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The Only Way to Solve Movie Theaters’ Talking and Texting Problem Is to Give In to It

Last weekend, David Edelstein had a bad time at the movies. The venerable New York film critic took to Vulture yesterday to share, in great detail and with palpable frustration, his run-in with a chattering couple at the BAMcinemaFest premiere screening of Mother of George. It didn’t go well! After the shushing, reprimands, and evil eyes of himself and other moviegoers went ignored, Edelstein “just lost it,” but found theater management unable or unwilling to do much of anything about the talkers. And he’s not just venting — he’s asking what we, as moviegoers, are actually supposed to do about those who view the experience as a location for casual conversations and smartphone use. And it’s a question worth considering.

The topic doesn’t get written about in the film press all that often, for a very simple reason: most of us who write about film professionally are lucky enough to see movies in advance, and in optimal circumstances. Depending on the film, we’re invited to view movies in either intimate, cozy screening rooms or at larger venues, rented out for a one-time “all media screening.” As Edelstein and others have mentioned, the industry/media screening world isn’t entirely unblighted by the whispers of others and the light of phone screens — but it’s at least an environment where you’re presumed to be in the company of pros, and public shaming is met with the proper degree of embarrassment.

It’s only when we see films outside of that hermetically sealed bubble that we realize how utterly out of control the chattering-and-tweeting brigade has gotten, and a horrified missive like Edelstein’s follows. But regular moviegoers are fighting this fight all the time; filmmakers are always waxing rhapsodic about the magic of the “moviegoing experience,” but they, too, are seeing films at premieres and private industry screenings. On the occasions when this movie lover’s had to miss a press screening, or wanted to revisit a particularly big-screen-worthy picture with my better half, it’s an alarming cacophony of talking, texting, tweeting, coming, and going. When we saw The Avengers in Times Square (on the second weekend, even), the third act’s on-screen chaos was nearly matched by that in front of it.

As Edelstein says, there’s not much you can do. You can shush or glare, but you’ll get ignored or taunted. Ushers (do such a thing even exist anymore?) and other theater employees might wander in, but that’s about all you’ll get out of them. And the less considerate moviegoers among us don’t comprehend that they’re being rude, because they’re not there to see a movie and they’re not there to have an experience — they’re just there to have somewhere to go.

It’s very easy to turn into Abe Simpson on this issue, spitting bile at the youngsters and their iTelephones and their hippity-hop music; lest we forget, talking at the movies is not a new phenomenon. But texting and tweeting and emailing are just as disruptive, and they are new(ish) — and the teeth-gritting tolerance of those habits has loosened standards about other disruptions as well.

And at risk of sounding like the Abe Simpson this is turning me (and all of us) into, it is a generational thing. Forgive the broad generalizations (there are exceptions, obviously), but moviegoers in their teens and 20s have grown up with a phone constantly in their hand, and the multitasking of watching TV and films at home while dividing attention between screens is a basic difference in the way media is consumed now. Simply put, whether or not you can tolerate that difference determines when and how you see movies. Older audiences have long since thrown in the towel; they wait out the increasingly collapsed theatrical-to-DVD/Blu-ray/VOD window, and watch it on their big-screen TV in the comfort of their living room, where any distractions are their own. What’s more, once you understand that the adult audience isn’t interested in going to see movies in theaters anymore, you start to understand why so many of the movies playing there are geared towards teenage boys.

So, to Edelstein’s question: what do we do? As an adult moviegoer looking for an immersive movie-going experience, you find your own hacks: stay away from this theater, go to that one, hit morning shows a few weeks into a run, etc. Some theaters, like the Alamo Drafthouse, take movie talkers and texters seriously, but they’re few and far between. And it’s all but impossible to find a reliable and consistent solution.

But maybe the first step is realizing that, in this increasingly niche-driven and personalized world, there’s no longer a “one size fits all” moviegoing experience. Some theaters have wised up to this: there are, for example, venues that will only admit viewers over 18 after a set time in the evening. This scenario involves the theater owner’s worst nightmare (turning away a moviegoer with cash in hand), but it could draw in adults who’ve given up on going out to the movies by promising an audience of like-minded individuals. On the other side of the divide, there has been much gnashing of teeth over industry types floating the notion of letting viewers tweet and email and Facebook away during some screenings. But y’know what? My beloved Sunshine Cinema in New York does a special “Rattle & Reel” morning show once a week where parents can bring their babies to the movies without worrying about offending anyone with their wailing. Not to say that I’m comparing moviegoers who can’t shut up or go two hours without picking up their phone to out-of-control shrieking babies, but… oh wait yes I am.

Hold on, though. The anything-goes phone-friendly talk-amongst-yourselves screening (say, in the seven and eight ‘o’ clock hours) would be complemented by the converse: shows later in the evening with no-tolerance policies, for example. It might be impractical, and maybe the aforementioned adults-only screenings would have to do the job. But either way, it’s worth a try. People who objected to the “tweet seats” notion insisted that by allowing phone use (within certain parameters), we were letting the heathens win. To which I say this: have they been to the movies lately? Because that battle has been over for a long, long time.

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