With the rise of Netflix, the downward spiral of ticket sales, and the floundering of MoviePass, the future of movie theaters is uncertain. To set themselves above home-viewing, some theaters are trying to enhance the experience, offering 3D, leather and reclining seats, or swanky menu items. But there’s one growing obstacle that threatens this struggling industry: People’s refusal to put away their fucking phones.
Last night, I went to a revival screening of Velvet Goldmine, one of my favorite movies. I was absolutely giddy about it. But the experience at the Walter Reade Theater was spoiled by one wildly inconsiderate movie-goer who kept pulling out her phone. She wasn’t checking the time or texting. From 7-8 rows ahead of me, her screen was still so bright I could see exactly what she was doing. She was taking photos and video of the movie. A movie that came out in 1998, of which screengrabs, gifs, stills, and clips are readily available.
A special “fuck you” to the woman who kept pulling out her phone during @FilmLinc’s Velvet Goldmine showing.— Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) July 30, 2018
Taking pics during the movie of the movie is next level rudeness to the rest of the audience and an insult to the cinematic experience.
I complained about this on Twitter, and was asked if I did anything about it. Nope. She was too far away for me to hiss, “PUT YOUR PHONE AWAY.” And beyond that, such behavior would have been disruptive to the other people enjoying the movie. I did consider leaving the theater to find an usher to intervene. But when to leave? When Toni Collette starts dancing in her translucent silver gown? Just as the Maxwell Demon video begins? When Ewan McGregor looks deep into Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s eyes and flirts, “Maybe you could be my main man?” Why should I miss part of the movie I love to police someone who should damn well know better?
My first job was at a movie theater. My current job means going to the movies two to four times a week. I take the majesty of this collective space of cinema and experience seriously. And I have little faith in the future of movie-going because of fucking cell phones. The lack of cell phone distraction should be a key element of what makes the theater experience superior to home-viewing. When you’re watching at home, and you get bored and look to Twitter, that’s fine. That’s your time, your space. But once you enter the theater, you’ve entered into a social contract to be considerate to the community of moviegoers. Giving in to the impulse to check your phone—for any reason short of an emergency—breaks that contract, and shows you aren’t fit to be among this community.
When I worked in the theater, cell phones were not omnipresent. And no one would dare bring out what is effectively a beacon into the dark cavern devoted to cinema. That’d be the height of rudeness! Not just to your fellow movie-goer, but also to the people who worked so hard to make the movie unfurling before you. Yet over the years, I’ve seen it more and more casually. Each screen scorched on my memory. That guy who cruised Facebook as Mark Wahlberg was spitting insults at Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed. The man who began googling the cast of Paddington in the middle of the movie. (Yes. That is Peter Capaldi. Yes, he is on Doctor Who.) The dude who ignored my exasperated sighs and kept checking his texts throughout a sold-out screening of Looper. When I complained to the theater employee after, I told her I was in the middle of a long row, and so couldn’t easily get out to find an usher as I would have disrupted others. She said I should have called the theater from my seat on my cell phone, “THAT’d have showed him.” No. No, it wouldn’t have. That would have exacerbated the problem.
Every time this happens, I marvel. How can anyone think this is okay? Do they think that no one notices when they are basically turning on an upward projected flashlight in the middle of a dark theater? Or do they have so little concern for their fellow movie-goer that they don’t care if we’re bothered? But more importantly, how do we combat this bad behavior?
The Alamo Drafthouse has a firm “no phones out” rule, which is enforced by the promise of kicking out phone-pulling patrons. And that theater chain has a system in place where you can silently signal for help from an usher without having to leave the theater or make a scene. Just write a note on the accessible paper and put it upright in its stand, a small signal even in the dark. (Yes, the Alamo has had other issues. But we’re focusing on phone etiquette here.)
Becuase the Alamo’s layout is vastly different from its competitors, I don’t know what other theaters can do to encourage better behavior. But moreover, I’m not convinced the theaters care. Those assholes who pull out their phones pay for tickets too. Maybe someone might complain and request their money back. But I suspect few do. If enough people did that, you’d see some attempt from these theaters to stop this behavior from happening, because it’d be impacting their bottom line.
After the movie last night, I had a radical idea of how theaters could stop this. Sometimes as a critic, you’re asked to surrender your phone at press screening to prevent piracy. It’s a tedious process that involves leaving your phone in a sloppy coat-check system of security, ID tickets, sandwich-bagged phones, and much frustration. But when I went to see Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, there was a different and far swifter method that didn’t involve taking my phone away from me. They put my phone into a snug satchel and then sealed it shut with a special lock and handed back to me. I got to hold onto my phone, but could not get it out of the satchel until after the movie, when security did it with the flick of a wrist and a magnet or something. I don’t even know how. It happened so fast, so smoothly, so efficiently that I was drop-jawed in awe.
Now, there are some drawbacks to this baggie method. For one thing, if you forget to put your phone on airplane mode ahead of the movie, you can’t get it out of the bag to silence it. For another, if there’s an emergency, you can’t just call from your phone, but would have to run out of the theater to get it unlocked. And probably most relevant: it would be costly to do this for every showtime, so theaters won’t.
Still, I dream of such extremes so I can watch a goddamn movie without the fear that some random asshole with a social-media addiction will spoil my experience. But I realize theaters are largely helpless and uninterested in doing a damn thing about this. Hell, it wasn’t so long ago that AMC’s CEO floated the idea of having screenings where phone use is encouraged. As if these selfish jerks need encouragement or would respect the idea of specific screen times to indulge their distracting behavior.
And so it’s left to us, the theatergoers, to do better. But how? Conflicts in movie theaters get heated, leading to shouting and sometimes fatal gunplay. In my fantasies, I imagine a stark but non-violent form of intervention. A ping pong ball. I’d keep a couple in my bag. And if someone gets out their phone, I could pluck one out, aim delicately, and toss. It wouldn’t hurt them. It would just be a little “plop” that communicated, “I see you, and you’re being an asshole.” Maybe I’d even write those on the balls in advance!
Of course, I’d never actually do this. My aim is not to be trusted. And the subsequent bouncing of the ball plus the light that would reflect off its white surface in the air would be a distraction too. So what are we left with? Well, peer pressure.
In most of these instances above, the person on their phone was with someone else who said nothing. And you cannot convince me they didn’t notice. If I can see your screen from rows away, I’m sure your friend/partner/colleague can too. We need to speak up on behalf of the other theatergoers, and tell our friend, “Dude, put your phone away.” Yeah, it’ll probably be awkward for a moment. But it need not be hostile. You have a better chance of getting this person to correct their bad behavior than some hiss in the dark or chucked ping-pong ball does. So, be the hero our theaters need.