We’ve all had that experience. Sitting down in a theater, and realizing, 30 seconds into the movie, that the person sitting next to you is not going to turn their phone off. They could be texting, tweeting, updating their Facebook status or, worst case scenario, even making a phone call. They may not even be the only ones in the theater. Sometimes, you’ll put up with it for the duration of the movie, quietly seething. Sometimes you’ll ask, politely, and they might even stop. Sometimes they won’t, and things will get aggressive, confrontational even. And it’s possible that it’s not going to be going away.
Last week, eyebrows were raised by a study in The Hollywood Reporter on the way social media users interact with entertainment. Some discoveries stated the obvious — 88% of those polled said they considered social networking a form of entertainment, 72% have posted online about a movie after seeing one. Some were more surprising — only 9% says that comments on social media were their principal reason for seeing a movie, with good old fashioned trailers still accounting for the largest cause of a want-to-see factor. But the biggest headline piece regarded the use of smartphones in movie theaters.
Of the 750 social network users between 13 and 47 polled, 55% of those who confessed to using a phone in a theater admitted to texting during a movie, 27% have gone on Facebook, and 19% had made a phone call. And while 75% of all respondents said that mobile phone use in a theater "would make the experience distracting and less satisfying," in the key 18-34 demographic, a majority were said to believe that using social media during a movie would make the experience better, while just under half said they’d be interested in going to a theater that allowed phone use during a movie.
And while for many who view the cinema as a sacrosanct place of moviegoing worship, the bottom line is that how audiences choose to experience and interact with popular enterainment simply can’t be ignored. One only has to look at Sunday night’s "Mad Men" season premiere to see how things are dramatically changing. Numerous people were live tweeting the show (or updating Facebook) as they watched it, and though there were a small handful of dissenters, for most, this was a routine and expected practice (indeed, for many shows — "Breaking Bad," "Game Of Thrones" — live updates/comments/conversations for new episodes as they air are common practice).
So, are all these young people with their smartphones being overly entitled? Maybe. But the fact is, so were we less than a generation ago. In some regards, the movie industry is facing a similar sea change that their colleagues in the music biz did, when they failed to respond fast enough to when music began flying between fans over the Internet. Their stubborness and refusal to adapt nearly caused the entire industry to collapse and in many ways, it still hasn’t entirely recovered. The movie biz has been doing a bit better, moving into the VOD and digital copy arenas much more quickly, but as a whole, the theater experience is one that is still that falling behind. With home theaters now reasonably affordable and high def streams of movies just a click (or BluRay) away, it’s becoming harder to lure young moviegoers to theaters (particularly when tickets can cost $15-20).
Listen, we’re not advocating texting or cellphone use at the cinema — it still drives us nuts. But, we’re old, and not the customers that are being looked at to sustain multiplex chains in the years to come — it’s the kids. And they set the tone for how movies are experienced, and if they want theaters they can sit in and text and tweet, only a fool would ignore what they’re asking for. Cinema buffs will always have their arthouse altars and options to commune with cinema. We love that too. But multiplexes are entertainment chains, in service of making money, not honoring cinema. They never have been, never will be. They answer to the bottom line first and foremost. Just like screenings for Moms at a lower volume so they can bring their babies or live events like concerts or sporting matches beamed into theaters, allowing texting is another option for multiplex owners to capture a market that is already difficult to snare. We’re not saying it’s the only answer to attract younger moviegoers — overpriced tickets and concessions, 3D surcharges, shoebox size and filthy cinemas, piss poor projection and more are still problems — but social networking is part of the tapestry of how we communicate today, and that does need to be recognized.
We’ve said our piece, but what about you? Are you dying to head to a movie theater where you can text in peace? Now that the texting genie is out of the bottle, is there any way to get it back in again? Are we going to start seeing iPad screens light up next? Weigh in below. —additional reporting by Oli Lyttelton