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A Discussion of Proper Phone Etiquette During A Movie Screening

By Dustin Rowles | Miscellaneous | July 15, 2013 |

By Dustin Rowles | Miscellaneous | July 15, 2013 |

We live in a modern age where 90 percent of moviegoers now have smart phones. You can also expect that 70 percent of moviegoers do not abide by the “turn off your cell phone” message before screenings, and at this point, you have to kind of expect that if you’re attending a crowded screening on opening night, at least a few people will light up their phone or send a text during a screening. It is annoying, but it’s fairly unavoidable. Some theater chains, in fact, have even loosened their restrictions on phone use during a screening, while others — like the Alamo Drafthouse — have remained steadfast: “NO TEXTING. NO EXCEPTIONS.” If they catch you, they will boot you, and they may even make an example of you.

If you’re in the Alamo Drafthouse, YOU DO WHAT THOSE NICE PEOPLE SAY. However, given the realities of the modern moviegoing experience, I thought it might be useful to explore phone etiquette in other theaters, and examine when it is and is not permissible to use one’s phone.

Is It OK to Use Your Phone Before the Movie Starts?

Yes. Of course. The lights are up, so who is it going to bother, except the friend sitting next to you who you’re ignoring so you can text your friend sitting on the other side of him. In fact, I often wear headphones and catch up on TV shows while I’m waiting for the film to start because it ensures that no one will speak to me and I won’t have to hear their boneheaded guesses at the pre-movie trivia. When you’re attending screenings of movies like Grown Ups 2, it’s important not to be able to inadvertently eavesdrop on others’ conversations, lest you lose all faith in humanity.

Is It OK to Use Your Phone During the Previews?

This is a tougher call. It’s definitely OK during the pre-movie commercials, but use your judgement during the previews. If you’re in a very crowded theater, I would strongly discourage it. But on the other hand, glaring at someone or asking them to turn off their phone during the previews is also kind of a dick move, too. They’re trailers: Try not to get a bug up your ass if someone’s phone light is illuminated during the trailer for The Smurfs 2. The bigger concern at that point, anyway, is if any of the people still streaming into the theater are going to take that gloriously empty seat next to you. If you’re looking at your phone, there’s at least smaller chance that someone will ask if the seat next to you is available. (FYI: The appropriate way to answer that question is to turn to the empty seat, sneeze, and then pretend to wipe your snot off of an imaginary person. Then say, “No one is sitting here. Why do you ask?”)

Is It Ever OK to Text or Check Your Texts During a Movie?

No, with some exceptions. If you attend movies often enough, especially during non-peak times, you’re probably going to end up in a theater by yourself every once in a while. If you are by yourself, have at it. You paid $12 to see the movie, and if you’d rather spend that time cracking wise on Twitter, go for it. You’re not bothering anyone.

In fact, I have a ten row rule. If no one is behind you, and if no one is within ten rows in front of you, I think it’s OK to use your phone sparingly. Again, as long as there is no possibility that anyone else in the theater will even know you’re using it.

Some people — weird people — believe that it’s disrespectful to the filmmakers to text during a movie even if you’re the only person in theater, but these people are insane. Those filmmakers have no idea you’re texting during the slow middle section of some crappy horror movie, and you have already demonstrated the ultimate respect by paying for a movie ticket to their movie when no one else has.

If You Receive a Text or a Phone Call, Is It OK to Surreptitiously Check Your Phone to See Who It Is?

First off, make sure your damn phone is on vibrate, and then turn the vibrating down to a minimum. Second, do you have children? If the answer is no, then no you may not surreptitiously check your phone to see who the text is from, unless you have another family member under hospital care or you’re expecting a very important text from a potential booty call.

If the answer is yes, you do have children, and the children are not in the theater with you, use the three text/two phone call rule. If your child is at school/camp or with a babysitter, there is the possibility of an emergency, and no one wants to explain to the principal after little Timmy fell off the slide and broke his arm that you didn’t get the call because you were in the middle of a screening of Resident Evil 5. On the other hand, if it’s an emergency, no one calls just once, or leaves just one text. If there’s one phone call, let it go. If you feel a second phone call vibrating in your pocket immediately after the first, someone really needs to get a hold of you. Quietly get up and leave the theater to check your phone.

Likewise, if you get a quick succession of texts (and when you’re a parent, the vibrations always feel urgent and ominous and make you terribly anxious), you may — surreptitiously as possible — check to see who the sender is. You can do this by, for instance, lifting up the flap your pocket and peering inside to quickly check the caller. If it is someone charged with looking after your kids, then you may again quietly leave the theater to check the contents of the text.

Also, if your wife is heavily pregnant during a screening, then immediately get up and leave anytime you feel your phone vibrate (the scenario is not as odd as you’d think; TK’s wife, for instance, went into labor during the Boston Film Festival weekend).

It’s also a good idea, if you’re a parent and anticipate any of the above scenarios, to sit on the aisle seats and as far away from others as possible so as to not disturb them every time you get up to leave.

Personally, because I use the restroom at least twice (if it’s a good movie) and four times if it’s a bad movie, I use that time to check my texts/phone calls. Try to avoid checking your phone, however, while you’re standing at a urinal. Don’t get that guy.

Is It OK to Text If You and a Group of Friends Are the Only People in the Theater?

No. You may think that your friend is OK with you texting, and he or she may even say they’re OK with you texting during the movie, but trust me, they are not OK. They don’t want to say it to your face because they are a friend, but you are being an asshole. Put down your phone and watch the goddamn movie.

How Do You Deal with Someone Who Is Texting in Your Vicinity?

People who are rude enough to text or talk on the phone during a movie are not likely the kind of people who are going to respond to your passive agressiveness. You can give them the stink eye and/or the stink-eye/loud sigh combination all damn day, but it’s probably not going to get you anywhere. These people also have an inordinate amount of pride, so if you ask them to put away their phone, you’re probably only going to rile them up. I would also discourage you from seeking the manager, because 1) you’ll miss part of the movie, 2) no one likes a snitch, and 3) you’re not likely to get the manager. You’re more likely to get the teenager who is ripping ticket stubs in half, and God knows he doesn’t want to say anything to the rude guy any more than you do. You’ll just make his terrible job even more terrible.

The best thing to do, honestly, is just to get up and move.

If that, however, is not an option, what the a rude texter will respond to is crazy. People are scared of crazy people, even if you’re slight of frame. So here’s what you do: Remove your shoes and socks. Place your shoes on top of the armrests. Remove all of the contents of your pocket and place them inside of your shoes. Pull your arms inside of your shirt sleeves. Begin quietly slapping yourself with your loose shirt sleeves.

If this fails, simply turn and stare at the texter. Try to smile as wide as possible while doing so. Do not avert your gaze. Stare and smile. Stare and smile. It should not take long for the texter to put his or her phone away.

It has never once failed.

Finally, is it OK to check your phone during the credits?

Yes. The credits are akin to a plane taxiing to the gate. It’s totally fine. In fact, it’s the best way to kill time while you’re waiting for the tag or credit cookie.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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