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Criticwire Survey: How Would You Solve the Problem of People Texting in Movie Theaters?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire September 16, 2013 at 9:23AM

A critic at the Toronto Film Festival called the police to report texting during a movie. This week's Criticwire Survey proposes less solutions to the problem: "Quiet car"-style screenings; shaming offenders with laser pointers; and good old-fashioned violence.
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Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: During the Toronto Film Festival, blogger Alex Billington made international news when he called 911 to report someone using his cell phone during a press screening. Stipulating that involving the authorities is not the right approach, how you would you solve the problem of people using their phones in theaters?

Kate Erbland, MSN Movies, Film School Rejects, Geek Nation

I'm of the mind that if people want to use their cell phones or iPads or Kindles or laptops or high-powered flashlights or whatever in a theater, that's fine, let them do it -- but let them do it far away from me and anyone else who wants to enjoy a trip to the movies in the way it's meant to be experienced, which is free of distractions. While I'd love it if people kicked their tech obsessions in order to spend two hours enjoying cinema, I think that's simply become impossible for a lot of people (and does that depress me? Of course it does), so if those people need separate screenings and showings that allow them to use whatever they want, that's fine. I just don't want to attend those screenings and showings ever. Other than under those special circumstances, no, cell phones and whathaveyou should not be allowed in movies -- Drafthouse style, a zero tolerance situation, kick 'em out, the end. 

Mary Pols, Time

It has never occurred to me to call 911 on a cell-phone-wielding moron during a screening, nor would it, because you know, I would always feel confident that someone somewhere else actually needed the police at that moment. However, it has definitely occurred to me to do bodily harm. I haven't done so yet. If the person on the cell phone is near me, and using it as the movie is starting up, I have no shame in leaning over and saying, "You're not going to be on that during the movie are you? Because it will drive me crazy. I'm working here." I've found that to be more effective than the kinds of things I used to say, which were varieties of Turn That Fucking Thing Off You Fucking Fuck. Now I just think that.  What I think would be effective is if like-minded people -- say, everyone in the critics' row at screenings -- would join in on some chant. "Turn it off, turn it off" is not exactly catchy, but something along those lines. A public shaming. I hate it when everyone sits there like stupid sheep; it pisses all of us off so voice your opinion. 

Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies, Some Came Running

In honor of my cordial acquaintance Jonathan Franzen, I should like to play Grumpy Old Man Who Nonetheless Articulates Some Uncomfortable Truths for this question. First off, I prefer not to leave aside the particular actions of Mr. Alex Billington because they're as much part of the problem as texting in theaters is. Whether or not he really regrets yelling fire in a crowded theater (a crowded theater in Canada, good for him), the posturing way in which he stepped out and made himself a story, the way Jeff Wells added to the piling on of bullshit with his "I Stand With Billington," the whole damned stupid thing makes me sad that one of the world's great film festivals is being hijacked to circus status by a gigantic group of children of all ages, whether they be anti-texting activists or Oscar-predicting circle-jerkers. As for texting, I'm rather exhausted with respect to writing about it, as I've devoted two lengthy blog posts to the topic that I won't link to here but can be found through what I suppose would be an easy search. Short answer, I'm against it, I think that movie venues should establish pertinent rules about it, and that they ought to enforce those rules as non-disruptively as possible. 

Tim Grierson, Screen International, Paste

I've always had a fantasy of running a movie theater that's housed inside a building where patrons can't get phone service. (There are a couple screening rooms in Los Angeles like this.) I'd attract customers who are paying for the guarantee that their movie won't be interrupted by glowing lights or annoying ringtones. And if you and your spouse are having a night out without the kids and are worried that the babysitter won't be able to get in touch with you, no problem: Just give the sitter the theater's phone number and let the concierge know your movie and seat number so he can discreetly summon you during the film in case of an emergency. That's not a perfect solution, I realize, but it sounds civilized, doesn't it?

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

I never engage texters (or pirates or distracting talkers) directly. I discreetly go to the manager, lodge complaint and let the manager handle it. 

Steve Dollar, Wall Street Journal

I wish there was an easy answer but there is none beyond a prayer for basic courtesies. Me? I would gently request that person to put their phone away. If they were jerks about it, I would be a jerk to them as well -- but not such a jerk that it became a distraction to others. In the end, we are powerless against those who would be theatrical answers to Al Qaeda. 

Robert Greene, Sight & Sound, Hammer to Nail

As a person who has an issue with butt soreness in movie seats and has young kids who could presumably be in the hospital at any given moment (reverse-jink), I like to keep my phone on silent during screenings to check the time very, very occasionally and for emergencies. I tend to watch movies as constructions, aware of the pieces, so having a sense of real time as it relates to movie time means something to me. So I subtly check my dimmed screen whenever I want and I really don't care what that supposedly says about my viewing habits, etc. Of course I get angry when annoying people are annoying, but I've also had many blockbuster screenings saved by raucous crowds shouting at screens, friends calling friends, shushes, fights, battles of will and people calling each other "fascists." It's all good. One time I was at a MoMA screening of the impossibly quiet A Summer at Grandpa's by Hou Hsiao-hsien when one old lady punched another in the head because of bag noise. It was awesome. I completely understand why texting, bright phone screens, any and all distractions bother some people but I'd advocate for more fighting in public and not less. Or maybe people can just use common sense and be respectful? I've never been called out for slyly checking my dimmed device, but I almost took a swing at a guy for telling me to stop yelling (and being hilarious) during The Conjuring. Screw that dude.

Ali Arikan, Dipnot.tv, RogerEbert.com

I find cellphones to be a terrible distraction while watching movies at a cinema.  This is especially annoying in Turkey, where going to the cinema is like the fisting scene in Cruising, only less tender.  Turks are particularly obnoxious when it comes to their mobile phone habits in or out of the movies. Still, even though I resent the use of cellphones bitterly, treating a cinema like a holy temple of art is equally egregious. Not everything is a front in the Kulturkampf, and, as in most facets of life, common sense is the best way to deal with the issue.  Disregard the occasional use, and if you're really, REALLY annoyed by a chronic texter, kindly tell them to either stop or hide their phone.  Personally, I don't even bother with the latter.  

I am reminded of the time I went to see Highlander III: The Sorcerer at a cinema in Cologne, Germany in the summer of 1995. Walking into the theatre, I was somewhat relieved that I wasn’t the only one there. Two teens, a few years younger than me, were sat near the front. Just as the film began, a huge, hirsute man walked in, went over to where the kids were sitting, and asked them to move, because one of them was in his seat (The cinema had assigned seating). The kids laughed at first, but, realizing how serious the guy was, changed their seats. They sat right behind him, and proceeded to talk through the film. The man shushed them a few times, and, eventually, just as Christopher Lambert and Deborah Kara Unger got it on, he stood up and thumped one of the kids. This inspired them to shut up.

A few minutes later, the kids left, and there I was: alone in a cinema with a psycho, though still buzzing at the earlier juxtaposition of simulated intercourse and actual violence.  But the coup de grace was when, during the final duel, the door opened, and in walked die Polizei, who, literally, dragged Hairy Hulk away, leaving me alone in the theatre. There can be only one, etc.

Sean Burns, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian

Not to get all "when I was a kid we had to walk uphill both ways in the snow," but I recall the situation being much worse about ten years ago, back when people still used cellphones as telephones. At screening after screening, folks in the audience would think nothing of answering their ringing phones and loudly chattering away. I fondly remember a gentlemen taking a call during The Royal Tenenbaums, only to be punched in the back of the head by the patron sitting behind him. (It wasn't me, I swear!) Sure the glowing screens are distracting, but no moreso than the shitty digital projection that's sadly become par for the course these days. 

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

It all comes back to the popcorn. I can't imagine that an occasional flash of a cellphone would drive a viewer batty when a trip to the average local theatre means watching movies to the sounds and the scents of concession fare -- and that's how it should be. When I was a child, ushers still accompanied latecomers to seats by means of flashlights equipped with long red nozzles, and the practice that Orson Welles so lovingly describes in My Lunches with Orson --when movie-goers didn't bother checking showtimes and just popped into a theatre at any time during a movie, then sat through part of it again (the origin of the line "This is where I came in") -- was still familiar. (Hitchcock got great publicity for Psycho by forbidding that practice, the result being the birth of the ticket-holders' line.) With live performances, especially of classical music, the slightest audience rustle is an unbearable affliction (remind me to tell you about the time at Carnegie Hall when, just as the pianist Misha Dichter got to the glorious hymn-like theme in the slow movement of Schubert's last sonata, a spectator started hacking and hocking his lungs out, which proved most, um, disconcerting), and every time I see To Be or Not to Be, I recoil at the philistine flyer's mid-soliloquy bailouts, but movies are different. The asterisk concerns the privilege (and the pressure) of press screenings held in small screening rooms where the viewers are journalists who presumably are watching with total concentration in order to report thoroughly and accurately on what they're seeing. There, yes: quiet, please -- but, even at press screenings, the flash of a cellphone screen, compared to whispering and crackling and rustling, still seems like a trivial distraction.

Kate Aurthur, BuzzFeed

I don't feel like the phone problem is as much of an issue in Los Angeles as it is in other places. Or at least it's not in my favorite seat at the ArcLight Hollywood, where I have no one in front of me (very, very on purpose). I do think people should be thrown out of theaters for using their phones in any way. It's disrespectful and distracting -- step out of the theater and into the lobby, you monster. Mob rule can apply here with impunity, I think. But theaters have got to get this problem under control.

Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club

I live in L.A., where there are any number of theaters that will stop people who bring their phones in and start texting. That and my general ability to completely lose myself in the screen and avoid distractions mean I'm rarely as bothered by this as some people are. But enough people I know have been bothered for me to at least wonder if there isn't a way to better incentivize the lack of phone use during a film. I know that there have been some dumb "see what your phone dreams about!" ads and stuff for those who turn off their smartphones during a movie, but why couldn't there be some sort of system that allowed those who brought phones or tablets, then shut them off for the duration of the film, to receive some sort of points toward concessions or free tickets or the like. I'm not someone who's so bothered by this that I'm going to get really worked up by it, but I think the best way to handle this sort of thing is usually via a rewards system, rather than having a burly man with a sledgehammer destroy phones as people walk in.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder

Talking/texting is more annoying when you're in a somewhat emptier theater where it's easy to be distracted by one errant troll. But in a full house, with so many entities forming a diffuse white noise, it is less of an issue. Sometimes, with the right movie, like a Riddick as opposed to a 12 Years a Slave, it can even enhance the experience. For better or worse, moviegoing is and has always been a communal experience. One shouldn't expect a monastic environment.

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics, Movies.com

If they're within whispering vicinity, whisper to ask them to turn it off. Or throw popcorn at their head. Otherwise it's not worth the additional commotion for me or anyone else. Really it's not my job to be confrontational. It's the theater's job. I also think that in many circumstances a great film will keep your attention from being distracted. Unfortunately, great films are not that common.

Pat Padua, DCist, Spectrum Culture

I'd politely ask them to put their phone away. It usually works.

Matt Prigge, Metro

What you shouldn't do is yell at them as loud as you can, thus disturbing the many people not affected by the asshole with the bright screen out. That's obnoxious. That said, I never know what to do in this situation. After telling perpetrators semi-politely (and then semi-rudely) to cut it out, I either find another seat or, if there's no room, suck it up and grumble in my mind. Then I shoot them a nasty look that they'll ignore, because they're assholes.

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

We who attend press screenings regularly are spoiled a bit by having that work done for us by security personnel, who make fear-of-God announcements about throwing out phone users ass over teakettle. And with rare exceptions, most theaters feel their job is done by putting a cutesy pre-show "Courtesy, please" PSA before the main attraction. But the festival problem is one of trying to accommodate two disparate groups -- press and industry -- with different agendas in the same screenings. Until festivals are willing or able to deal with the fact that people who are there to immerse themselves in the movies can't happily coexist with those who are casually watching for marketable elements while answering their emails, we got troubles. 

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Blood, Dirt & Angels

During a P & I screening of Night Moves, there was another minor incident. Evidently, someone was using their phone -- or the phone was vibrating incessantly -- to the consternation of one furious attendee, who suddenly screamed "Turn off your cell phone!" to said perpetrator. The thing was, as generally happens, this reaction to the problem was far more distracting to everyone (t happened that this occurred during a particularly quiet point in the film, so Furious' voice carried loudly through the entire theater), than the original offense. I should think a quiet but firm request to cease and desist would suffice about 90% of the time, though there are always a stubborn few who would rather cause an international incident than give up their right to text "my ass hurtz LOL" to their friends. It is entirely possible to go too far in the other direction, is my point. I once knew a critic who scared the shit out of two chatting older women at an afternoon festival screening when he violently turned around to them and said "I'm telling you now, you will not be fucking talking during this movie!" before the lights had even dimmed. I would suggest not crushing a potato bug with a cannon ball, when possible.

Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger, NJ.com 

First off -- obviously, nobody should be texting or using any kind of electronic device in a movie. Even if you don't have enough respect for an artist to sit through 90 minutes or so without distraction or interruption, you should have enough respect for the people around you not to do this. Ideally, theaters would have jamming devices which prevent anyone from getting a signal, but I've read that this is against the law, thanks to the FCC. Too bad. (Please, theater owners, look into this anyway. I won't tell.) When people next to me text, I ask them to stop, firmly and politely. I keep repeating this until they do. When people in rows ahead of me do it, I have occasionally shouted at them, but I hate doing this, as it's disruptive as well. I've read some people saying that, at press-and-industry screenings, there are buyers who are looking for films to acquire; they need to be in regular contact with their studios to do their job. I don't quite buy this -- I've seen the worst behavior at films that already have distribution -- but even if this were true, it doesn't excuse the behavior. Easiest solution? Sit on the aisle -- and if you absolutely find you need to text or email someone, slip out quietly and use your phone at the far side or back of the theater, where you won't disturb anyone. Slightly more complicated? Festivals and/or venues can set up the last row of the theater as a phone-allowed space, where you won't disturb the people in front of you, and there's no one sitting behind you. And if people can't even live with those rules? Kick them out and, if it's a fest, pull their badges for 24 hours. 

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

I think theaters should install cell phone jammers. The technology exists, and I see no reason not to use it. People went to movies for 100 years without having to have instant access to a telephone.

Jordan Hoffman, Film.com, NY Daily News

Calling 911 was, to quote Flavor Flav, a joke. But I'm glad Alex's actions reverberated enough to make international (!) news. For P&I [Press & Industry] screenings like at TIFF, I'd suggest a friendly reminder from a live human being (usually wearing headphones) prior to the lights dimming. Something on the order of "Industry people, if you MUST check email, please scoot over to the side or near the doors. If you are locked in your row, please turn the brightness on your phone to an absolute minimum. Or maybe consider if your email can't wait 90 minutes?"  A little levity may reach people. Because the phone situation at the TIFF was rough. As for public screenings? It is quite possible that the boat has sailed. The public are animals. I'm surprised they aren't emptying their bowels right there in their seats. Specialty houses like the Drafthouse are our only refuge. But even New York's Film Forum -- my favorite theater on Earth -- can be Russian roulette. Maybe theaters could start having ushers patrol the theaters and psssst at people with their phones out? The chain theaters won't care, but maybe smaller places can increase their perception of elitism this way.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, Tor.com

Calling 911 for something like this is a little ridiculous (even if it actually is piracy you're concerned about), but cell phones during movies is a big problem. I almost got into a fight with a guy who wouldn't put his phone away during Iron Man Three, and if my burlesquer acquaintance hadn't stepped in when she did, I absolutely would have fought on this point. Cell phone glare during a movie can absolutely ruin it, if it's unavoidable in your field of vision and the person using the phone persists in doing so. The problem is, the only solutions to the problem also require disruption of the moviegoing experience, like having the person using the phone ejected by theater employees. The person using the phone is probably going to mount some indignant "What did I do?" defense, because people who use their phones during movies believe themselves entitled to do so by virtue of having bought a ticket. Collecting phones like they do at certain studios' press screenings would be a logistical nightmare for theaters, and innocent people would risk losing their phones. The only way it's ever going to stop is if, somehow, it organically just becomes accepted good taste to shut the fuck up and put your phone away during a movie, and the chances of that happening are, I'm afraid, remote. For me, anyway, the good news is, unless the person using their phone is right in front of me, I can tune them out. I'd rather not have to, but such is life.

This article is related to: Criticwire Survey


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