An Odd Way to Celebrate Valentine’s Day

Every February 14th, couples around the world celebrate Valentine’s Day. They swap gifts, go out to dinner, see a movie, etc. It’s a celebration of love and companionship (even if it’s also seen as a fake “holiday” crafted for the benefit of chocolatiers and greeting card companies). If you’re in a relationship, there’s a good chance that you really look forward to a special evening that night.

But if you’re not? You can still go to the movies — they put the same film on the screen whether you’re going as a couple or alone, and the theaters will definitely sell you a ticket or two.

Or 67, if you’re creative. And mean.

In some areas — very commonly outside of the United States, and (since the COVID-19 pandemic) increasingly common in the U.S. — when you buy a movie ticket, you’re buying access to a specific seat. It’s first come, first served, so if you buy your tickets early enough, you can get an aisle seat or try to find that acoustic sweet spot. And if it’s Valentine’s Day, you’re also guaranteeing yourself two seats next to each other — which, if you’re on a date, is probably important.

For a Chinese prankster, that provided an opportunity. As the South China Morning Post reported, as Valentine’s Day 2014 approached, a self-described “computer nerd” who went by the online nickname “UP” was expected to be alone on the holiday — his girlfriend had recently broken up with him — and he wanted to spread the non-joy of the holiday. His plan: to buy some movie tickets to a romance flick — but only the odd-numbered seats. 

As UP told the SCMP, the prank proved more difficult than he thought. “In the beginning, I wanted to buy all the tickets [online] but I discovered that the theatre’s ticketing software wouldn’t let me. Then I went there in person to see if I could buy directly, but because Valentine’s Day tickets were being sold at a fast rate – especially for romance movies – the theatre folks wouldn’t sell them all to me.” And he also realized that his idea was expensive — the theater he targetted had more than 130 total seats, and he’d have to buy more than 65 of them. The joke would run him the equivalent of hundreds of dollars. Logistically and financially, he needed help to pull his prank. 

So, UP did what he did best — he organized a bunch of online support. According to the Guardian, “a group [led by our protagonist] of embittered singles worked together to buy up the tickets to a 7.30pm screening of Beijing Love Story, a sappy big-budget romance” at a large theater in Shanghai. The joke worked — UP and his cohorts were able to obtain every single odd-numbered seat, Per the Independent, UP also posted a message to the would-be lovebirds who, due to his efforts, had to sit alone: “Want to see a movie on Valentine’s Day? Sorry, you’ll have to sit separately. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Give us singles a chance.”

His prank, of course, was all in good fun — and everyone probably came out ahead in the end. The theater sold out half of that screening, which probably wasn’t bad for them. And anyone who wanted a solo ticket to the movie also did fine — per the Guardian, “a cinema employee told the Xi’an Daily newspaper it had decided to sell the even-numbered seats at a steep discount.” Couples, if they didn’t mind sitting apart, were able to move seats without a problem — the tickets bought by UP went unused, after all. And, according to the BBC, “the man behind the campaign said he hoped people watching the Valentine’s Day show at the cinema on Friday might find themselves sitting next to someone they do not know, sparking new relationship,” so maybe his anti-Valentine’s prank helped create new love, too. 

Bonus fact: It’s rare to buy a movie ticket with no intention of watching the movie, but the prank above wasn’t the only time that it happened. In the fall of 1998, theaters found that happening a lot. Why? Because fans of Star Wars wanted to see the trailer of the first prequel, The Phantom Menace. According to the New York Times, “Theaters showing films like ‘The Waterboy,’ ‘The Siege’ and ”Meet Joe Black” were crammed with people — mostly young men — who paid full admission just to see the trailer and left when the movie began. The trailer was also shown after each movie ended, so a handful of theater owners allowed filmgoers to return with their torn ticket stub. (Historically, trailers used to be shown after movies ended, hence the name.)” 

From the Archives: The Valentine’s Cards You Don’t Want to Get: Hate mail with a kiss?