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Theater Owners Consider Lifting Phone Ban

Theater Owners Consider Lifting Phone Ban

This isn’t strictly a film-criticism-specific news item, but it’s a big enough issue to warrant discussion in this context. At CinemaCon in Las Vegas this week, several movie exhibitors exhibited a willingness to relax their restrictions on cell phone use in their theaters. The kids today, you see, with their iPhones and iPads and IDon’tCareIfIRuinTheMovieForYous, want to be allowed to text and tweet and talk everywhere. Exhibitors worried about the loss of their core audience, are considering caving to their demands. At Movieline, Jen Yamato compiles theater owners’ comments on the subject and adds her own outraged voice to the mix. First, here’s IMAX’s Greg Foster on allowing cell phone use in the movie theater:

“His 17 year old son ‘constantly has his phone with him,’ he says. ‘We want them to pay $12 to $14 to come into an auditorium and watch a movie. But they’ve become accustomed to controlling their own existence.’ Banning cell phone use may make them ‘feel a little handcuffed.’

And here’s Yamato in response:

“To which I say: Handcuff those kids! Teach them some self-control, for goodness sake… The thing is, texting in a movie isn’t just an issue of allowing overstimulated kids needing to be plugged into their apps and social networks and conversations at all times; it’s a far more problematic issue of engagement at the movies… By encouraging texters to engage half-way with a film and allowing their bad behavior to ruin fellow moviegoers’ ability to escape into the magic of the movies, we’d be killing the sanctity of film culture. Audiences will learn not to pay full attention to a film — and if you can’t focus on a film, how are you to appreciate it? Why come back to the movies every week if you care less and less about movies themselves?”

Exactly. Teenagers may be obnoxious, but they’re not stupid. Eventually they’re going to realize they’re wasting $14 to not watch a movie, and they’re going to find some other way to spend their time and money. By that point, though, they’ll have driven away all the considerate customers who just want to enjoy a film in peace. Then who’s left to go to the movies? Permitting texting might boost attendance in the short-term and destroy it in the long-term.

I understand exhibitors’ concerns and I recognize this is a complicated issue. Supposedly, the customer is always right, but in this case, you’ve got two sets of customers and what’s right for one is wrong for the other. So how do you satisfy everyone?  Setting aside special phone-friendly screenings is an option that gets tossed around a lot, but that idea seems fraught with peril. How will you demarcate phone-friendly screenings from phone-not-so-friendly screenings? Will people be able to easily recognize that when they’re looking up showtimes? What happens when someone accidentally buys a ticket for one type of screening when they actually want the other? This system seems likely to generate as many complaints as satisfied customers.

The only thing that exhibitors care about — and with good reason — is money. So the only way people who hate in-theater texting are going to win this war is by voting with their dollars. Someone needs to develop a method for the cell phone averse to financially reward chains that police their customers’ behavior. If theaters do split their screens along cell phone usage lines, and the screens where cell phones are banned make a lot more money than the screens where they’re allowed, that will get people’s attention.

Read more of Jen Yamato’s “Are We Actually Going to Let Industry Heads Advocate Texting in Theaters?”

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