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Where is the best place to sit at the cinema?

 

It’s a common debate. You head along to your local cinema with a group of friends to catch the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but everyone has their own opinion about where they want to sit. Even with pre-booked seats the same still applies when debating which row to book online. Luckily for you we’ve been digging into the science behind cinema seating and can bring you the facts with which to win the next argument.

There are several ways to look at the best seat. The most obvious criterion is a good view, so it is all about your sight line. Fortunately the modern way of tiered cinema seating goes a long way to ensure that you can see the screen well from most seats in the theatre. However, if you are going to sit in the same spot for two hours or more then you definitely want to be comfortable. The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) recommends the angle between you and the top of the screen should not be more than 35º. So we’ve use the mathematics of trigonometry to put together a handy formula for you to work out the minimum distance you should be from screens of varying size.

Minimum distance = height of screen / 0.7

Standard screens range in width from three metres to nine metres. So you should sit a minimum of 4.3 metres back in the first case and 12.9 metres back in the second. IMAX screens can stretch to 15 metres tall. Here you’d need to be sitting at least 21.4 metres away.

However, it is possible to sit too far back too. The SMPTE also suggests that the angle between you and the sides of the screen should be at least 36º – the further back you sit the narrower this angle becomes.

The formula this time therefore becomes:

Maximum distance from screen = width of the screen / 0.65

Typical movie screens range in width from 9 metres to 27.5 metres. That means you should be no more than 13.8 metres away for the narrowest screens and 42.3 metres from the biggest.

If you don’t want to take a tape measure along with you (who would) then you can use you hands. Held at arm’s length, your fist is 10º across. Stretch out your little finger and thumb on your other hand and that’s 25º. Put the two side by side and a bingo, you’ve got a great way to judge 35º

The second factor to consider is sound. With spectacular modern sound technology, where should you sit in order to get the most vivid experience of dramatic car chases, explosions and gunfire? The simple answer is to sit where the sound engineers sit when calibrating the speakers: two thirds of the way back and in the middle. You know that the sound here is guaranteed to be well balanced. Given that this position is also likely to satisfy the distance criteria for the best view, it seems fair to call that the best place to sit.

One last thing. What do you do if those prime seats are already taken when you turn up or book? We know you want to be within those distance limits, but should you opt for the left or the right? According to a 2010 study by Matia Okubo, published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, right handed people have a natural preference for seats on the right hand side. With at least 70% of us thought to be right-handed, by opting for left hand seats you’re more likely to get peace and quiet from popcorn rustlers and canoodling couples.

This post is based on an excerpt from my book The Geek Guide to Life in which I present science’s solutions to life’s little problems. Peer-reviewed ways to get ahead in life, work, leisure and love.

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