A movie theater or cinema is a venue, usually a building, for viewing movies. Most cinemas are commercial operations catering to the general public, which attend by purchasing a ticket. The film is projected with a movie projector onto a large projection screen at the front of the auditorium. Some movie theaters are now equipped for digital cinema projection, removing the need to create and transport a physical film print.
Traditionally a movie theater, like a stage theater, consists of a single auditorium with rows of comfortable seats, as well as a lobby area containing a box office for buying tickets, a counter and/or selfservice facilities for buying snacks and drinks, and washrooms. Stage theaters are sometimes converted into movie theatres by placing a screen in front of the stage and adding a projector; this conversion may be permanent, or temporary for purposes such as showing art house fare to an audience accustomed to plays. The familiar characteristics of relatively low admission and open seating can be traced to Samuel Roxy Rothafel, an early movie theater impresario. Many of these early theatres contain a balcony, an elevated platform above the theater's rearmost seats. The rearward main floor "loge" seats were sometimes larger, softer, and more widely spaced and sold for a higher price.
In conventional low pitch viewing floors the preferred seating arrangement is to use staggered rows. While a less efficient use of floor space this allows a somewhat improved sight line between the patrons seated in the next row toward the screen, provided they do not lean toward one another.
"Stadium seating" is employed in many modern theaters, giving patrons a clear sight line over the heads of those seated in front of them. Originally employed for flat-screen IMAX viewing (which has a very tall screen) this feature has proven popular with theatre patrons.
Rows of seats are divided by one or more aisles so that there are seldom more than 20 seats in a row. This allows easier access to seating, as the space between rows is very narrow. Depending on the angle of rake of the seats, the aisles have steps. Each step in the aisles is marked with a row of small lights so that people don't trip in the darkened theatre.
Multiplexes and megaplexes
Stanley Durwood of American Multi-Cinema (now AMC Theatres) pioneered what would become the multiplex in 1963 after realizing that he could operate several attached auditoriums with the same staff needed for one through careful management of the start times for each movie.
Since that time multiple-screen theatres have become the norm, and many existing venues have been retrofitted so that they have multiple auditoriums. A single lobby is shared between them. Because of the late development of multiplexes, the term "cinema" or "theater" may refer either the whole complex or a single auditorium, and sometimes "screen" is used to refer to an auditorium.
A popular movie may be shown on multiple screens at the same multiplex, which reduces the choice of movies but offers more choice of viewing times. Two or three screens may be created by dividing up an existing cinema (as Durwood did with his Roxy in 1964), but newly built multiplexes usually have at least six to eight screens. In these large modern theaters, an electronic display in the ticket hall often shows a list of movies with starting time, auditorium number, admission rating, and whether it is sold out. Sometimes the number of remaing available seats is shown as well. At the entrance of each auditorium there may be a one-line electronic display with the title of the movie. After the movie has started, it can display the title and time of the next scheduled showing.
Although definitions vary, a large multiplex with 20 or more screens is usually called a megaplex. The first megaplex is generally considered to be the Kinepolis in Brussels, Belgium, which opened in 1988 with 25 screens and a seating capacity of 7,500. The first megaplex in the United States was AMC Theatres' Grand 24 in Dallas, Texas, which opened in 1995.
IMAX is a system using oversized film to produce image quality far superior to conventional film. IMAX theaters require an oversized screen as well as special projectors. The first permanent IMAX theater was at Ontario Place in Toronto, Canada.
A drive-in movie theatre is basically an outdoor parking area with a screen at one end and a projection booth at the other. Moviegoers drive into the parking spaces which are sometimes sloped upwards at the front to give a more direct view of the movie screen. Movies are usually viewed through the car windscreen (windshield) although some people prefer to sit on the hood of the car. Sound is either provided through portable loudspeakers located by each parking space, or is broadcast on an FM radio frequency, to be played through the car's stereo system. Because of their outdoor nature, drive-ins usually only operate seasonally, and after sunset. Drive-in movie theatres are mainly found in the United States, where they were especially popular in the 1950s and 1960s. They are now almost extinct.
Some outdoor movie theatres are just cleared areas where the audience sits upon chairs or blankets and watch the movie on a temporary screen, or even the wall of a convenient building.
In the late 1990s, student organisations in universities and schools started to show movies in auditoriums equipped with multimedia projectors. Before the ubiquity of classic and modern films in DVD and VHS formats, student groups at large universities often sponsored screenings of films on 16 mm projectors in lecture halls as a way to raise money. Many small colleges also had student-run film groups that projected 16 mm films on a regular basis to students.
Some alternative methods of showing movies have been popular in the past. In the 1980s the introduction of VHS cassettes made possible video-salons, small rooms where visitors viewed the film on a large TV. These establishments were especially popular in the Soviet Union, where official distribution companies were slow to adapt to changing demand, and so movie theatres could not show popular Hollywood and Asian films.
Movies are also commonly shown on airliners in flight, using large screens in each cabin or smaller screens for each group of rows or each individual seat; the airline company sometimes charges a fee for the headphones needed to hear the movie's sound. Movies can also be shown on trains.
Movie theater culture
Movie theaters are associated with dating, 3D glasses, popcorn and expensive treats. It is also more culturally accepted to throw and leave your garbage on the floor in a movie theater, than elsewhere. Movie theatres are notorious for sticky floors.
Sometimes couples go to a movie theater for the additional reason that it provides the possibility of some physical intimacy, where the dark provides some privacy (with additional privacy in the back-row), i.e., the same amount of intimacy is a lesser form of public display of affection. This applies in particular for young people who still live with their parents, and these parents tend to monitor and/or forbid certain activities, and in the case of other social or even legal problems with public displays of affection. Compared with being together in a room without other people, it may also be reassuring for one or both of the couple (and for parents) that the intimacy is necessarily limited.
Arm rests pose a hindrance to intimacy. Some theaters have love seats: seats for two without an armrest in the middle. The most modern theaters have movable armrests throughout the theater that when down can hold a food container as well as act as an armrest or partition between the seats and when up allow closer contact between the couple. More expensive theaters may have large comfortable sofas.
Lobby, food and drinks
Movie theaters usually sell various snack foods and drinks; the points of sale are called concession stands. There may be a counter, selfservice where one pays at the counter, and/or coin-operated machines. Sometimes the area of sale is more like a self-service shop than a lobby (it is not suitable for consuming the goods), and one pays at the check-out between the shop and the area with the screens.
The facilities for buying snacks and drinks often represent the theater's primary source of profit; movie studios in the U.S. traditionally drive hard bargains entitling them to more than 70, 80, or 90% of the gross ticket revenue during the first week (and then the balance changes in 10% increments per week from there). Some movie theaters forbid eating and drinking inside the viewing room (restricting such activities to the lobby), while others encourage it, e.g. by selling large portions of popcorn; however, also in that case bringing one's own food and drinks may be forbidden. Concessions is currently a huge area of expansion with many companies in the U.S. offering a wider range of snacks, including hot dogs and nachos. The noise of people eating, including the opening of wrappers, is frowned upon by some moviegoers.
A few movie theaters offer full restaurant service at one's seat, though outside of Texas this is still uncommon. Some chains, such as McMenamins in the Pacific Northwest, may also serve alcohol (usually microbrewed beer) as well as pizza.
The lobby may be before or after the ticket check. If it is after, sometimes entrance to the lobby is only allowed from a limited time, e.g. half an hour, before the movie starts.
It is quite common for the lobby to include an arcade game area.
It is common for moviegoing teenagers to throw various foodstuffs - most notably popcorn - at each other, though sometimes at other moviegoers. This is always frowed upon by the managment. In Ireland, mobile phones have also been banned in all cinemas, with some going to the extreme of installing equipment that blocks mobile phone signals.