Do Movie Theaters 'Underbook'?

In movie theaters, I’ve noticed that it is not uncommon for a person who has purchased only one ticket to sneak in to see other movies after watching the one he or she paid for, or for people to stay and watch the same movie two or more times despite paying only once.

But many movies do sell out. How do the theaters account for these people when deciding how many tickets to sell? Do they ‘underbook’ by a certain percentage, or do people who have bought tickets get a refund if there are no more seats available??


Often cinemas have rules about not selling the really bad seats and accordingly they never sell 100% of the seats.

I’d be surprised if they sold all the seats, mainly because of the way people sit in theaters. Most people don’t go to the movies by themselves, and thus they attempt to sit near their friends/SO’s/etc. Therefore, most people entering a movie theater want at least two adjacent seats, and as the theater fills this gets harder and harder. I suspect a number of people, if forced to sit away from, say, their girlfriend, would ask for a refund or a ticket to another show, which is likely more of a hassle than simply underselling the show slightly.

I know there are some current and former theater employees here, so they may have specifics.

I read an LA Times article once about how theater deliberately sell fewer than the actual capacity of the theater. But the article stated that if you told the ticket sellers that you were willing to sit in the front row or not have two seats together, you could get in.

I’ve tried this gambit twice.
The first time, I was flatly rejected, but this was a second run, small capacity theater and they likely did sell every ticket.
The other time, I asked and one of the clerks said (in the background), “No, we don’t sell every seat because we have to leave room for the people who cheat.”

When I worked at a Cinemark a couple of years ago, when we had sold out shows we lined everyone up outside the theater before the show started and you had to show your ticket at the door to get in. We kept employees at the door to keep people from sneaking in to check tickets and IDs at R-rated mega-blockbusters. We also had the entire crew in the theater seating people, filling up every single seat before the movie began.

We did actually sell every single seat. We didn’t want people seeing empty seats and bitching about how Cinemark doesn’t sell all the seats to their friends that didn’t get in.

This has been a hot topic of discussion in Utah recently. According to this news story a couple bought 9 tickets to Return of the King for friends and family, and were saving 2 of the seats when the usher ordered them to be relinquished because the theatre was overbooked. Police were called and a major incident occured.

The local talk radio shows had a field day with it.

Reaction has ranged from “If you purchase a ticket and have given it to the usher, then you have the right to a seat–otherwise the seats are up for grabs” to the other extreme, “Movie theater owners who overbook should be executed.”

I go to a lot of movies, and at my local Cineplex Odeon I found this little tidbit of useful information.

They have TV’s in the lobby scrolling showtimes and movies, and if they sell enough tickets they have “Sold Out” beside that showtime.

But if you go to the person selling tickets and ask for a ticket more than likely they have some tickets left. I’ve done this about 6 times, and have gotten in everytime. There’s even been a couple times where the person at the ticket window says “Sorry sir, that show is sold out”. And I say, “Please check your computer”. And low and behold there are still 4-8 tickets left.


Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that. That’s like an airport showing Arrival/Departure for flights.
I think the theater I usually go to sells as many tickets as there are seats because once at a MIB2 showing, there were more people than seats. Of course, this was due to the cheaters so employees came in and went around checking ticket stubs. It was amusing watching people getting up and try to sneak out.

We always cut by 7% at AMC unless it was a really big deal like LOTR or some such, and then we’d post ushers at the door to check tickets and IDs. Basicly the rule was when it got to 7% availability, you stopped selling (because the computer wouldnt let you) if you had numerous requests, you called a supervisor to unlock it and tell the ushers they had a new duty for the night.

The theater at which Im currently working, has two screens that hold 260. We consider the show SOLD OUT at 235, we do this because if we sold every ticket in the theater, odds are we would have people comming back out, demanding their money back because the only seats left were up front.

Once in a while when a movie sells out, I’ll get someone begging to be let in, and most of the time I let them in…untill we have 20 seats left, at that point the computer screen turns red and I stop selling.

I guess other theaters are the same way, so if you really want to see a sold out movie, tell the person working box that you don’t mind sitting up front, and odds are you can get in.

At our local movie theatre, if the only seats left are in the first five rows or so, the clerk will tell you before you buy your ticket.

Movies there are regularly sold out (i.e. every seat taken.)

I’ve got a part time job at my local cinema (poor student trying to make some cash), and it usually depends on who the duty manager is for us.

We have seats on the computer system called “house seats”, which we will not sell in advance, as they’re useful for double bookings, and some are on the front row - therefore undesirable. However, if the feature has started, and you can get to a house seat without causing too much of a disturbance, we’ll sell you one, and we may fill 100% of the seats in the screen if it’s busy.

Additionally, there are some house seats at the back of each screen on the aisle. These are useful because it means that staff members can get good seats to an otherwise-full showing. Kinda cheeky I spose.

But to summarise, we dont sell all the seats usually, because customers are annoying normally, and when we have double bookings, things get messy, so it’s just useful to keep some seats back.