyThe Star-Ledger:

“Unless it’s an IMAX screen, I almost always — particularly if it’s a small theater or screening room — sit in the front row. I’d like to say it’s because, like the cinephiles in ‘The Dreamers,’ I want to be the first person to be struck by the images coming off the screen. But it started before that, simply because I’ve got long legs and hate having the bottom of the frame interrupted by people’s heads. And now it’s because it’s the only way NOT to have to see a pale-blue sea of cellphone screens!”

Chase WhaleNext Movie/Twitch/Film.com:

“For an audience: dead center in the middle of the theater is ideal. It’s the central focal point and helps people with glasses focus better and not have to turn their head in awkward positions to see the film correctly. Sometimes in different areas of the theater, the rim of glasses aligns with the middle of the screen, giving us four eyes TNS (Taco Neck Syndrome) the entire movie. It’s incredibly uncomfortable, to say the least. For Chase Whale: he has to sit on the very end (the aisle seat) because he is claustrophobic and has panic attacks when sitting in the middle of a crowded theater. At film festivals, he has to show up extra early to ensure he’ll get an aisle seat so he can enjoy the movie without moving around in his seat every five minutes to keep his mind busy. Welcome to his wonderful, horrible life.”

Andrew WelchAdventures in Cinema:

“Sitting close is important, but not as important as having a spot near the center. Looking at the screen from an angle bothers me, especially if it’s a movie high on my must-see list.”

Andreas StoehrPussy Goes Grrr:

“When alone at the movies, I tend to sit front and center. Might be risking some neck pain, but I like not having any other patrons beside me or blocking my view. Plus, leg room!”

Josh SpiegelMousterpiece Cinema/Sound on Sight:

“Back and to the center. Not quite the line from ‘JFK,’ but that’s where I’m voting this week. One of my most treasured cinematic experiences was seeing ‘No Country for Old Men’ on opening day in Phoenix, in the morning. For whatever reason — as the movie hadn’t yet reached its cultural status — the multiplex where I went decided to play the film in one of its biggest theaters. And, because it was a Friday morning in November, I wound up being one of three people in the theater, but it didn’t matter. I sat in the last row in the center, directly facing the screen without any weird angles. Of course, I don’t always get to sit where I prefer, but if I could choose, back and to the center would be my selection every time.”

Vadim RizovGreenCine Daily:

“I want to be just close enough to eliminate anything outside of the screen, but not so close that I’m drowning in too much stimulus; the goal is to eliminate peripheral distractions. That generally translates to the third or fourth row back in small theaters, maybe seven back in large ones. Just left of center is my preferred vantage point, for reasons I can’t really articulate. Right of center’s second best, and dead center is only for 3-D. (With someone as fussy as me, going to the movies is A LOT OF FUN.)”

Tony NunesDreaming Genius/Sound on Sight:

“Wherever the people texting during the previews are not. You know they won’t stop when the movie starts, and that just drives me insane.”

V.A. MusettoNew York Post:

“On the aisle in the front. Front seats are always the last to be filled, so I don’t have to worry about getting there early. And the aisle because I feel claustrophobic with people sitting on both sides of me.”

Jana J. MonjiThe Demanders/Pasadena Art Beat/Examiner.com:

“The best place to sit in a movie theater is not the front unless you’re determined to get close for a photograph and/or a possible sample of DNA (spittle) from a passionate post-screening talk. It’s not the back unless you’re determined to answer your phone and send minute-by-minute updates  via Twitter before you get caught and booted out (after which you’ll then either write a scathing review of the movie theater or the movie) while the other audience members silently applaud. If you want to be a member of the unofficial social network police, the back is also good because you can instantly see the blue lights of cellphones. If you’re at a sing-along and you don’t want to be caught in front of the should-stay-in-the-shower type tone-deaf but loud-without-a-mike type of person or a party of drunks, then the back is the best choice. The best place could be the aisle which is preferred seating for stage theater critics who might want to beat a hasty retreat, particularly if seated next to the playwright, his/her mother or, worst of all, doting grandparents. If the screening is participational (such as a midnight ‘Rocky Horror’ screening), the aisle is best for springing up and rushing toward the front. For regular viewing, it depends upon just where the aisle seat is in the schematics of the theater. The best place to sit is usually in the middle in a manner that approximates how you normally view people. I’m on the short side, so my normal view of people is from a low angle. So I tend toward the low end of what would be the middle. By middle, I mean in relationship to the actual screen and not the middle of the row as I’ve found that for some odd reason, some theaters have the seats off-set from the actual screen, meaning the screen is to the left or the right of the actual middle of the seating arrangements. Sometimes, however,  the best place in a movie theater is more a state of mind or related to more abstract things such as the only seat next to someone you dearly love. Got to love those seats where the arms can fold up and away, and you can snuggle in for some personal time while transported  to another world — utterly alone but together in the dark, where the presence of others can be easily and conveniently forgotten.”

Jenni MillerJenniMiller.net:

“I get crazy anxious if I can’t sit near the end of the row when I’m in a big theater, especially if it’s a long movie. I like to sit in the back, especially if it’s in 3-D, IMAX or super shaky (like ‘V/H/S’ or even Andrea Arnold’s ‘Wuthering Heights’) because I get nauseous. I’m pretty short, so sometimes I’m that jerk that gets up and moves when people sit down in front of me. If it’s fairly empty, I will snag a seat in the middle because that’s the sweet spot. I think a lot of people are fairly obsessive about where they sit in theaters, so I don’t feel too bad about these little neuroses.”

Calum MarshSlant Magazine:

“There is nothing more engrossing and invigorating than sitting in the very front row of a theater, craning your neck back and letting the images rush over you in a bracing wave. Alas, much like my taste for anchovies on pizza, the inevitable groans of those in my party make my predilection for the front nigh impossible to fulfill in a group (I tried in vain at nearly every TIFF press screening to persuade my fellow critics to join me in the front but was swatted down every time). ‘It’s a pain in the neck,’ they protest, which is exactly how I feel about never getting my way. What’s a bit of mild discomfort, though, compared to the pleasure of having nothing lie between your eyes and the screen — not to mention the limitless leg room.”

Scott MacDonaldToronto Standard:

“This one’s easy: a process of elimination. The front is a complete no-go — I don’t get how anybody can enjoy sitting there! You have to stare straight up and the image gets all distorted, like Shrinky-dinks left too long in the oven. As for the back, the screen becomes so small you might as well be home watching TV. The aisle is out, too, because most theaters have bright lights on the floor there, and they distract your eye. That leaves the glorious, glorious center. I try to sit where the screen just fills my vision, no more, no less.”

Adam LowesHey U Guys:

“It depends on if you’ve ingested any drugs prior to the screening (I kid). I have friends and colleagues who prefer to sit right down at the front, where they feel they are getting the more immersive experience. I’m not a fan of forever rotating my head around to catch all the action however, so the center (just off from the aisle) is the perfect position for me.”

Christy LemireAssociated Press:

“I’ve always sat toward the back. This comes from going to the movies for years with my mother as a little girl, and she had this thing about sitting in the absolute back row. Also, being 5 feet tall, I find sitting in the middle can be tricky depending on sight lines.”

Will LeitchDeadspin:

“Front row, center, every time. I want it to be all enveloping, so that I forget everything else.”

Josh LarsenLarsenOnFilm.com/Filmspotting:

“Middle center, of course, but if the movie’s bad, there’s no better seat than next to the two old Muppets in the balcony.”

Joanna LangfieldThe Movie Minute:

“I always try to race for (my) choice seats, near the back of the orchestra section and as smack in the middle as I can get. Thought that was my special peculiarity until at one film festival screening, a man and I got into a conversation about our needs to sit mid aisle. He, a cinematographer, laughed. ‘I don’t like to shoot off center and I want people to see things the way I wanted them seen… straight on, in the middle.'”

Max LalanneSmell of Popcorn:

“I’ve only had experiences so far with small, very intimate theaters. Not usually packed either. So I’ll have to go with somewhere in the middle of the room, not too close and not too far from the screen, so it stills feel like an wholly immersive experience without having to tilt your head a bit too much. As centered as possible, with an aisle seat preferably. But I’m flexible.”

Peter LabuzaLabuzaMovies.com/The Cinephiliacs:

“I always sit in the first five or six rows as close to the center as possible. I like the idea of film overtaking the spectator, a booming gigantic image in which the viewer submits his or herself to the cinema.”

Eric KohnIndiewire:

“No matter where it’s located in a theater, I prefer the aisle so I can dart out easily. I’m not a huge fan of the immediate chatter following a screening because I usually need time on my own to gather my thoughts. It’s akin waking up from a deep sleep and processing a vivid dream. After all, isn’t that what movies are?”

John Keefer51Deep.com:

“I always aim for the center of the center: center of the theater, center of the aisle. Though I have found that the front aisle of stadium seating, while appearing to be too close, actually provides a pretty great view. You also have the added bonus of kicking your legs over the barrier, letting everyone know what a slob you are. Huzzah!”

Drew HuntChicago Reader/The Talking Pictures:

“Depending on the size of the screen and auditorium, I tend to sit somewhere between the first three to six rows and always at a slight angle — preferably to the left, but I’m not opposed to the right side. Sitting at angle permits me to easily see the entirety of the screen. Unlike some people I know, I’m not unwavering in my preference — if I’m seeing a film with a group of people, I’ll yield to whatever’s best for everybody — but when seeing a film for work or if I happen to be by myself, it’s this way each time.”

Eric HavensDownright Creepy:

“I’ve been fighting for my spot my entire cinematic life. While I’m always pressured to move to the back in order to ‘get a better view,’ I prefer to sit about six rows from the front and as close to direct center as possible. This allows your view to be filled by the screen without any neck craning. Trust me, try it out.”

Melissa HansonCinemit:

“Love the back row. Nobody kicking your seat and you don’t have to hear people behind you.”

Bill GrahamCollider/The Film Stage:

“I always figure everyone thinks like me. So my preference is dead center of the middle row. In the few true IMAX theaters, I try to sit toward the back rows in the middle simply because of the size of the screen. But many friends enjoy sitting at the corners. Some people have weak bladders. Some people like being able to make a quick exit. And some are more robust and may find that walking by people in the tight confines of the space between rows is incredibly uncomfortable. The only thing I don’t like doing is sitting right up front, which always made me laugh when I saw the Cinemark theater ads with the anthropomorphic cat Front Row Joe. I guess that used to work when most theaters used to double as a stage for plays or bands, but nowadays front row is nearly a 90 degree viewing angle.”

Kenji FujishimaThe House Next Door:

“When it comes to the best place to sit in a movie theater for me, personally… well, I was once a staunch believer in sitting somewhere in or around the center. As I’ve spent more time frequenting some of New York’s art-house theaters, however — especially Film Forum, an independent theater with great programming but rather small screens — I think I’m slowly becoming more of a sitting-close-to-the-front kind of moviegoer. There’s something to be said for sitting at a distance from the screen that holds the potential for a fuller, overwhelming immersion in a film than sitting in the back would, in most cases, ever be. I do wonder, however, whether all that straining of my neck sitting close to the front will eventually take a toll on my body as I get older…”

Jessica ElgenstiernaThe Velvet Café:

“A fellow movie blogger once told me that anyone who sits as ridiculously far back as in the third row can’t be considered a true cinephile. He asked rhetorically: ‘Why would you want to have rustling and tilting heads and talking and whispers between yourself and the movie?’ To be honest I’ve spent the majority of my life as a movie watcher in the far back of the room. Considering I’m a short person, this seems like a pretty stupid position. The idea was that if I picked a seat in the last row, I could make my own arrangements to see better, such as sitting on my knees, without having to take into consideration how this would affect the view of people in the rows behind me. As years have gone by, I’ve moved forward, row by row, and nowadays it’s not rare to see me in the second or third row. Maybe I’m turning into a cinephile after all? I hate having heads in my sightline as much as anyone else, but my strategy to avoid them is to look for seats on the sides, which generally are less popular. I also try to pick a seat which allows me to sit down and take as much time as I want to watch the credits or put on my clothes without having a queue of impatient people waiting for me to leave so they get passed.”

Alonso DuraldeTheWrap/What The Flick?!:

“It really depends on the movie. If I’m at a press screening, or in a theater with limited legroom, I like to be on the aisle. For a really immersive experience, I might sit just two or three rows back. My general rule for any theater with stadium seating is to sit on the lowest row of the raked section, so that you’re a good distance from the screen but can still look over all the less-raked rows. More than anything, though, I prefer sitting far away from anyone else whenever possible.”

Billy DonnellyAin’t It Cool News:

“Back in the day, the best spot in the theater used to be the back row, dead center. It gave you enough distance from the screen to view a film comfortably, and, beyond that, you didn’t have to worry about anyone sitting behind you talking too loudly as you’re trying to listen to the movie or kicking your sit or anything that might distract you from the moviegoing experience. With stadium seating becoming the standard now, that thinking has shifted with prime seating being in the middle of the theater as far as elevation is concerned with dead center in the row still being the choice spot to sit. You’ve still put yourself in an ideal sight line for taking in the flick, while reducing the amount of rows in front of you where other patrons who may be distracting could sit. The last thing you want to do is sit too far back, offering up ample opportunity for the entire theatre ahead of you to take out a phone, ruining your movie. Plus, glancing down will just have you looking at a sea of seats in front of you, the easier to take you out of the world being projected on the screen. You want to sit somewhere that you can be locked in on the movie at hand.”

John DeCarliFilmCapsule:

“I’ll sit anywhere; I’m not too picky. But if there’s a balcony, the middle of its first row is always the best seat in the house.”

Erik DavisMovies.com:

“Ideally the best place to sit in a theater is in the middle of the theater, in the middle of the aisle, giving you a nice, central view of the screen. But, I ultimately feel the best place to sit in a theater is the place that makes you feel most comfortable. If you like the aisle, take the aisle. If you like the front row, take the front row. When watching a movie, you want to be free of all distractions and give yourself the opportunity to become fully immersed in what you’re about to watch. If that means sitting in a seat that affords you the chance to stretch your leg out into the aisle, so be it.”

Michael DaltonMovie Parliament:

“The center is the best place to sit in a movie theater. At the front you’re too close to the screen, at the back there are too many heads and seats in front of you and on the aisle you’re too far to the side. The center is just right. Although a compromise can be made in the seats in between the front and the center. That’s a region where you’re close to the screen without being too close.”

Matt CohenMeets Obsession/Cinespect/Washington City Paper:

“Ideally, somewhere in the center, about midway up. Realistically, away from most people (theater-going etiquette is atrocious these days). But typically, whatever rows are reserved for press.”

Tom CliftMoviedex:

“Such a difficult question to answer, because there’s so much to take into account depending on the theater you’re in. How large is the screen? How high from is its base from the ground? What’s the incline of the seating rows? Do certain rows have more legroom than others? How many other people are in the theater? (If there are a lot, it’s sometimes wiser to sit closer to the screen, to lessen the likelihood of being distracted by people texting in the rows in front of you. Then again, it also makes it harder to pinpoint the location of talkers in dire need of a shushing.) In an ideal world where all the variables line up, I like to have my eyes lining up with the dead center of the screen. Generally speaking, this means more or less the dead center of the theater. That is unless I’m at a film festival, where I’m far more likely to walk out of a film. In that case an aisle seat is preference.”

Jaime ChristleySlant Magazine:

“Where’s the best place to sit in a movie theater? I’ll concede that moviegoing is an activity that resembles a social gathering, but I wish theater seating layouts spoke more to one’s ‘myself, alone in the dark’ impulse, which for me is pretty strong; two seats with one slender armrest was not a concept that was designed by a sane adult. With that, more crucially than ‘where in the theater?’ is the question of ‘where are the clusters of Other People?’ I put some seats between me and those clusters, look for the solos like myself, and sit about 1-2 seats away from them, thus creating a firm ‘person, empty, person’ set that fellow solos won’t want to mess with unless the screening begins to approach full capacity. There’s actually additional calculus involved, so if anybody wants to read my 18,000-word monograph on the subject, just let me know. Short answer? Middle-ish.”

David Chen/Film:

“Centered, about 1/2 to 2/3rds of the way back in the theater. Why people prefer any alternatives will always remain a mystery to me.” 

Christopher CampbellDocBlog

“If it’s a packed house, such as a festival screening, I always sit on the aisle. Not because I might want to walk out, but because I need my space. I don’t know if it’s a phobia, but I can’t stand sitting next to strangers at the movies. Sometimes I can’t even stand sitting next to people I know at the movies. But if it’s a fairly empty auditorium I go for as central as possible without being too much in the vicinity of anyone.”

Ian BuckwalterNPR/The Atlantic:

“I tend to go for the center — I never leave during the movie, and usually sit through the credits, so sitting on the aisle doesn’t offer any advantages. Ideally, I try to sit right behind the railing in the usual stadium-seating configuration that has the cross-aisle about 1/3 of the way back; if you’re behind the rail, you can put your feet up without worrying about kicking someone’s chair. However, if I’m running late and there’s nothing there, I tend to go for the very back row, in the corner. Again, the advantage being that you can stretch your legs out directly in front of yourself up there. The worst place to be is up front. Once upon a time, that was just because of having to crane your neck, and the difficulty of taking in the full image without moving  your head. But digital projection has created yet another disadvantage to sitting close: From anywhere closer than five rows back or so, I can usually see the ‘stair-step’ effect of the pixels that make up what ought to be smooth lines in the image.”

Danny BowesTor.com/Movies By Bowes:

“The balcony. Next to an attractive companion. (For actually seeing the movie, toward the back, dead center.)”

William BibbianiCrave Online:

“Every time you enter a movie theater with another person, it’s a little adventure. ‘Where would you like to sit?’ can be a nightmare of compatibility issues, particularly if someone really is adamant about their placement in front of the screen. If I have my absolute druthers, I prefer to sit in the middle third of the theater, and one seat to the left, so the screen is just filling my vision and I never have to turn my head, even slightly, to process visual information. But I have ultimately developed more rules about where not to sit than anything else, so I can compromise as much as possible without ruining either the movie or potential friendships: 1) The first third of the theater, closest to the screen, is out. Your neck will thank you for that. 2) The last third of the theater, furthest away from the screen, or the balcony if one is available, is also out. Watching a movie in a theater is a lofty experience. Looking down at the screen subtly reduces its stature and significance on a subconscious level. 3) The far right side of the theater is manageable, but only as a last resort. English is my first language, so I read from left-to-right. I find that I dislike processing movies the opposite way. (I’ve been told I’m overthinking this one, but it makes sense to me so shut up.) 4) Anywhere in the remaining portion of the theater is more-or-less okay. That’s three-twelfths of the theater you can play with, by my estimation, so go nuts within that space. Where would YOU like to sit?”

Nicholas BellIONCINEMA:

“Definitely the back, and with no one sitting directly in front of you. Maximum control of your space to stretch out, relax, and be engrossed.”

Adam BattyHope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second:

“It all depends on the distance between screen to seat, but generally speaking I like to sit somewhere around rows three to five, directly in the center. I have a regular seat in my local arthouse (F-15), but I tend to bounce around the more wild climate of the multiplex according to the behavior of my fellow patrons. A pet peeve is cinemas that have a center aisle, meaning that there are no seats directly in front of the screen.”

Ali ArikanDipnot TV:

“I enjoy sitting very close to the front (third or fourth row) and in center. I enjoy having my peripheral vision drowned out by the image on screen. This might be a futile gesture for workmanlike crap that we all have to watch every week, but, say, with a film like ‘Sita Sings the Blues,’ this approach produces delightful dividends. Also, Turkish filmgoers tend to sit towards the back of the theatre, and when I’m close to the front, I am spared the distracting glare of cellphones and random chatter.”

The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on October 15, 2012:

The Most Popular Response: “Argo,” Looper,” The Master.” (3-way tie)
Other Movies Receiving Multiple Votes: “Wuthering Heights.”

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