The Dumb Discussion Over Texting In Movie Theaters

Wednesday, May 2 by
You son of a bitch.  

Last Wednesday, the movie theater industry assembled its board of elders, including Regal Entertainment CEO Amy Miles, IMAX CEO Greg Foster, and Tim League, the CEO of Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse. In a panel, in front of a crowd, the three discussed what could be done to court the oh-so-powerful teenage market.

When asked what teenagers love to do, these non-teenagers replied “texting!” Amy Miles claimed that teenagers are a powerful constituency with all their Twilights and Harry’s Potter, and The Hungry Games and whatnot, but that they may be souring on the movie-going experience because they aren’t allowed to use their cell phones to text or sext or draw something while the movie plays.

Miles suggested allowing texting in films that are aimed at teenagers, which as best I can tell, means about 91% of the movies that are out there today. Then the teenagers will be happy and the studio system won’t collapse into itself the same way the music industry did. If only the music industry had allowed texting while listening to albums, all this could have been avoided. A tragic lesson learned.

Since when do teenagers tell us what to do? We are adults. We tell teenagers what to do. I understand that theater receipts are down by and large, and that teenagers are attending films less frequently than they used to, but I really enjoy hearing these theater owners try to blame something besides the fact that they kept jacking up ticket prices for regular and 3D movies until no one anywhere had any desire to see a film.

In candor, this sounds like a terribly short-sighted way to address the problem of waning theater attendance. Unlike live concerts and sporting events, where texting and camera phones snaps are de rigueur, movie theaters are pretty solemn locales. There’s no talking and nothing in the way of distractions. There aren’t ancillary laser shows, jumbotrons, nor cheering crowds. Rather than going to theaters to feel like they’re part of something, theater patrons go to lose themselves in the movie and forget that they exist for a couple hours. That’s hard to do when the dark room is peppered with tiny flashing screens and muffled taps of people reconnecting with the outside world.

Sure it’s arbitrary, and stupid teenagers today seem to never ever want to cut the cord to their circle of friends, but they inherited a theater system from us. They don’t tell us what to do. We tell them what to do. Because they have to. At the risk of sounding a little parental here, there’s nothing wrong with setting up boundaries. Kids manage to survive airplane flights without texting, and they even continue to fly in spite of being incommunicado.

Granted most adults weren’t raised suckling the teat that is wireless connectivity, but it’s my hunch that keeping theaters sacred will have minimal effect over the near term and will actually behoove theater owners in the long term. While Amy Miles and IMAX’s Greg Foster were talking about a sea change, Alamo’s Tim League carried on with his very public “fuck texting” stance, saying:

“Over my dead body will I introduce texting into the movie theater. I love the idea of playing around with a new concept. But that is the scourge of our industry… It’s our job to understand that this is a sacred space and we have to teach manners.”

While I don’t believe that it’s the theater owners’ job to teach manners, I understand what League is saying. Movie theaters have become a sacred place in the fabric of America, and just because a generation of kids doesn’t like to be away from their cell phones, we shouldn’t completely change the nature of the place.

Miles has said she’s considered “testing these concepts” (allowing dumb teenagers to text) at screenings of teen-friendly movies. She then cited 21 Jump Street as an example, which is odd, because it’s rated R, meaning that relatively few teenagers would actually be there. Unless they snuck in, in which case, we’ve got a whole other set of problems on our hand.

The problem with this idea is that arbitrarily deeming on film to be text friendly and another to not be is just confusing to both teens and non-teens. Would it be listed online whether or not I’m going to be annoyed. Would I start texting if I was in Twilight: Breaking Dawn and bored off my ass? Probably. I would probably text anyone and everyone I could to avoid the film.

It’s not too big a leap to expect people to start bringing in iPads to movies, if they’re not doing it already. I’ve already had to berate several people at concerts for holding up those godforsaken tablets to record the concert, blocking everyone’s view. I’m sure that the bright, giant display wouldn’t enhance my viewing experience during Toy Story 6, either.

I’m no Luddite when it comes to new technology, but I just don’t see the upside to allowing texting in theaters on any level. Teenagers love their phones. That’s terrific. There are going to be places in the world that don’t allow them. Funerals, churches, some restaurants. They can learn to deal. Sure, it might cause these theater owners with teenage kids some heartburn, but my guess is that everything will work out okay in the end, but a stance must be taken. If theater owners are indifferent or lax in their application of this policy, then some kids will get turned off from movies on principle, while others continue to text, ruining the experience for everyone in attendance.

Which is why I say use that nifty cell-phone blocking technology in theaters. No one texts, ever, and if anyone has a problem with that, they can wait to see the movie until it’s available on a torrent site. No. Wait. I meant “on a legitimate OnDemand service or Netflix.”

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