10 Hacks for a More Pleasant Movie Theater Experience

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In theory, the movies are great, right? You roll up to the theater with a friend or your significant other, and get in line to buy your tickets. But wait: the movie you had planned to see is sold out. No matter. You settle for the next best thing, then head to the concession stand … where you proceed to spend $30 on two popcorns and two sodas. Mildly annoyed, you take your seats—all the way up front, because those are the only ones available—crane your neck, and watch as the opening credits roll. Then, just as the action gets good (and your neck has adjusted to that unnatural posture), you feel a familiar pressure on your bladder.

While you'd be justified in swearing off the movies forever after an evening like that, we promise there's a better way. Here are 10 tips to help your trip to the local theater be what you hoped it would all along: fun.

1. Buy tickets in bulk. 

Bulk tickets are usually about 25% or more off the regular ticket price, and can be purchased at Costco or Sam’s Club. AMC Theaters offer premium Gold E-Tickets, which are somewhat unrestricted and can be used at any time, day, and AMC location (but expect to pay an extra surcharge for 3D and IMAX screenings). 

Cinemark offers a bulk ticket program called Platinum Supersaver, while Regal Cinemas offers Premiere Movie Tickets for deep discounts. In addition, AARP and AAA members can get up to 40% off regular box-office prices for AMC, Regal, Bowtie, and Showcase Cinemas across the United States.

If you're feeling bold, you can also go directly to the customer service desk and (politely) ask for discount tickets. Sometimes, they’ll just give you a coupon or voucher. Most theaters also offer discounts for anyone with a valid military, student, or senior citizen I.D. card.

2. Give these apps a try.

Like Netflix for theater-goers, Moviepass lets you see as many flicks as you want (excluding 3D and IMAX movies) for just $30 a month.

Runpee is exactly what it sounds like: an app that lets you know when you should use the bathroom. It features every film currently in theaters and pinpoints long scenes that don't include a crucial plot twist, a great comedic moment, or an exciting and thrilling action sequence, buzzing you to let you know it's time to run for the toilet. 

Cinemark’s mobile app boasts “Cinemode,” a feature that dims your screen, silences your phone, and gives you rewards like free popcorn and soda upgrades if you don’t touch your device while watching a film at a Cinemark theater. 

3. Choose your seats carefully.

Not all seats are created equal. Audio technicians usually check the sound about two-thirds of the way back and in the center of the auditorium, which means this is the best place to sit for crisp, clean audio. If you sit too far off to the side, the sound might be softer than in the center.

4. Consider bringing earplugs.

While the film industry standard for sound is 85 decibels, many theaters actually turn up the volume—to the point where certain scenes hit 130 decibels. (For comparison, that's about how loud a jet is when it takes off.) Unfortunately, there are no regulations forcing theaters to comply with industry standards or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended safe level, which is about 85 to 90 decibels. With that in mind, it's a good idea to pack a pair of earplugs just in case—especially for any children in your party. 

5. Don't be afraid to walk out.

If you’re about 20 to 30 minutes into a movie and you realize that you just don’t like it, most theater managers will let you swap tickets to watch another. If nothing else strikes your fancy, ask for a voucher that can be redeemed on your next visit.

If fellow audience members, not the plot, are the problem, most theaters will try to make it up to you with free tickets or concessions.

6. Choose your snacks wisely.

If you're not rebellious enough to go the outside food and drink route, stick with popcorn and boxed candy when you place your order. Hot dogs and nachos may be warm, but they're not usually fresh.

Wonder why you're forced to fork over so much cash for a drink and a snack? It turns out theaters don’t make much money from the movies they screen. Up to 70% of the ticket price goes to the distributor and studio, while theater owners get the rest. Because theaters depend on concession sales for most of their profits, they charge accordingly.

Still, you shouldn't feel guilty if you can't seem to resist the siren song of the (very pricey) popcorn stand. Some theaters will connect the exhaust from their popcorn machines to vents in the auditorium in order to sell more buckets.

7. Grab an extra straw—for your popcorn.   

Placing a simple straw between the butter machine's nozzle and your popcorn will more evenly distribute the butter inside of your bucket. 

8. Keep an eye out for free screenings.

New movies often screen for press, media, and fans weeks before they’re set for release. Studios want to generate advance buzz, and it doesn’t cost them much to rent out a theater and let critics and fans watch films early. While these special advanced screenings are usually closed to the general public, there are a number of websites and services that can help you get access. Sites like Gofobo, See It First, and Get Screening are good places to start. 

9. If you're paying for IMAX, make sure you're getting the full experience.

The standard IMAX screen size is about 72 feet wide by 52 feet tall, but some theaters just can’t accommodate those sizes, which means some IMAX screens are smaller than others. For example, in NYC's Times Square, the IMAX screen at the AMC Empire 25 is just 58 feet wide by 28 feet tall, compared to the IMAX screen at the AMC Lincoln Square in Manhattan, which is a whopping 97 feet wide by 76 feet tall. (Even on the smaller screen, you're paying the same premium IMAX price.)

IMAX’s theater locator and IMAX or LIEMAX? are resources you can use to help you find the right theater. Once you're there, try to snag a seat anywhere in the center of the top five rows. This way, you have a good view of the entire screen and get the best sound experience at the same time.

10. Sign up for a loyalty program.

The more you spend at a certain chain, the more rewards you get. AMC Stubs, which costs $12 a year to join, gives its members $10 for every $100 they spend on tickets and concessions. Regal Crown Club is a free program that gives members credits towards discounts on concessions and free tickets.