Can’t We All Just Get Along: Texting in Theaters

Nobody knows how to act out emotions like a stock photo model.

Can’t We All Just Get Along is a new segment in which I take a hot button issue in the entertainment world and try my best to see both sides through, and then try even harder to pick a side. 

Let’s face it: the traditional film viewing experience is in trouble. Who wants to pay $15 to be quiet in a dark room with strangers for two plus hours when you could be sitting at home in your underwear sending SnapChats of Instagrams of your cats reenacting the opening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”?

Ever since cell phones became readily available for the masses, it has been difficult to power them down. This has been an especially big problem for movie theaters, an environment that requires absolute silence (besides laughs or screams) and attention. Yet, people take no issue sending out that text or finishing that level of Candy Crush that just can’t wait. People have no problem turning off their phones on an airplane, but I guess the threat of crashing is scarier than the threat of not being able to hear what Brad Pitt just said.
It seems that this whole problem pops in and out of the news every few weeks, but this week there was an especially interesting development. At a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this week, blogger Alex Billington called 911 on a man who was on his phone during a movie, because he was afraid that the man might be pirating the movie. However, no such pirating was happening, as the man was just sending a text message. Now, this story is a little extreme, and the idea of somebody making a citizens arrest in a movie theater is ripe for parody. Come on Alex, couldn’t you have just checked whether he was recording or not?

Yes, these actions were rash. But I’m happy to see that this is still an issue. People have varying opinions on this, but few things can be more distracting during a movie than a bright screen suddenly going off in your face. Even if it isn’t making any noise, the light itself is enough to immediately take you out of the world you’re trying to immerse yourself into. I like to turn off my phone once a movie starts. I’ll even turn it off before the trailers start because even the trailers can be fun to watch. Let me clarify: I do not think I am better than anyone else because I do this. I’ll admit that I will not hesitate to answer a text when watching a movie at home. Likewise, the people who text during movies probably aren’t trying to ruin your viewing experience. We’ve become so spoiled with technology that it’s easy to forget the beauty of the single screen experience.

It seems that no matter how many signs and warnings a theater puts up, it is impossible to enforce the “No Cell Phones” rule. Of the few live theater shows I’ve been to in the past few years on and off Broadway, I’ve never seen a single person turn on their phone during the performance. How often do you even hear about disturbances with phones in live theater? Maybe it’s because at live theater, the entertainment is actually in the flesh right in front of you. Meanwhile, none of the shiny faces on screen are present to judge you when you send a text message.* Ever since the advent of the Nickelodeons, movie theaters have always been an experience made for the largest possible audience. While movie tickets are not cheap today, they’re still much cheaper than a Broadway show. If you’re paying over $100 for a ticket, then why would you want to distract yourself from what you paid for?

Something that we all tend to forget is that keeping your phone on during a movie ruins the true purpose of going to see a movie in theaters: escapism. Every movie, even the most socially aware drama, is a form of escapism. Being at home can be a distraction. A theater should be the perfect setting, a portal, into the world that any given movie is trying to send you into. Once you’re distracted by the outside world, the purpose of being there in the first place completely disappears.

I believe that the way to stop this epidemic (I know, I know, there are real problems in the world) is to transform the movie theater experience. Tapping your neighbor on the shoulder doesn’t help much, and it creates another distraction entirely. Currently, the mainstream movie theater is something of a homogenized place. Growing up in the suburbs, I was used to movie theaters that resembled shopping malls rather than outlets for art and entertainment. These huge, plain places aim to please everyone and like most things that try to please everyone ultimately please nobody. In this regard, the film industry could learn something from TV, which is currently kicking film’s butt in terms of quality.

Nowadays, there seems to be both a TV show and a network for every niche. So, there should also be different types of movie theater experiences to match different people’s wants and desires. Some people have called for separate theaters that allows cell phones and laptops in, so people who want to multitask can bond in distraction. This kind of sounds like a way to turn a movie theater into a living room, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A texting-only theater will allow people who just want to watch the movie to then have their own place, so long as these rules could actually be enforced.

The theater experience should be even more unique and focused in than just this. Midnight screenings allow space for people to actively participate in movies they love. Places like the Alamo Drafthouse flourish because they focus so much on making the moviegoing experience more pleasant, from prohibiting talking and texting to providing beer and food. Everybody is so compartmentalized nowadays, why not allow places where people can enjoy a movie with strangers that want to be in the same compartment as them?

I don’t truly know what the right answer is here. Until my movie theater utopia comes about**, just turn off your phone. That’s all. You’ll be amazed by how good it feels to be in a different world uninterrupted for two hours, a world that doesn’t involve texts from your friend Chuck about the pre-game later tonight.

PS. Just a thought for people who complain about food prices at theaters: you don’t have to buy the food, no matter how tempting the popcorn smells. Do as I was taught to do as a young Jewish child: microwave popcorn before you go into the movie, and then hide the bag in your sister’s purse.

*Then again, this doesn’t stop people from taking out their phones at Comedy Clubs. #FreeMichaelRichards

**Also in this utopian society: dog waiters, ninja congressmen