Frustrated moviegoers here may soon have a new weapon against the distracting ring of cell phones at the theater: the law.
If enacted, a proposal before the Board of Supervisors would impose a $100 fine for the audible use of a mobile phone -- or even allowing a phone or electronic pager to ring -- during public performances, including movies, concerts and live theater. Repeat offenders could be docked as much as $500.
A similar ban, which carries a $50 fine, is to take effect in New York City in April. The New York ordinance was passed over the veto of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who argued that the legislation would be unenforceable.
San Francisco lawmakers who favor the ban concede that enforcement may be a problem, but they argue that the law would empower theater owners and patrons to shush chattering patrons.
"We're not expecting this to be a really enforceable law with officers writing tickets, but at the very least, it's a reminder to folks to have their phones or ringers turned off before the show starts," said San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly, a co-sponsor of the bill.
"I think probably every time I've been to the movies over the last two years, someone's cell phone has gone off. On one occasion, the person in front of me felt it was OK to hold a several-minute conversation," Daly said.
"Instead of having to ask someone to please turn your cell phone off, people will be able to say, 'Look, that's against the law.' "
The law would not apply at sporting events and would permit calls at any venue in an emergency.
Additionally, receiving calls in a "vibrate" or silent mode would be acceptable, as long as the recipient didn't start chatting away once the call came in. Text messaging and retrieving voice-mail messages would also be permitted.
Although the ban would apply to performances at a range of venues, including libraries and museums, Daly said it's the movies that seem to be hardest hit by annoying cell phone users.
Bob Cable, a spokesman for the San Francisco Opera, said he believes opera patrons are generally better behaved than moviegoers, perhaps because of the higher ticket prices.
"There's always an occasional ring here and there, but I think it's less of an issue at the opera," he said.
"It's a much more formal atmosphere. I think most people would probably be embarrassed, if not mortified, to have their phone ring during the opera."
Movie patrons at the San Francisco Metreon theater complex downtown expressed mixed opinions about the proposed legislation.
"I think having a law is too much. Common courtesy is effective enough," said Eugene Sanchez, 22, of Rio Vista, who said he makes sure to keep his phone on vibrate mode while he's at the movies.
"I think parents who have kids at home should be able to get calls, for example. It's irritating when the phones go off, but it's livable."
But San Franciscan Brian Mungessen, 20, who was checking his messages while he waited in line for movie tickets, said he would favor such a law.
"I think it's a good idea," he said. "Then again, even if the phones are illegal, you've got people getting up to go to the bathroom and talking to each other. There's always interruptions."
In New York, lawmakers overrode the mayor's veto last month to enact legislation that served as a model for the San Francisco proposal.
"The problem that we have here is there's 8 million people here. You can't even think. People are just interrupting life," said Lupe Todd, a spokeswoman for City Councilman Philip Reed, primary sponsor of the New York ban.
"People are paying a fortune to see Broadway shows, and they're being interrupted," said Todd. "When you've paid $200 -- and that's the bare-bones minimum it costs to go see 'The Producers' -- you want to know you're not going to have to listen to some guy" chatting away.
The San Francisco proposal is awaiting a hearing before the Board of Supervisors' City Services Committee.