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

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by Sam Adams
September 16, 2013 9:23 AM
14 Comments
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Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

Calling 911 is excessive, but someone deliberately using their phone in a film must be stopped. I ask nicely once. After that, all bets are off. Of course, most mainstream theaters are so understaffed that they don't have anyone to go to to have someone removed, which is a shame. It's an issue for which every place that exhibits movies should have a codified policy that is publicly posted and enforced: Attendance keeps plummeting, and it's because there's no respect for the experience anymore. Anyone who is so selfish that they can't even bother to uphold the social contract for 90-180 minutes deserves to have some courtesy forcibly instilled in them. The simple solution is that anyone who needs to use their phone should do so outside; it has never made any sense to me why someone disinterested enough with a film to want to use their phone could somehow still be interested enough to stay in the exhibition space. It's lazy entitlement, and there's no reason to put up with it. 

Alan Zilberman, The Atlantic, Tiny Mix Tapes

We need to raise public awareness of how disturbing a brightly-lit smart phone can be in a movie theater. Unlike the 911 caller -- who is a coward, I might add -- I've spoken directly to people who take their phone out during a movie. One time I got out of my seat to tell a theater-goer that his phone was annoying everyone beyond him, and got a small round of applause as I returned to my seat. I honestly think he simply did not have the wherewithal to realize that, yes, a cell phone essentially functions like a torch in a dark theater setting. If there were smart ads before a movie that directly address this issue, I think audiences would aware that merely turning on their phone can be annoying. Ideally this hypothetical ads would be in the style of the Alamo Drafthouse ads, which are noteworthy for their aggression. 

Sean Hutchinson, Latino Review, CriterionCast

If it's general screenings we're talking about, I feel like there is really no larger action we can take to improve the situation other than having onscreen warnings prior to the show. Personally I wouldn't resort to the asinine move of calling 911 to get someone to stop using their phone, but what should be done is that anyone annoyed by phone use should just ask the person to stop or get the manager, plain and simple. Hopefully the cinema will offer you complementary tickets considering the parts of the film you missed, but if not then chalk it up to, "You win some you lose some." It's not the end of the world.

Daniel Carlson, Pajiba

I'm no longer convinced it's possible to get people to stop checking their phones for 90 or 120 minutes while paying attention to a story that's playing out right in front of them and that's the work of hundreds of dedicated professionals. Chains like the Alamo Drafthouse, which actually expel patrons for cell phone usage, are in short supply, but moreover, I don't think you can actually show someone why their selfish behavior is rude, irritating, and just plain not OK in certain social contexts. We're far too attached, all of us, to the idea of watching what's in front of us while also trying to find out what else is happening somewhere else. Fine. If you can't beat 'em, though, you still don't have to join 'em. I say two offer separate screenings at the theater: one where cell phone usage is OK, and one where it's prohibited. The non-phone screenings might be fewer in number, but think of them like the quiet car on some trains: a haven for those who need it. And oh, what a blessed relief those would be.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema, Sound on Sight

I’d like to tell you that I’d do what Wesley Morris has advocated: putting my hand over the offender’s phone to let them know they’re being disruptive. Or maybe I’d tap them on the shoulder and politely tell them to put their phone away. In reality, I might go as far as searching out a theater employee and hoping they wouldn’t react by saying something like, “Sorry, we can’t do much about that.” (And unless you’re in a chain like the ArclLght or Drafthouse, or at a press/public screening with security on the lookout for people with cell phones, I fear that’s how most theater employees would respond.) I fear my gut reaction would be, “Well…maybe if I wait, they’ll put their phone away/someone else will tell them to knock it off.” But no matter what, I wouldn’t call 911. Even the worst cell phone offender doesn’t fall under the category of emergency.

William Bibbiani, CraveOnline

There is a nifty device in the recent home invasion thriller You're Next that jams cell phone signals within a certain radius. Every movie theater should probably get one. I've heard arguments both for and against the use of cell phones in a movie theater. Personally, as you may have guessed, I am against it. If you genuinely need your cell phone on at all times, then you are clearly too important to take time off to see a movie. If you are not in the 1% of population who actually needs to be available via cell phone 24 hours a day, then you are not important enough to ruin a movie for anyone else. The most cogent defense I've heard for allowing cell phone use in a theater is that these people paid for their ticket, and should therefore be allowed to have any theatrical experience they want. Which is nonsense of course, because everyone paid for their ticket. That money was specifically spent on a ticket to see a movie, in a darkened theater, free of distractions, in a room with clearly posted signs (and usually slides and videos) telling every audience member to turn off their phone. So you are not special because you bought a ticket. You are the same as everyone else because you bought a ticket. And therefore you have no explicit right to waste the rest of the audience's money just because you couldn't be bothered to follow the rules everyone tacitly agreed to by entering a theater. In short, you shouldn't use a cell phone in a movie theater for the same reason that you shouldn't shout in a library: because everyone in there paid the exact same amount of money to use that specific space for a very specific reason, so if you feel the need to use it in a different way, then simply, you should be kicked out because you were clearly in the wrong place to begin with.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

Businesses like theaters simply need to employ cell-phone jammers. Block all signals in and out. The texters will give up unless they have some serious Bond shit, in which case you don't wanna mess with them.

John Oursler, Sound on Sight

It doesn't bother me if people use their phone to take notes, or to facilitate notetaking, during press screenings. It's a necessary evil and I don't understand why it's surprising to people. It's a work environment, not an entertainment foray. That said, when I see films on my own time, I'm the first person to shush or ask someone to turn off their phone, always politely at first. More than anything, I can never understand how someone could pay $13 of their hard-earned money to sit in a movie theater and not watch the film. Once that astonishment of that has worn off the annoyance sets in. As others have stupidly argued, communicating during moviegoing is an unavoidable future. I don't see it as such.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, The New York Movie Klub

Look, I would be lying if I said I've never checked my phone during a movie. (Usually I'm trying to answer the question, "how much longer do I have to endure this piece of crap?") But when I do take the device out of my pocket, I always do the best I can to minimize the distraction for other people.  The real problem is an increasing cohort of movie-goers who either don't know how distracting the light from a smartphone's screen can be, or who know and just straight-up don't care. There's not much that can be done to those people without descending into fascism. I just wish there were better entertainments we could find for them instead of movie-going.

Daniel Carlson, Pajiba

I'm no longer convinced it's possible to get people to stop checking their phones for 90 or 120 minutes while paying attention to a story that's playing out right in front of them and that's the work of hundreds of dedicated professionals. Chains like the Alamo Drafthouse, which actually expel patrons for cell phone usage, are in short supply, but moreover, I don't think you can actually show someone why their selfish behavior is rude, irritating, and just plain not OK in certain social contexts. We're far too attached, all of us, to the idea of watching what's in front of us while also trying to find out what else is happening somewhere else. Fine. If you can't beat 'em, though, you still don't have to join 'em. I say two offer separate screenings at the theater: one where cell phone usage is OK, and one where it's prohibited. The non-phone screenings might be fewer in number, but think of them like the quiet car on some trains: a haven for those who need it. And oh, what a blessed relief those would be.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute.

No Franzen-lite ambitions here, but, as he has connected our computer attachment to the downfall of civilization, I believe the cellphone-in-theaters issue reflects on our society as a whole. I suppose there is an argument to be made for a turn the other cheek approach to the usage by the paying public ("You pays your money, you get your choice"); what astonishes me is the increasing amount of texting, checking of email, and more in the private screenings arranged for critics and industry professionals. I don't think I have ever met anyone working in the movie world who hasn't professed a real passion and respect for the art. It seems pretty obvious the people who insist on whipping out their brightly lit screens mid-film couldn't care less about disturbing others around them. But what I can't reconcile is their also obvious lack of attention to and respect for the work they have been invited to see. Would these people also stop, in the middle of, say, a one-on-one interview with a filmmaker, to check what's new with their buds on Facebook? What's the answer? I wish I knew. I'm sure we're all hearing from the movie-going public that they have become far fussier about choosing the theaters they frequent, hoping to avoid a disruptive crowd. And God bless the Alamo Drafthouse chain for stepping up and insisting on decorum. As one who bristles every time a security guard waves a magic wand over me, just to make sure I'm not packing an Apple 5C, I am loathe to recommend confiscation of equipment. I do, however, get a kick out of those genial reminders some publicists, even theater managers make, reminding us sweetly to (at least) turn off the damn ringer. 

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I'm not sure anything substantial can ever really be done about the cellphone issue. Too many people are too reliant on their phones, and there are no indications of that changing. My suspicion is that most folks have grown so accustomed to seeing others texting away madly in every situation that they don't give it a second thought. (I base this on a recent screening of Insidious: Chapter 2, in which multiple people in my audience used their phones during the film, to the apparent disgust of no one, except me.) For those of us who are distracted by cell phones during movies, my fantasy would be for theaters adopt the "coat check" system. You turn your phone over at a special desk when you arrive. The employee gives you a ticket. At the end of the movie, you return the ticket and get your phone back. Also, the theater employee would have permission to answer your calls or check your texts, just in case of an emergency. They could come and get you if this was the case. I realize this idea is impractical and riddled with potential problems, but it certainly makes more sense than my other idea: ejector seats.

Marc V. Ciafardini, Go, See, Talk

Here's two suggestions: 1) Give everyone who enters the theater a laser-pointer so that patrons can shine multiple points of light on the person using their cell phone. If we have to put up the annoyance of their brightly lit cell phone screen then they should have to put up with a Predator level of red death dots. 2) In those establishments that serve in-theater dining, install a second service button, call it the "verboten" button, next to their order button. The first two people to hit their button upon seeing a cell phone light up get their bills paid by the user. Sure it'll never happen, but it never hurts to dream of an interruption free movie-going experience right? Either that or make every theater an Alamo Drafthouse.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, What the Flick?!

There is no reason for any person to use a cell phone or brightly lit device in a movie theater. Ever. Period. Offenders should get high-beams shone in their eyes until they desist.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

My late friend Michael McGonigle used to carry a flashlight with him for such cases of rudeness at the movies. I was with him once when he sat behind someone who was using their cellphone during the screening. He went over and shone his flashlight on the offender and asked, "Do you need help finding the off switch?" It shut him up. And everyone around him was grateful.  I was famously at a recent press screening where 30 minutes into the film a couple (not press) walked in, and disrupted the viewers. It was most notably because the gentleman sprayed the seat (next to me) for bed bugs before allowing his friend to sit there. It was truly the most outrageous offense I've ever witnessed at a press screening. I wish Michael McGonigle had been sitting with me then.

Sam Fragoso, Movie Mezzanine, SF Bay

People are going to use their cell phones during the movies -- it's an inescapable reality we simply need to accept. So what do we do? Have assigned seating. Anyone from the "industry" side of P&I will have seats reserved for them at the top of the theater, where bright screens won't affect the entire audience. 

Jeff Berg Local iQ/Las Cruces Bulletin

It is a fact of life that common courtesy, in general, is dead in 2013. I do not have a cell phone, do not have a Twitter account, have sent one text message in my sordid life, do not do Facebook, do not do Instagram or any of the other programs that people think they cannot live without.  None of those things have any purpose, other than to bloat the user's ego, (although cell phones are great for certain professions... they are excused). When working at two small indie venues, we always introduced the films, asked people to turn them off or go to the lobby if need be and I have asked patrons to leave when they have violated this simple act of courtesy. I'm not sure if there is a solution. Mine has been to only attend early matinee screenings or just not go to a theatre at all. I think the problem has lessened somewhat, at least here in the boondocks, but it is a matter of individual choice, whether or not a person wants to be kind or be a jerk. I have also confronted people during movies and it is effective, but the transgressor's response is interesting, too. It is like they have the right to stare at little tiny screens whenever and wherever they want. Kicking seats or asking in a polite voice usually works.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

Now playing the part of Old Man Yelling on His Porch…

Brightly-lit devices simply don't belong in theaters.  They're distracting to those of us trying to watch the movie and their presence is wholly unnecessary.  You go to the movies to see a movie, not to post on Facebook or check Twitter.  I understand that many people with smartphones have become accustomed to using them at will without considering where they are and what impact such use may have on those around them, but they need to be turned off or silenced and left untouched once the house lights dim.  You thought of a witty response to something related to the movie or from earlier in the day?  Great.  It can wait.  You're expecting a call or need to be in constant communication via your brightly-lit device?  Maybe VOD is the right choice for you. The device is available to you throughout the rest of the day where you may use it as often as you'd like.  For those few hours where you're sitting with fellow moviegoers in the dark, however, please give it a rest.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

As someone who's always been annoyed at seeing cell phones during a movie, I'm kind of stuck as to what there is to be done in public screenings. Press screenings luckily tend to have security walking around, but even that's inconsistent. I think it's fine to have your phone out before the show begins and even once the credits roll, but once things get underway, it should be just common curtesy not to screw up the experience for your fellow man. Theaters have gone downhill a lot in the past decade or so, but the idea that a phone can't go in someone's pocket for 90-120 minutes while watching something they went out of their way to see suggests a deeper problem than the theaters themselves. Sadly, this might be a losing battle, though it's an island potentially worthy of dying on...

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames a Second, Periodical

I'm not really sure there is a solution to the problem of brightly lit micro-screens in the hands of selfish movie-goers. Perhaps one might dream that Google Glass is a success, and will lead to a world in which a personal screen becomes something embedded in the viewer's own eye, as opposed to the theoretically archaic slab of illuminated plastic that we currently carry around with our bare hands. As a front-row dweller I actually manage to avoid any eye line distractions, leaving me instead free to ponder other issues of poor etiquette, with such legends of the multiplex as the loud-eaters, the shout-whisperers and the feet-on-seat-ers the figures most likely to feel my wrath.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

The use of any electronic devices during a screening is beyond rudeness and disrespect. Without a sense of shame from those committing the act, it won't stop. Anyone using them during press screenings should be barred from attending future screenings by the representatives involved with the invitations.

"The World's End."

Q: What is the best movie currently in theaters?

A: The World's End

Other movies receiving multiple votes: The Spectacular NowShort Term 12Blue Jasmine

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14 Comments

  • SA | September 19, 2013 7:35 PMReply

    1- Completely turn your body and stare at them or their screen
    2- Spray Evian water their way
    3- Shine your own phone's flashlight on them
    4- Video record them and put on YouTube

  • Max Cady | September 19, 2013 7:15 PMReply

    Haw Haw Haw! This article could easily be titled "Who Are The Biggest Nerds In Film Criticism Today?" and you wouldn't have to change a word after.

  • Paul G. | September 16, 2013 5:04 PMReply

    It would be great if Sam could respond to some of these here instead of subtweeting. Yes, people can step out of the theater to reply to a text, but is it better to get out of your seat, leave the row, annoying everyone that has to shift their legs to accomodate you, just to have to do it all over again on the way back to your seat two minutes later? Better to just sit there and fire off the text, as long as you're not leaving the phone on too long.

    I think the best solution is to hide the glare as much as possible, like leave the phone under a jacket or in your bag.

  • Sam Adams | September 16, 2013 9:15 PM

    The point isn't really that I have the answers -- that's why I asked the question. But no, I would say you should not be getting out of your seat, sending a text, and getting back in your seat on a regular basis. Either the text is important enough that you have to step out of the movie to deal with it, or it can wait until the movie's over.

  • TC Kirkham | September 16, 2013 4:28 PMReply

    Here is my cellphone horror story, and one of the reasons why we advocate against use of them in a theater on Subject:CINEMA and PopcornNRoses...it wasn't the first, won't be the last, and hopefully will NEVER be this obnoxious again...

    Last fall, I went to two different films on successive days that were more juvenile or family oriented - the animated film Wreck-it Ralph and the Nickleodeon horror Fun Size (which I wouldn't have bothered with were it not for the presence of Thomas Mann, who is one of my favorite young actors at the moment). During the former, it was opening night, the house was packed, and one woman and her daughter came in during the opening credits and sat WAY down front, in the section right under the screen. And while her daughter sat quietly and watched the movie, the woman sat next to her and was on her cell phone the ENTIRE FILM. It didn't go off ONCE. Two or three times people halfheartedly called "Turn Your Cell Phone Off!' but it didn't work. She didn't stop using it until the credits started to roll.

    The next day, during Fun Size, I went to a matinee, it had been out a week or so, and my wife/Subject:CINEMA co-host wasn't with me. There were about 50 other people in the theater with me, and because Kim wasn't there, I sat at the top of the theatre, something I rarely do, just to have some privacy. Can you imagine my surprise and consternation when THIS SAME WOMAN and her daughter walked in, climbed up to the middle of the theater where they had about 30 people near them, and once again, while her daughter sat still and paid attention to the movie, she was on her cell phone THE ENTIRE TIME.

    I'm obviously too much of a namby-pamby to do anything about it and apparently so was everyone else except for the occasional piece of popcorn thrown her way by a group of girls who were sitting between us (and they chattered throughout the movie, which is just as annoying, BTW) and so of course I suffered in silence. But honestly...you can't go without a phone for two hours? I'm definitely in the "Jamming" group and always will be - jam the phone, jam the texts, and maybe people will finally get the message.

    And by the way, I am not totally against the idea of cell-friendly screenings (hey, they do baby friendly screenings now, and those seem to work...for the most part, but that's another horror story in itself), but if they exist, then the theater better make damn clear to people that anyone who is NOT at one of these types of screenings using a cellphone gets their ass ejected pronto...

    Just my two cents...

  • Edwin Karat | September 16, 2013 1:53 PMReply

    In all seriousness, it never occurred to me before that anyone could ever possibly find screen glare to be distracting. It's simply not the sort of thing that I would ever notice, let alone let bother me, nor have I heard anyone complain about it before.

    Then again, I haven't been to a public movie theatre in many years -- certainly before smartphones became common. I watch my movies at home, either alone with my laptop or while commenting along with friends (and plan to be watching a movie with rifftrax tonight). I watch with subtitles on and the lights on too, both by preference.

    However, when I did go to the theatre in the distant past, even I turned off my cellphone once the film started projecting -- not because it would bother me, but I knew the sound bothered other people who did not share my preferences. I have a right to watch movies the way I want at home, but when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

  • Miles Maker | September 16, 2013 10:26 AMReply

    This whole idea of blocking cell phone reception blows me away--like none of you have children or elderly parents or any care in the world so you can disconnect yourself from all communication for a movie that probably isn't even worth it. This is why attendance is down. Jamming phone signals means a lot less ticket sales. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but movies in theaters just aren't that special anymore. RIP 1980's.

    2nd screen activity isn't relegated to viewing at home--it's a societal evolution; a change in the way people view things--period. So I suggest you STOP fighting it and start facilitating it. Kiosks in special seats with non-glare screens--include social integration so people can tweet and post about the film they're watching. Maybe there's ads there too and incentives for social promotion of the venue and flick. How about allowing people in the theater to setup a temp profile and chat with other people in the same movie showing?

    What I'm saying here is people NEED there phones. It's essential, it's cultural and it's normal and anyone who doesn't shouldn't consider themselves representations of the norm. Accept it, embrace it and use it to your advantage vs. sounding like the fossils your are and trying to preserve some sacred experience most people simply don't hold at such high esteem.

  • JRB | September 21, 2013 1:52 PM

    No one NEEDS a cellphone.

    No one.

  • Miles Maker | September 21, 2013 1:10 AM

    Per Forbes:

    Americans to the question “In which of the following places, if any, have you ever used your smartphone?”

    9% during sex
    55% while driving (the survey didn’t separate texting from talking)
    35% in a movie theater
    33% during a dinner date
    32% at a child’s school function
    19% in church or a place of worship
    12% while in the shower

    Get used to it, or die trying.

  • Ryan | September 17, 2013 12:34 PM

    People had children and elderly parents and important jobs before cell phones were invented, and still managed to go to movies without distracting everyone else. If your personal situation is so precarious that you can't go 2 hours without fear of missing a life-or-death message, you probably shouldn't be wasting time in a movie in the first place.

  • Colin Biggs | September 16, 2013 2:59 PM

    If you need the phone that badly, don't go to the theatre. Wait for a home release.

  • Ada | September 16, 2013 11:08 AM

    "This is why attendance is down"

    But it's not tho. Attendance's in 2012 were up on 2011 (1.36 billion vs. 1.28).

    Research darling, research.

  • James Berclaz-Lewis | September 16, 2013 10:58 AM

    And yet people won't text and chat on the phone in a church, or a gallery, or a play. Lucky for them they don't have to build booths for people to chat about how the live actors are doing in front of them. There's a difference between confusing incorporation of the screen INSIDE daily life (Television) and incorporating daily life into the screen location (= the cinema). Simple as.

    If I have to see #thebutler followed by 'come discuss what you're watching RIGHT NOW' on the screen, then THAT is the day the film theater dies, not the other way round. Simply because that is the day it loses its particularity.

  • Coty Jarrett | September 16, 2013 10:03 AMReply

    Theatre owners are tending a bunch of dinosaurs, and eventually, they'll be just as extinct if this problem is not solved. They choose not to solve the problem, which is accomplished simply by blocking cell reception and removing people who talk. Without this, the answer, sadly, is a hi-definition TV set and a Blu-Ray player. You wait a few weeks after release, buy the DVD for ten bucks (less than the theatre), relax and enjoy your movie in peace and silence.

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