Should we relax our stance about texting in cinemas?
When it comes to people texting in movie theatres, I'm not just a crank. I'm a vigilante.
When a couple of young women sitting near me started texting at a screening the other night, sending bright shafts of light from their phones into my eye line, 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 theatres 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 theatres. 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 theatres.
Regal Entertainment chief Amy Miles, who oversees the largest theatres chain in the US, said that while her company discourages mobile phone use, executives have talked about being more flexible in cinemas showing youth-oriented films.
"You're trying to figure out if there's something you can offer in the theatre 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 ban on mobile phones might make them "feel a little handcuffed."
Tim League, head of the Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse theatre chain and a militant opponent of mobile phone use in its cinemas, did not take this lying down.
League said cinemas were a "sacred place" that should be free of distractions, adding that texting would be introduced in his theatres "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 cellphone usage in our theatres. So we weren't trying to convey to the world that we had a new policy on texting - we do not."
Miles acknowledged that theatre 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 theatres," she said.
Foster was just as insistent. "There is no way we would ever allow texting at Imax theatres. 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-theatres squabble. But it's just the end of the beginning. When I did an informal survey of my adult moviegoing friends, they were just as aggravated as me, 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 Richard Verrier reported recently, consumers are using app-equipped phones to find nearby cinemas, share 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 the tech-savvy.
But having tethered moviegoers even more tightly to their mobile phones, will exhibitors really continue to draw the line when these customers nestle into their seats and the lights go out? I doubt it. Having already adopted policies allowing, for example, reserved seating and alcohol imbibing, it's hard to imagine that exhibitors won't try similar experiments allowing mobile 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 of America, West, remembers sitting with his mother as a boy in a glass-enclosed section of a theatre 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 baby-sitter," 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 get only in a darkened cinema. Film is a communal experience. The only screen you should be watching is the big one in the front of the theatre, 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?