What texting-crazy filmgoers can learn from live-theatre audiences.
Imagine James Bond and Wolverine ganging up on you for letting your cellphone ring in the theatre. No, it’s not some phone-hater’s fantasy—it really did happen. Back in 2009, Daniel “007” Craig and X-Men star Hugh Jackman were appearing together on Broadway in the drama A Steady Rain when their performance was interrupted by a persistently ringing phone. Annoyed, the two rugged A-listers began needling the offending audience member, sarcastically suggesting that he should answer the call.
If only they could do that in the movies. There are times when I’d love to see Craig step out of the silver screen, Purple Rose of Cairo style, and pick off some talking or texting idiot with Bond’s silencer-fitted pistol. Or, at the very least, it would be sweet to have an imposing star like Liam Neeson turn to the boorish viewer and, in his best “I-will-find-you-and-I-will-kill-you” voice from Taken, threaten to shove their mobile device up a certain orifice.
Ever since their invention, mobiles have been the bane of both live theatre and the cinema. But in the years since the Craig-Jackman scolding, theatre-goers seem to have learned proper phone etiquette. Now, having your cell go off during a play is the worst thing you could possibly do—a shameful faux pas certain to be rewarded with dagger-like stares from the audience and actors, as you fumble desperately to stifle your ring-tone. (Which nine times out of 10 sounds grossly inappropriate under the circumstances. There’s nothing like having the delicate spell of The Glass Menagerie shattered by 50 Cent’s immortal “In Da Club.”) At the movies, however, it’s a different story. Despite regular onscreen reminders to switch off, people not only leave their phones on, they talk on them, send texts, even live tweet the film.
It’s become such an issue that cinema owners have started looking at ways to discourage it. Figuring that incentives might work better than warnings, the U.S. movie-theatre chain Cinemark recently introduced a new feature, CineMode, to its phone app. CineMode monitors your phone during a film screening; if you go the full two hours without using it, you’re rewarded with a digital coupon redeemable for popcorn or candy. In other words, like a parent with a fidgety child, it promises you a treat if you sit still and enjoy the show. “Our number one priority is the comfort of our guests,” said Cinemark vice-president James Meredith.
To some extent, though, the movie industry itself is to blame for this situation. As part of the ongoing effort to combat their chief rival, television, cinemas for years have gone out of their way to make the movie-going experience as casual and comfortable as if you were watching in your living room. It’s no wonder that people now have no compunction about talking loudly during a screening or going back and forth for popcorn, let alone playing with their smart phones.
Live theatre, on the other hand, still has a sense of occasion. There’s a feeling of community and complicity between patrons and the performers onstage. Poor behaviour is a discourtesy not just to the people in the seats around you, but to the ones up on stage as well. The only equivalent situation in the cinema is if you’re attending a festival screening or gala premiere with the actors and director in the audience. Most of the time, though, when you go to a film you feel—and are treated—like a consumer. Multiplexes now look like food courts—cinema chains rely on munchies to turn a profit—while a film has become nothing but another item to be scarfed down along with the oversized, overpriced snacks.
Consequently, people at the movies act like consumers. They’ve paid their money and they’ll damn well do as they please, whether it’s texting their bro in the theatre next door or delivering an obnoxious running commentary. And yet, watching a film with other people is still a big part of the ritual. Most of us may not rank the communal experience at the top of our list of reasons for going to a movie, but it’s part of what makes it special. Who wants to be terrified by a horror film alone, when you can gasp and scream with others? And a good comedy is always funnier when watched with an audience convulsed with laughter.
We should fight the consumer mentality, which is all about self-gratification, and instead think of watching a film as a shared activity. Then maybe we’d be more inclined to show our fellow audience members some respect. The next time you’re at the cinema, imagine yourself and others in the auditorium as participants in the time-honoured rite of movie-going. Maybe even introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you. And while you’re at it, gently remind him or her to turn off the phone.