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Trick or Tweet: Phoning or Tweeting During a Movie…

I don’t know, I guess I kind of assumed that “don’t use your phone during a movie” was such a basic part of movie decorum that it really wasn’t worth mentioning. However, it seems that I might have been just a little bit naive in my supposition, at least concerning the iPhone app that came with Despicable Me. Now the Tateuchi Center in Bellevue in Washington is building a theatre designed to accommodate those who want to text and twitter during a film, stating:

“This is the wave of the future for the people we worry about attracting,” said John Haynes, the theater’s executive director. “Simply forbidding it and embarrassing people is not the way to go. So we are wiring the building in anticipation of finding ways to make it work over time.”

I don’t know, I thought embarrassing users was actually a pretty good idea. I just don’t like the idea of encouraging people to use their mobiles during any sort of performance – and, you can bet, this theatrical example will have implications for usage in cinemas.

At the heart of this design decision is a desire to remain relevant. It’s an attempt by the management to “stay in tune” with the modern times, realising that media must adapt or die. And phones are increasingly a part of day-to-day life. Hell, it seems that most people have miniature computers in their pockets. After all, most Americans sleep with their mobile phones, and I reckon it’s not too different here. We live in a world where unveiling a new model of mobile telephone seems like a major cultural event, where little black books have been consigned to the past, and where separation from a mobile phone is akin to going socially comatose.

The article concedes this is an attempt to lure in younger audiences, and it makes sense, based simply on how life has changed in the past decade or so:

“I don’t think this is something that changes overnight,” Mr. Haynes said. “We didn’t want to build the last great concert hall of the 20th century, but maybe the first one of the 21st century.”

However, I’m still deeply concerned that this is a very silly move. I’m not convinced that teenagers and younger adults will flock to a cinema based solely on the fact they are allowed to use their mobiles. Sadly, I’d argue that anybody out there who is going to use their mobile during a performance will do so regardless of the rules. I have personal experience that supports my assumption.

Still, that’s not the point. Part of my objection stems from a philosophical position. I think it’s nice to have somewhere where you can’t be reached. Hell, the world moves so fast that even flying seems tranquil, a rare place where you can’t be expected to be immediately accessible to anyone and anything that happens to demand your attention. I like the idea that there are places where people can go that they don’t have to answer a phone, and I like that social conventions enforce that belief.

After all, if it becomes acceptable to answer your phone in some venues, it erodes the fundamental principle. If this is successful, then it becomes commonplace, and we lose one more safe haven from the outside world. Part of the theatrical experience, whether in actual theatre or in cinematic terms, is the idea of immersion. I want to be transported to another world, another reality populated with strange and exciting characters. I want to lose myself in that, and to be able to embrace a director’s vision wholeheartedly. A phone line is a tether that anchors me to the fact that I am just a dude in a seat staring at projected images on a screen.

At the moment, I leave my phone on silent during a film, and I turn off at the theatre. Whatever the problem is in the outside world, it can wait for an hour or two. I’ll hopefully be able to take a call when I leave the cinema, or on the way home, so it isn’t as if a person will be waiting that long. I like the idea that the theatre is an isolated reality unto itself, as that’s one of the great things about a collective movie-going experience. I think we lose that if people are expected to be able to text during a film.

However, that’s just my own personal opinion. Some people might argue it’s liberating. A business person might be able to enjoy a piece of art without worrying that his deal might fall through while he’s in there, or a parent might be glad that a babysitter could reach them in case of an emergency. I accept that, and I can understand how that’s a good thing. After all, if it gives people the freedom to attend a show they wouldn’t feel comfortable attending otherwise, more power to them. I would suggest they simply leave their phone on vibrate and step outside if they have to make a call or text it seems less disruptive.

And that’s the key word: disruptive. As much as I may disagree with the application of the idea in theory, my biggest concern is purely practical. No matter how you cut it, the use of text and phones in a theatre is going to cause light pollution. Anybody who has shared a cinema with a “stealth” texter knows this by now. The article suggests they could give patrons lenses to reduce the light emissions, but you’ll still see them. Even if phones are only allowed during performances where the lights are low (rather than down completely), you’ll still see them. And, even if I can focus past them towards what’s happening, my eye will still be drawn to them.

I consider part of my ticket price to go towards the atmosphere of the performance. I’m not just paying to see the show, I’m paying to be provided with an environment that facilitates me seeing the show. There’s a reason people don’t like cinemas that use shoddy sound systems, or those “fake” Imax screens – it’s not just the piece before us that is part of the experience, but everything around us. And, to be frank, as a patron, the thought of fellow customers using their mobile phones impedes on that. I don’t mind what people do, but I do ask that they don’t impede on my own personal experience or that of others.

Maybe I’m not one of that younger audience the managers seem to be seeking.

10 Responses

  1. I absolutely agree with you on this.

  2. If I owned a conema I’d have a signal jammer in the middle of every screen. Nothing worse than seeing something bathed in light a few rows ahead, or worse still, someone even having an “I’m in the cinema” whisper-chat with someone else.

    First thing I do in the Kino is turn the phone on silent and screen brightness down to lowest. I’ll only even contemplate checking it if the film is terrible.

    • I’m not sure I’d even check then… unless I’m alone in the cinema. On the other hand, if I’m expecting a call (as in I’ve told someone to call me if it’s an emergency), I will step outside. I still feel guilty for the people I have to scooch past.

  3. I think if you buy a ticket to see a movie, you kind of forfeit the right to worry about missing phone calls or being absent for events that occur outside the theater as life’s parade marches on. It’s not because theater establishments are at their core sinister and malicious and out to take your money while your life rots around you (though maybe there’s some truth to the money taking thing). It’s because when you’re in a theater you’re sharing space with other human beings. Courtesy should always be implied in these sorts of conversations.

    Think about restaurants or airplanes. Here in the States, you can’t smoke in restaurants. Consider that a lifetime ago there used to be smoking sections; that’s a thing of the past. I concede freely that smoking in a restaurant poses a bona fide health concern whereas texting in a crowded theater is only rude, but they both come back to being courteous in a social setting at which you only amount to a paying guest. Buying a ticket on a plane, similarly, doesn’t entitle you to act like a total cock, either.

    Being fair to the theaters I understand the concern about alienating a portion of their patrons. There’s sense in not singling out a percentage of moviegoers and identifying them as bad seeds. That said– those people are bad seeds. I’m not sure how sympathetic society should be toward the feelings of the inconsiderate and selfish. But if we can posit that banning cell phone usage in a theater outright will irk the cell phone users, and therefore cell phone usage should be accommodated, then we can also launch a similar argument to the opposite effect.

    That spells bad news for theaters. I can’t imagine that there are more moviegoers who feel like it’s their right to use cell phones (through texting or tweeting or whatever) in a theater setting than not. Bluntly speaking, I’d be shocked if some poll showed more people to be in favor for such changes than against. So, basically, by appeasing the tweeters and texters and talkers, theaters stand to turn away a much larger portion of their patronage. Even if research shows that I’m wrong, and that people generally like the idea of theaters promoting cell phone usage during screenings, there still exist people who don’t find the plan appropriate– and with people staying at home and going for on-demand more anyhow, I’d think that theaters would want to avoid pissing anybody off.

    Basically, I think they’re in a tight spot with this particular conundrum.

    Good stuff as always, Darren.

    • Thanks Andrew. I agree pretty much entirely. It’s courtesy, even though I kinda feel a little bit selfish for saying it, but it’s as much about people checking their phones interfering with my experience as it is about a principle. I think it might be interesting to see a poll on the figures you mention. Naturally, I’d hope and half-expect you’re correct, but that might be my own bias speaking.

  4. This article reminds me of that Orange ad about phone breaks. I think the whole ‘escapism’ appeal of cinema is weakened if you are tweeting or phoning during a movie, despite breaking the illusion of disbelief. Mind you, that’s not to say I haven’t texted before during a movie or that I wouldn’t again.

    • I’m almost afraid to say that I haven’t because I’m sure I’ll think of “that one time” later on in the evening, but I don’t think I have texted in a theatre, once the lights go down. At a push, I’ll finish a text as quickly as I can during the trailers, if the lights dim in the middle of writing it. And you’re bang-on about escapism.

  5. The moment that it becomes normal to text during a movie will be the moment for me to stop visiting the cinema, so I’m on the same boat as you…

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