Texting in movie theaters: An idea whose time has come?

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When it comes to people texting in movie theaters, I’m not just a crank. I’m a vigilante. When a couple of young women sitting near me starting texting at a screening the other night, sending bright shafts of light from their phones into my eyeline, I growled, “Hey, cut it out or I’m gonna throw your phones away.”

My 13-year-old son has heard so many anti-texting sermons that when I was recently touting Clint Eastwood’s performance as a take-the-law-in-his-own-hands cop in “Dirty Harry,” hoping he’d want to watch the film, my kid immediately asked, “Does he shoot people for texting in movie theaters too?”


So I wasn’t exactly a disinterested observer when I read about a panel at last week’s CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas that was highlighted by a noisy debate over, yes, texting in movie theaters. Several prominent industry figures seemed to endorse the idea that, at a time when teenagers are going to the movies less and less, it might be time to relax our prohibitions against texting in theaters.

Regal Entertainment chief Amy Miles, who oversees the nation’s largest theater chain, said that while her company discourages cell phone use, executives had talked about being more flexible in auditoriums showing youth-oriented films. “You’re trying to figure out of there’s something you can offer in the theater that I would not find appealing but my 18-year-old son might,” she said.

IMAX Filmed Entertainment chief Greg Foster also seemed to endorse a relaxation of standards. He noted that his 17-year-old son “constantly has his phone with him,” adding that “we want [youths] to pay $12 to $14 to come into an auditorium and watch a movie. But they’ve become accustomed to controlling their existence.” A cell phone ban might make them “feel a little handcuffed.”

Tim League, head of the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse theater chain and a militant opponent of cell phone use in its theaters, did not take this lying down. League said movie theaters were a “sacred place” that should be free of distractions, saying that texting would be introduced in his theaters “over my dead body.”

The response in the blogosphere was equally blunt. Dripping with sarcasm, Jonah Gardner at Filmology said that when it came to allowing texting: “Why stop there? Encourage people to come to the movies to make important phone calls. Have them bring their laptops and do some work. Invite businesses to hold meetings during Saturday night screenings of ‘The Hunger Games.’”

Before I launched into a full-on anti-texting rant, I decided to hear what Miles and Foster had to say firsthand. I was in for a big surprise. Contending that their remarks had been misconstrued, they said, ahem, they weren’t really in favor of texting at all.


Miles was very clear. “Customer etiquette is a big deal with us,” she told me. “We strongly discourage any cell phone usage in our theaters. So we weren’t trying to convey to the world that we had a new policy on texting—we do not.”

Miles acknowledged that theater officials had discussed trying ways to create a more interactive environment in certain auditoriums, but both operational and piracy concerns had stopped the chain from pursuing any texting experiments. “Even if kids’ habits are different, we’re never going to bring that generational issue into our theaters.”

Foster was just as insistent. “There is no way we would ever allow texting at IMAX theaters. We are the last bastion of showmanship for filmmakers who make great works of art and we would never encourage anything that interferes with the audience being allowed to enjoy the immersiveness of that experience. Our patrons pay a premium ticket price and they expect a premium cinema experience.”

I wish I could say that these no-wiggle-room clarifications mark the end of the texting-in-theaters squabble. But it’s just the end of the beginning. When I did an informal survey of my adult movie-going friends, they were just as aggravated as myself, happily volunteering stories about how they’d snapped at younger patrons who were texting in the middle of a movie.

But history proves Americans almost never resist technological change. Robots replaced factory workers. Napster and file-sharing decimated the recording industry. Newspapers are now being delivered on e-readers. There’s no easy way to fight consumers’ desire for convenience and access to information.

As my colleague Richard Verrier reported recently, consumers are using app-equipped cellphones to find nearby theaters, share their moviegoing plans with friends, skip box-office lines and store trailers for future viewing. One service, Run Pee, even tells you the best time during a movie to take a bathroom break. Most exhibitors have encouraged these technological aids, figuring they could lead to more frequent moviegoing among tech-savvy customers.


But having tethered moviegoers even more tightly to their cell phones, will exhibitors really continue to draw the line when these same customers nestle into their seats and the lights go out? I doubt it. Having already adopted new policies allowing, for example, reserved seating and alcohol imbibing, it’s hard to imagine that exhibitors won’t try similar experiments allowing cell phone usage in certain auditoriums.

Maybe it won’t be the worst thing to happen to western civilization since baseball adopted the designated hitter rule. The veteran screenwriter Howard Rodman, who’s also vice president of the Writers Guild West, remembers sitting with his mother as a boy in a glass-enclosed section of a theater in Brooklyn known as the crying room. “It enabled us both to see movies we wouldn’t have otherwise seen, since she couldn’t afford a babysitter,” he recalls. On the other hand, he remembers being unnerved seeing “300” with his teenage son, surrounded by other teens texting throughout the film. “I’d like to hold back the tide,” he says. “But everything is changing about movies, including what it means to go to the movies.”

It might be intriguing if the kids were texting each other probing analyses of the cinematography or production design. But judging from the teens I know, that’s hardly the case; the texts are usually idle chatter, extensions of conversations that began at school or on the baseball field. And no matter how thoughtful the comments might possibly be, I’m still being blinded by the light of their phones.

I remain a purist. The whole idea of going to the movies is about leaving all your other baggage behind. It’s why we call it escapist entertainment. If you’re checking your text messages, you’re missing out on the feeling of awe and exhilaration you can only get in a darkened theater. Film is a communal experience. The only screen you should be watching is the big one in the front of the theater, not the tiny one in your lap. One screen might tell you where your pals are going to dinner. The other one can make you laugh, weep and shriek with delight. Which one should you really be paying attention to?


Gavin Polone: Producer turned media provocateur


Will Hollywood ever top its Cinema Class of 1982?

— Patrick Goldstein

Follow me on Twitter @patrickbigpix.