What If Movie Theaters Were Run Like Frontier Airlines?

Over the weekend I flew Frontier Airlines home from Orlando, Florida. It was my first time flying this discount airline, and while I had heard some bad things about the company, I honestly didn't know what to expect. The experience was eye-opening and I fear that this model could be adopted by many other industries – like say for instance, the movie theater business. So while I sat in the very uncomfortable vinyl-covered thin plastic shell that Frontier somehow calls a "seat," I wondered what movie theaters would be like if they were run like Frontier Airlines.

Before we get into the "what if," let me explain to you what Frontier Airlines is. It's a deep discount airline company that sells tickets cheaper than most of their competitors. Doesn't sound like a bad thing right? I know most people hate Southwest Airlines but I'm just fine with them — they're affordable and reward you for being on the ball. The problem with Frontier Airlines is that you buy that ticket because of the low price and have no idea that by the time you land you'll probably be nickeled and dimed to the point that you're paying more for a much less comfortable experience.

Do you want to choose your seat? That will cost extra. And I'm not talking about choosing a premium seat (don't worry, they have that upcharge as well). I'm saying if you want to choose a non randomly selected seat in the plane, you need to pay extra. Depending on the placement of the seat in the plane, it may cost more and more money. This also means that if you are traveling with a group or a loved one, you probably won't be seated next to each other unless you pay the extra money. Want the ability to check in luggage? Extra. Want to be able to bring on a carry-on item? Extra. And if you don't choose it at check in, you pay more at the airport.

The economy seats on the plane are beyond uncomfortable. They have very little padding, don't recline and offer a fold-down tray about double the size of my iPhone. There is nothing complimentary on Frontier Airlines (except for maybe a cup of water). You want a snack, a beverage or anything else, it's an extra fee. This part of the business model doesn't bother me as I'll gladly forego the horrible airline meal, snack or drink if it means I can save money on a ticket. But the other aspects are particularly frustrating.

So as I sat at the gate while mechanics attempted to fix the plane's generator, I wondered to myself what deep discount movie theaters would be like. Would people pay hugely discounted tickets (let's say $5 in a city) for a no frills-at-all experience? What would that even look like?

I imagine it would be a theater densely populated with cheap uncomfortable seats. At the standard ticket price, your seat is randomly selected and if you want to choose your seat location or sit with your friends it's an up-charge.

You want a seat that has padding on the arms and cup holders? That's extra.

You want a seat in the middle of the theater? That's an extra charge.

You want a seat that provides comfort and ample room (that is, a regular movie theater seat), that's extra. (Premium seating options are already happening in most of the major cities, and that I certainly see no problem with.)

If you forgot to save and reuse your 3D glasses from last time, a new pair will cost you a $1 surcharge.

Trailers and commercials are shown for the first 30 minutes of the show, and if you're not in your seat before showtime you can't enter the theater. If you want to show up 25 minutes after showtime to avoid the preshow trailers and ads? It's an extra fee.

If you buy your tickets more than a week early, you will have a chance to pre-order your concessions at a highly discounted rate (to be consumed on the date of the movie, with no refunds offered). If you want any food or drinks the day of the movie, it will be full movie theater price.

I'm definitely not suggesting this is a good idea, just that it's an interesting one to consider. When I mentioned this idea on Twitter, a few people wondered if moviegoers would be willing to pay for such a subpar experience and pointed out that currently, theaters are trying to lure audience members back to the cinema with premium experiences (for, yes, extra money). This is true but cinema attendance is on a decline and people are watching crappy quality bootlegs of films. Beyond the inherent moral/ethical problems with that, I can't understand why someone would watch a film in such quality just to save some money. So maybe they would pay a few bucks to have a shitty experience in the theater?

/Filmcast co-host Devindra Hardawar wondered what the customer retention rate is for a company like Frontier, who is often rated alongside the other discount airlines like Spirit as the worst airlines to fly. And that's a great question. Are all the people on these packed flights unknowing first-time customers of these airlines? How many of these people will return again and again.

So the question is: would you see movies at a movie theater cineplex run like Frontier Airlines?

I think my answer would be much like my answer to the question of if I would I ever fly Frontier Airlines again. As bad as my experience with them was flying across country, I could understand why someone flying solo for a short trip (for example, a Las Vegas weekend from Los Angeles) might choose Frontier even knowing about all of the shortcomings. But I can't imagine flying more than three hours with this company ever again, especially not with loved ones.

As for a Frontier-style cineplex, I would probably avoid it in most instances, and especially with bigger event films and movies that I want to see with friends. The cinemagoing experience is often times horrible already, and I imagine that bringing in cheaper customers would make it worse rather than better. Psychologically speaking, people who pay more for an experience usually have more respect for it. I see fewer phones light up at premium theaters like AMC Prime and even IMAX than I do for cheaper multiplex screenings.

But would I go to those theoretical Frontier multiplex at all? Maybe for a last minute solo outing to a movie I wouldn't have otherwise paid $15 to see. Maybe. And yes, this worries me.

But please indulge me and leave your thoughts in the comments below. Would you go to a deep discount movie theater? Why or why not?