Phones Coming to a Theater Near You?

May 23, 2013
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Antenna Post Photo

Last week, Kevin Williamson, a columnist for National Review, had a new experience: He was thrown out of a theater – probably with more delicacy and ceremony than when he threw another patron’s phone across the room. According to Williamson, a young woman had already ignored requests from Williamson’s date and the management to refrain from using her phone during the performance. Having had enough after his own request was curtly refused, he “deftly snatch[ed] the phone out of her hand and toss[ed] it across the room, where it would do no more damage.” On goes the war against cell phone use in theaters…

Though unfamiliar with the battles being fought for the spectatorial soul of live theatre, I am acquainted with analogous debates and calls to arms over movie theater etiquette. One of the most visible defenders of cinemagoing decorum has been Tim League, co-founder and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. During a panel at the 2012 CinemaCon, for example, influential figures like Regal Entertainment Group CEO Amy Miles and IMAX President Greg Foster expressed tentative interest in the possibility of loosening bans on cell phone use during select screenings as a concession to youth viewers. League responded that ceding ground was the wrong approach. “It’s our job to understand that this is a sacred space and we have to teach manners.” Such rhetoric, which elevates theatrical exhibition beyond its commodity status and into the realm of the sublime or spiritual, is quite common. Like churches, cathedrals, temples, and so forth, movie theaters function as spaces of congregation for collective activity. Prohibitions against cell phone use concern the maintenance of that collectivity – i.e., the teaching of manners – a hard-won prize if the variety of “No Texting / No TalkingPSAs is any indication.

One must ask, though, if common assumptions about audience collectivity are synonymous with the most basic intentions behind these trailers. Consider this commentary from the movie news and review website Screen Rant:

“Theatergoing is a communal experience that, in its purest form, is made better by the other people who share in the experience. We laugh more during a comedy film, surrounded by other people who are similarly entertained, than we would alone in our apartment. We knowingly enter into this social contract when attending public screenings – expecting that sharing in the experience with other people is worth any inconvenience we might face as a result of ignoring our phones for two hours.”

Judging by the expectations of cinemagoing evident in this excerpt and elsewhere, it would be easy to assume that the crimes of inconsiderate audience members amount to an unwillingness to participate in the affective community created by common attentiveness to a movie. Such jeremiads regularly decry the apparent inability of mobile users to disconnect from the outside world and embrace immersion, in which case these reprimands double as laments: “If you’d only put away your phone, you’d experience what I/we experience.” In fact, though, what these arguments denounce is interference. The glow of miniature screens and the beeps of incoming text messages are not, in and of themselves, problematic; rather, it is their ability to render others’ affective and intellectual experiences discontinuous that causes concern. The social contract supposedly implicit in attending a theatrical screening does not require that we contribute to others’ viewing experiences; it asks that we not detract from them.

The photo leading this post, then, strikes me as an inaccurate representation of the problem at hand for exhibitors and patrons, though I have seen it accompany several blogs and articles about the place of phones in theaters. What it depicts are not viewers frustrated with other patrons’ thoughtless behavior; rather, we see twelve audience members blissfully immersed in their own business, ignorant of both the movie screen and those around them. With one or two adjustments, it sketches the basic goal of “No Texting / No Talking” PSAs: a situation in which viewers do not interfere with the attentiveness of others (ideally, to the film).

Tim League’s CinemaCon comments – especially the line, “Over my dead body will I introduce texting into the movie theater” – thus seem short-sighted. To reiterate, the problem with personal devices is not their presence, as League and others suggest, but their lack of integration into the viewing experience. When these technologies contribute to spectatorial practices – as is the case with HeckleVision – perhaps calls for the eviction of phones from theaters will quiet, at least under some circumstances. Already, the mainstream exhibition industry is looking for ways to incorporate personal devices into the practices of cinemagoing. Apps like MoviePal, Movie Night Out, and RunPee help smartphone users plan their trips to the theater. Cinemark’s branded app, featuring CineMode, and Sprint’s “Dream” campaign use coupons and personalized videos, respectively, to reward smartphone owners for not using their devices during shows. In each of these cases, though, viewing itself remains a personal, analog activity. In 2010, Best Buy’s Movie Mode app took tentative steps toward assimilating mobile devices into spectatorial practice with its Minionator function, which translated the gibberish spoken by Gru’s Minions during the end credits. The most ambitious experiment to date, however, seems to be App (2013), a Dutch thriller designed to utilize smartphones as second screens. At select moments during the film, an associated app notifies theatergoers of additional, narratively salient content accessible through their phones.

Whether cinema storytellers will pursue experiments like these in the future remains to be seen, and it is still less clear that such integration can become standard of the theater experience. However, both App and Despicable Me point to a basic, easily overlooked facet of theatrical exhibition: rather than pre-existing as an abstract set of rules – a social contract signed with the purchase of a ticket – the practices of cinema spectatorship are enacted anew by each congregated audience. As new conditions arise and standardize, both audiences and the industry adapt in kind. Moreover, these adaptations not only represent new possibilities of practice, they reflect new and legitimate, if contentious, expectations of practice.


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8 Responses to “ Phones Coming to a Theater Near You? ”

  1. Dan Hassoun on May 23, 2013 at 3:39 PM

    Great post about an aspect of cinemagoing that hasn’t received its due of scholarly attention. Two quick thoughts:

    1) We seem to judge the success or failure of second screen experiments like Minionator by how successfully they sync to cues from the auditorium screen. Even if users are toggling their focus between the film screen and their phones, the primacy of the former is not directly challenged. Almost all of the industry buzz about second screen use in theaters revolves around this assumption/hope — that the extra devices sustain, rather than detract, the viewer from the display at the front.

    I wonder if theater owners will ever reach a point of embracing laissez-faire phone policies, and with them, the possibility that patrons may focus more on their personal screens than on the film screen.

    2) These developments in cinema spectatorship closely mirror “connected viewing” initiatives arising around television viewing (e.g. interactive apps, second screen platforms, social networking tools). The interesting difference, I think, is that television has long been seen as a site for distracted audience activity, while (at least in the last several decades) theaters are framed as sites for attentive and “polite” modes of viewing. This is probably in part due to the “public” nature of cinemagoing, as you mention. But I also wonder how the rise of second screens is shifting or combining the industry’s different modes of address to theatergoers and TV viewers.

    • Leo on May 25, 2013 at 1:25 AM

      Thanks for the comments, Dan. In reverse order:

      I’m relatively unfamiliar with “connected viewing” except for being aware of its existence, but based on what I do know I’m as interested as you to see if/where each industry’s justification for its incorporation crosses over with justifications proposed by the other industry.

      To your first thought, I’d add that while the mainstream industry seems interested (for the moment) in figuring out how to incorporate mobile technology into its established business model (sell the movie at the movie theater, or just the movie theater), the devices present new means of creating/guiding the “event” experience, too. Things like HeckleVision strike me less as supportive of the big screen than of the audience itself. That is, one pays to have a good time with people, for which one needs this device/app, rather than paying to see a movie, whether or not others are in attendance.

  2. Derek Kompare on May 23, 2013 at 3:43 PM

    Thoughtful exploration of the entire conceptual space of being a “spectator” or part of an “audience” in a public setting. For the record, I’m pretty firmly with Tim League in general, i.e., that for now at least, the public motion picture screening space should default to “no devices.” While I understand your point that “the practices of cinema spectatorship are enacted anew by each congregated audience,” I think you might underestimate the significance of decades of social practice in cinema spaces. That is to say: just as we don’t come into the cinema as blank receptacles for texts to fill, we don’t come in as blank receptacles ready to negotiate new viewing practices. Call it habit, tradition, or in some spaces, actual rules: there are certain things that are socially unacceptable in some spaces.

    Granted, this already varies wildly. I’ve long heard stories of Russian cinemas being awash in talking, based on decades of Soviet-era social practice, while someone just the other day mentioned how taking out your phone in Ireland gets you beaned on the head with an usher’s flashlight. These “congregated audiences” aren’t abstract concepts but rather social participatory groups generally adhering to prevailing practices (whatever those might be). I think the resentment of phones (similar to, for that matter, laptops and tablets in college classrooms) comes more from this social space than any puritianical code of “sacred spaces.” There are no such things. There are only spaces with histories of people using them in particular ways. Listen to last week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour for a great discussion of various audience practices.

    As widely seen, these ways can and do change. I’ve no doubt that cinema chains’ bans on phones will weaken over the next several years to the point that phone-free spaces are going to be marginal by the 2020s, and that more will be done at textual and institutional levels to integrate devices and screenings. I agree wholeheartedly with your last sentence, and frankly, if our still too-often text-centered media studies can’t accept these changes, they’re not really media studies after all.

    • Leo on May 23, 2013 at 9:20 PM

      Thanks for the positive response, Derek. I absolutely agree with your point in the first paragraph; audience members definitely walk into a screening situation with certain expectations and assumptions in mind, these being the result of past experience, industry encouragement through PSAs and the like, ideas about politeness in public spaces, and so forth. Figuring out how those standards developed is one of my primary interests, though there wasn’t space to address that phenomenon more fully here, so thank you for bringing up the issue.

      By emphasizing the “enacted” nature of group viewing (and individual viewing, I suppose), I’m also hoping to bring out what may be an easily overlooked relationship between now standard practices and alternatives to them. Both are enacted, though one has the benefit of being expected. Two summers ago, two friends and I went to a midnight showing of KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE. As soon as the credits started rolling, so did our commentary. For about the first 10 minutes of the movie, though, we were the only ones making wisecracks, so it wasn’t exactly clear that anyone else in the audience was enjoying our interruptions. Then (finally!), someone several rows back made a joke, and suddenly what we were doing seemed to become acceptable. My sense, then, is that default behaviors — encouraged or mandated — also need to be thought of as enacted. Foregrounding that idea opens the door to asking how and why various audience practices (the standard ones AND the standardized variations/deviations) (1) came into being and (2) were standardized and diffused.

      Thank you, as well, for the PCHH recommendation and link. I’ll definitely give it a listen after I’ve submitted grades.

      • Derek Kompare on May 24, 2013 at 9:08 AM

        This is a fascinating area of research, and also leads into all sorts of media consumption: what are the “standard” or “proper” ways to watch TV, read books, play games, etc.? How did they come to be? How do they change?

        Eating is an interesting one that’s both allowed (and encouraged by theater owners), but only within certain parameters. Those parameters have widened from only popcorn, Coke, and/or Milk Duds, with some theaters (e.g, Studio Movie Grill, Alamo Drafthouse) providing full meals and alcohol. Still, one “sneaks” external food into the theater.

  3. Eric Dienstfrey on May 23, 2013 at 5:00 PM

    Derek, I am too young to remember when cigarettes were allowed in cinemas, but wouldn’t smoking have been just as distracting to filmgoers, especially all the flashes of light as people were lighting up? I’m not necessarily challenging your “decades of social practice” line, just suggesting that these new cell phone uses seem to be continuations of long-held, significant counter-opinions when it comes to the proper way to watch movies in public. Just a thought.

    • Derek Kompare on May 24, 2013 at 8:59 AM

      I’m just old enough to remember cigarettes in theaters. While I can’t remember the flashes of light, I do remember the smell of the smoke, which was pervasive in all public buildings through the 1970s and into the 1980s. In that case, the change in practices wasn’t related as much to an idealized construction of film spectatorship as much as broader, rising concerns about secondhand smoke and public health (as well as fire hazards). Still, people had to be taught and reminded, as this great John Waters PSA did in the early 1980s.

      We’re not only talking cigarettes and cell phones of course. Food (and their containers), having sex, talking between patrons, talking to characters on the screen, MSTing, entertaining small children, playing handheld games, going in elaborate costumes, etc. etc. etc. There’s always been practices that may (or may not) be construed as “improper” ways to watch movies in public.

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