Last week I was rather formal with my inaugural installment of "The Exhibitionist." So, now, let me introduce it properly: this is a new column devoted to movie theaters and why they're still worth your time and money. This is also a place to discuss the movie-going experience, with detailed stories and observations, in addition to being a discussion of the theater industry. Sometimes it will be a rant about what needs changing; other times it will be a recognition of great ideas already in place -- such as last week's comparative look at two examples of incentive opportunities. Hopefully "The Exhibitionist" will also generate more discussion from you, the reader; feel free to tell me what needs to be examined or why you think my suggestions are bad by using this as your own outlet for better solutions.
Now that I've gotten that out of the way, let me get to the topic you all seem to be most interested in: movie theater etiquette. Everyone has their complaints about why the movie-going experience is so terrible these days and about how much of it has to do with the behavior of the rest of the audience. But I don't need to go into a list of things that are wrong about our fellow moviegoers. Nor do I need to list the proper etiquette that should be followed when one goes to the movies. Instead, I'd like to offer up the notion that this etiquette stuff is a bunch of baloney. Personally I think many of our complaints are unfounded and worthless.
First of all, the things we complain about are for the most part nothing new. Take the problem with talkers, for instance. I asked a number of people this week about the earliest experience they had with such an annoyance, and plenty responses included incidents that occurred as early as the ' 60s. And I'm sure that's only because I didn't talk to people old enough to relate anything prior to that time. One person did tip me off to an example in print: In Renata Adler's review of 2001: A Space Odyssey for the New York Times, she pointed out that, "the uncompromising slowness of the movie makes it hard to sit through without talking-and people on all sides when I saw it were talking almost throughout the film. Very annoying." I honestly think that when we say that home viewing has ruined theater viewing, we unintentionally refer more to ourselves than to the people around us. Okay, maybe the more common experience of viewing a movie in the living room, where we can talk as much as we wish, has made us more comfortable with talking during a movie. But at the same time I think it has done the reverse. I think the fact that we can sit at home by ourselves, without any talking or disturbances, has spoiled us for when we go out for a public experience. This also extends to other out-of-the-home experiences. We've become such a sit-home society with our home entertainment systems and computers that we tend to be more irritated these days by real human interaction.
So, we aren't all of a sudden talking, but we may be talking more than we were before. Another reason for this could be the lower quality of movies. Like the people watching 2001 in 1968, we are more likely to be vocal when a movie is too slow or too awful. Part of this could be due to our shorter attention spans, while part could also be that movies just aren't very good these days. It's like we're all in our own Mystery Science Theater 3000, offering our own commentary about how bad the movie is we're watching. But we're hypocrites if it bothers us. Anyone who claims they've never talked during a movie is lying. Chances are you think you're only quietly whispering these comments to your companion(s), but during a slow or quiet part of a bad movie, when the rest of us are also distracted or bored, we can hear you. And it probably irritates us more when we can't make out what you're saying than when we can hear the funny guy shouting his jokes from the back row. At least he's probably entertaining. Of course, I'm not complaining about your whispering, because I'm definitely guilty of it, too.
Talking doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, either. I've seen enough sold-out shows, full of the same old annoying strangers, for movies that were engaging enough or loud enough or entertaining enough that I hardly took notice of the kids running around or the people making the usual noises – or I at least didn't mind as much. I've also been to a number of movies where I've craved the talkers. Who doesn't like the experience of the noisy crowd when watching a horror flick? Who doesn't prefer watching a comedy with a rambunctious, laughing-out-loud audience? I've been to a couple dry houses for both of these genres, and it's terribly disappointing.
But it isn't a double standard or anything that we also prefer to watch a serious drama without distractions or loud audience members. And yes, it does happen every now and again. All I can tell you is you might want to change the theater you go to. Or the time or day of the show you attend. If you want quiet, you might not want to go on opening night or to a midnight show, for instance.
Hopefully more cinemas and theater chains will follow Regal's lead with their own type of "guest response system." Regal's is in the form of a pager-alert thingy that some patrons bring with them into the auditorium in order to make complaints to the management without leaving their seat.
I tried out Regal's system this week, but when I say tried out I don't mean I got to actually push any of the buttons. Ironically I saw a movie with the most polite audience I've ever witnessed. The kind of audience where people leave the auditorium to answer their phone (which didn't even ring!) But I did talk to a manager about the program afterwards just to see if it's actually working. The woman I talked to said people participate all the time, especially on the weekends, and that it works quite well for dealing with problems. She claims her theater's management staff is constantly responding to the alerts, which transmit directly to pagers they wear on their person.
In case you think I'm schilling for Regal, though, and am all about their guest response system, I have to admit that I'd rather just see more of a presence in the auditoriums, in the form of ushers perhaps, than have to deal with a gadget, no matter how neat it is to know you have that security in your hand. Plus, I was annoyed at how long the process took to get one of the pager-alerts. It involves all kinds of ID and paperwork and stuff that actually made me late for my show. And it was probably plenty annoying to all the people waiting in line behind me. Also, I sensed a bit of irritation from the manager, who had to be called over to the box office in order to grab the pager that was her end of the deal. Of course, this was a weeknight, and I know from experience that movie theater employees don't like being bothered on weeknights. It's supposed to be the downtime.
So, basically another theater company needs to develop a different kind of alert program. Or send monitoring employees in more frequently. Or we could just stop pretending that talkers are really that big a deal and learn to be more tolerant. You're sure to have the occasional experience that is just too unbearable, but its no different than how we all occasionally have truly awful experiences with other drivers, or customers, or anything else involving human beings – and I bet we've all been that annoying driver, or customer or moviegoer.
I think I'll end on that, and leave other movie etiquette "problems" for another week. Feel free to tell me something that really, really, really is so epidemic in this society that it's cause for never going to the movies again. Think very hard, though, because I've seen it all and been through it all, and there hasn't been anything yet to ruin my love for going to the movies.
Christopher Campbell has more then ten years experience in the theater industry, from art houses to multiplexes. He has worked as an usher, a cashier, a concessionist, an assistant manager and a manager of concessions operations and has been employed by The Angelika Film Center, Loews Theaters, Reading Cinemas and National Amusements.