Modern cinemas have a definite area where the visuals and audio are optimal. Of course, the location of this "sweet spot" depends on who you talk to. According to the THX standard, the sweet spot will be a seat that affords you at least a "36 degree viewing angle from the farthest seat in the auditorium". Here's the visual guideline of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), as described by Ralph Davis, AMC's Vice-President of Facilities:
The horizontal subtended angles created by a customer's lines of sight to the left and right edges of the screen should not be less than 30 degrees. The viewer's vertical line of sight should not exceed 35 degrees from the horizontal to the top of the projected images. Ideally, the sightline should be 15 degrees below the horizontal centerline of the image.
To get the optimal sound quality, assuming the theatre doesn't use the new Dolby Atmos system, make sure you sit where the sound technician does during calibration — two-thirds of the way to the rear of the auditorium, dead centre. You may also want to sit just slightly off-center to amplify the stereo effect seeing as how the dead centre seat is the focal point for both audio channels.
Proper positioning for watching live theatre — be it Shakespeare or the Book of Mormon — is extremely subjective and varies drastically depending on the show, the venue, and your personal tastes.
The traditional "best seats in the house" are those given to critics at the front half of the centre orchestra section, rows 5-12. This puts the viewer at the same eye level the director and playwright has during the performance's development — you essentially see the play as it was "meant to be seen". Also, the view from seats further back than row 12 might be partially blocked by balcony overhang.
However, as Randy Taradash, Director of Marketing at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, explained to Gizmodo:
I've been in theatre marketing for 15 years and for 10 years before that I ran a box office. If you ask 100 people, you will get 100 responses. I'm always surprised at how people define the prime experience. It's different for everybody, and it changes from theatre to theatre, and show to show. There are people that love to be right at front, people who love to be at the back.
It's also a personal experience. Some people feel they can't hear in any theatre unless they're right in front of the actors. Others could be thrilled with their seat or pissed off with their seat depending on where they are, no matter if it's 10th row, centre or 18th row all the way on the side.
With that said, of course we have premium seats — and the basic public generally thinks the best seats are just centered. But then you could be centered and have someone who's 6'4" in front of you. You just don't know. It's one of those things you should keep going to a venue and really get to know a venue and try different places.
The home theatre might be the most challenging of the three. Not only do you have to take into account the size of the screen versus the size of the room, you also need to think about how the placement of the furniture will affect the sound and effective 3D viewing angles.
The THX Method: The THX home theatre standard dictates the proper viewing distance as the size of your screen's diagonal measurement divided by 0.84, meaning that the proper distance for a 55" set, for example, should be 1.65m feet (55" / 0.84 = 165cm). In addition, the set should never require the viewer to look up more than 15 degrees beyond eye level, not even if you really like sitting in the front row of the theatre.
THX Recommended Viewing Distances • 35" class TV: 1.06 — 1.52m • 40" class TV: 1.21 — 1.82m • 50" class TV: 1.52 — 2.28m • 60" class TV: 1.82 — 2.74m
The Kipnis Method Sure, the 84 per cent rule is a handy estimating tool for most televisions, but where do you sit when you're watching a really big screen? Turns out, the answer is: Anywhere.
Jeremy Kipnis has worked as a professional calibrator for the past 22 years, and he is the founder of Kipnis Studios, purveyors of the world's most advanced home theatres. Imagine home theatre that includes 12.12 surround sound and 4K projection onto a 6.7m laboratory-grade motion picture screen.
As Kipnis explains to Gizmodo:
My views is to have the screen as an open window. The style of the cinematography really determines how close or how far you sit from the image. Today, so many films are really designed as they were in the 1960s — for very, very large screens. You can see the screens getting bigger and bigger in home theatre — 60, 70 and even 80 inches.
If you have a bigger image, you can't just sit farther away. But the opportunity with these larger screens, and higher resolutions, is the chance to see more detail precisely because you're sitting at the same distance away. So it becomes much more of a window.
What is happening is the image takes up more space on the back of your retina. In the best situations, it takes up your entire field of vision. Then it's up to the storyteller to use that space to communicate. It's more powerful than just watching a small screen.
So, unlike the home THX setup, Kipnis suggests that if you want to sit in the very front row of the home theatre, you should just go right ahead. The best seat in your own theatre might be the one right up on the screen.