Gold Standard: When moviegoers treat theaters like living rooms — texting, talking, even diaper changing happens

The dos and don'ts of movie theater etiquette.
(Illustration by Peter and Maria Hoey / For The Times)

Not long ago, I went to see “Get Out” at my local Long Beach multiplex. Based on the buzz and reviews for Jordan Peele’s unsettling horror film, my anticipation was driving me insane. I could not wait to see this movie!

And that, partly, was my problem. I should have waited — at least a few more hours past the matinee. See, shortly after settling in, a woman arrived carrying a toddler and took a seat a couple of rows in front of me. The little one immediately began to deliver a running stream of commentary about the ads on the screen. I discretely switched seats, creating a buffer zone that I hoped would shield me.

But it was a cozy theater, so, even with some separation, I was getting an earful of jabbering throughout the film. I’m not a psychologist so I won’t speculate on how watching “Get Out” might have affected this child. (When I was a kid, the tomfoolery in “The Apple Dumpling Gang” kept me awake at night. But I digress.)


His most visceral reaction came during the scene where Catherine Keener hypnotizes poor Chris and sends him deep into the Sunken Place. Midway through this unbearably tense scene, the kid announced, “Poo-poo! I go poo-poo!”

The woman did what any responsible caregiver would do. She proceeded to change the toddler’s diaper.

In the theater.

Because that’s what those adjustable armrests are for, right?

Here’s a thought: Instead of luxury recliners, theater chains should install wooden pews. No armrests. No cup holders.

While this was happening (and, no, the woman did not dispose of the diaper until after the movie ended), I thought of a conversation I had recently with “Silicon Valley’s” Kumail Nanjiani, the co-writer and star of the upcoming “The Big Sick,” a terrific romantic-comedy that you should absolutely see (though probably not at a matinee).

Nanjiani asked where I saw his movie. I told him I caught it at the Downtown Independent with three or four other people.

“It was three or four people? In the whole theater?” he asked. “That’s horrifying.”

No, no. That’s beautiful. In fact, when I’m asked what I like most about my job covering movies, I tell them it’s not the premieres or the parties or the chance to see films early.


It’s that I don’t have to see movies with you.

And by “you,” of course, I don’t mean you, dear reader. I’m sure that you are one of those souls floating on an ultralight beam, the milk of human kindness flowing freely through your veins, courteous, gentle, abiding always by the Golden Rule.

You’d never spend an entire movie texting your friends with your phone’s screen set to the brightness of a thousand suns.

You’d never bring in some kind of snack with, what, five dozen individual pieces, each wrapped in cellophane and needing liberation from its crinkly husk, probably during the movie’s quietest moments.

You’d never puzzle through plot points out loud, things that, if you had been paying attention, and not looking at your phone, would have been blatantly obvious.

OK … so I probably mean you. Sorry.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends outside the darkened theater. (Maybe.)

Movie theater chains are constantly innovating, looking for ways to lure people away from the comfort of their homes. Not that long ago, the idea was to promise an experience you couldn’t find in front of your flat-screen TV, i.e., 3-D movies, where, for just a few extra bucks, people could wear clunky glasses to see a darker screen image that added absolutely nothing of value.

Now theaters have reversed course and decided that the best way to sell tickets is to replicate moviegoers’ living rooms. I recently went to the newly renovated AMC multiplex at Citywalk and was surprised when my friend pushed a lever, turning his plush leather seat into a recliner. AMC has installed these seats in more than a third of its 600 theaters nationwide and soon many of them will also come equipped with seat warmers to placate those who find the theater air-conditioning oppressive.


The luxe iPic chain, which has theaters in Westwood and Pasadena, has always offered food service during the movie (don’t get me started) and plans to roll out double chaise seating with built-in tables and storage cabinets allowing moviegoers to stow their (shudder) shoes.

But why stop there? Why not add a coat rack with hangers so people can also remove their pants? Maybe give them the option of changing into a terry cloth robe?

The thing is, by turning theaters into replicas of people’s homes, you are essentially creating an atmosphere where moviegoers are lulled into thinking they can behave as if they are actually relaxing in their own living rooms — talking, texting or, in the case of one woman sitting next to me recently, obsessively brushing their hair throughout the entire movie.

Here’s a thought: Instead of luxury recliners, theater chains should install wooden pews. No armrests. No cup holders. Just seats that demand good posture, which, if I remember correctly, helps improve attentiveness and concentration.

Oh, and maybe equip ushers with wooden rulers so they can take appropriate measures against people who fail to turn off their phones.

Does all this sound a bit too … severe?

Look, I’ve been worshiping in the church of cinema for a long time. And I understand that, for some people, it’s just an evening out, an escape. You show up at the multiplex, you look at the show times and you pick whatever movie fits into your schedule. I don’t understand that thinking, but it does probably explain why Tyler Perry can keep making “Madea” movies.


So it’s entirely possible my humble suggestions won’t take hold.

Where does that leave me?

Right back where I started a few decades ago when I saw my first movie, a revival of Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” a moment for me when the idea firmly took hold that magic can happen when the house lights dim and the curtain opens (yes, junior, they had curtains back then) and you partake in a cinematic communion with a few hundred other people.

It’s a shared experience you can’t have on your phone or in your home. It only happens in a movie theater. And it can still feel miraculous on occasion — provided nobody busts out the diaper bag.

Special Report: Can moviegoing be saved? »

Twitter: @glennwhipp



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