Are we addicted to our cellphones? That’s the thought I had reading this story about movie executives who are considering allowing cellphone use in theaters in order to cater to younger audiences.
Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Jeff Blake kicked off the discussion saying that 20 years ago “kids would come every week” to the movies. But no more. “I’m concerned that the moviegoing experience isn’t just for baby boomers.” Regal Entertainment CEO Amy Miles says that her chain currently discourages cell phone use “but if we had a movie that appealed to a younger demographic, we could test some of these concepts.” For example, she says the chain talked about being more flexible about cell phone use at some screens that showed 21 Jump Street. “You’re trying to figure out if there’s something you can offer in the theater that I would not find appealing but my 18-year-old son” might.
IMAX’s Greg Foster agreed. He
seemed to like the idea of relaxing the absolute ban on phone use in theaters. 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.”
Two recent experiences of mine speak to this issue. About two weeks ago, I saw the play A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. It was an incredible production–very raw and passionate. But the people sitting in the row directly in front of me were texting and fiddling with their cellphones the entire time. The glare of the phone screens was distracting, as were the noises they made when the texts came in.
These disturbances absolutely diminished the experience of watching the play. When the glare of the phone’s light would interfere with the lighting on stage, or when the beep-beep sounds of a new email pierced through Stanley’s iconic “Stellaaaaaa,” the drama of the moment lost its edge. Which is too bad, because Streetcar is such a dramatic play.
The other experience I had was at the press screening for Pixar’s Brave. Because it was a press screening, the entire event was extremely controlled. There were ushers at the entrance of the theater who not only confiscated our cell phones on our way in but also took all of our electronic devices. By our culture’s standards, that’s a pretty draconian measure. But the experience was all the better for it.
Because there were no petty distractions, from other people’s devices or from my own, I could completely enter into the gorgeous fantasy land of Princess Merida and her bear-mother. While I was glad that the phones of others were not creating noise in the theater, it was especially nice not even having the temptation of my own phone there–and it would have been a temptation. How could it not be? With smartphones, we have the world at our fingertips. What’s better than that to keep you company through the dull or uneventful parts of a movie or a play?
But that’s a temptation that we should avoid–and that we should especially encourage the younger viewers of movies to avoid. Along these lines, there was one comment from the movie executives’ convention that stood out to me:
Tim League, CEO of Alamo Drafthouse — a small chain that makes a point of throwing out customers who talk or text during a film [said], “Over my dead body will I introduce texting into the movie theater,” he says. “I love the idea of playing around with a new concept. But that is the scourge of our industry. … It’s our job to understand that this is a sacred space and we have to teach manners.” He says it should be “magical” to come to the cinema.
I think people pick up their phones in the theater (or in class, or at the dinner table, or while walking) because they’re bored and want a flash of stimulation. In a way, it seems liberating to have the ability to access that stimulation 24/7. On the other hand, it’s completely shackling. It not only causes unnecessary noise in the theater, but it causes unnecessary noise in your your head. There is a virtue to silence, as I’ve written about before.
We depend on our phones and cannot escape their siren calls. So wouldn’t it be nice is there was two hours of each week when we could take refuge from their tedious disturbances and find some peace in the story and world that someone else has created for us?
Not having my phone with me during Brave was a blessing.
(For a related Acculturated post, see “The Artist and the Virtue of Silence”)