Next time you go to the movies, I want you to watch for something that happens right as the house lights go up. When the movie is indeed over and the audience is shuffling out through the piles of spilled popcorn, a very large portion of the crowd—I’d say at least 60 percent—will immediately fumble for their phones with a frenzy reminiscent of a lab rat who finally found the next food pellet.
Of course, not everyone is willing to keep it in their pants, and though virtually every major theater chain has its own version of the “Turn Off Your Phone” PSA, the struggle between those of us who can keep our phones in check and those of us who can’t continues. So what’s a theater owner to do? Well, you could be like the Alamo Drafthouse and simply kick out anyone who dares to text in the midst of a film, or you can be like AMC and start wondering if maybe you should just let patrons play with their phones without restriction.
In a new interview with Variety, AMC Entertainment head Adam Aron was asked if he would consider allowing texting in his theaters, particularly to court the millenial demographic, a group that seems increasingly to prefer watching movies from a laptop over sitting in a theater where some grumpy Old might tell them to turn their phone off.
“When you tell a 22-year-old to turn off the phone, don’t ruin the movie, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow. You can’t tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That’s not how they live their life,” Aron said.
“At the same time, though, we’re going to have to figure out a way to do it that doesn’t disturb today’s audiences. There’s a reason there are ads up there saying turn off your phone, because today’s moviegoer doesn’t want somebody sitting next to them texting or having their phone on.”
I don’t envy his position. Aron’s not a filmmaker. He’s a guy who has to answer to bottom-line people who are less interested in the integrity of cinema and more interested in how many asses are in the chairs every night, and movie exhibitors are constantly fighting to get younger people in their auditoriums. In the same interview, Aron says that AMC is considering both texting-friendly auditoriums and texting-friendly sections within auditoriums. This presents its own set of new logistical problems for theaters, as Matt Singer points out over at Screencrush. What’s a guy like me to do if I want to go see Madea Goes to Mars (please make that, Tyler Perry) but the only seats left are in the phone-friendly section? Do I sit next to the guy who won’t stop swiping right on Tinder because he wants to keep his options open, or do I save my money? I’d choose the latter, and I suspect I’m not alone. AMC even admitted as much on its Twitter page, clarifying that the “vast majority” of moviegoers don’t want phones out during the show.
Which brings me back to the Alamo Drafthouse. I know vast portions of the country aren’t lucky enough to have this particular theater within reach (yet), but it’s a very successful, very cinema-focused company, and here’s the crazy part: Its no-phones policy actually works. I’ve seen countless movies there, and I’ve never once been bothered by another guest checking their socials. When you go there, you’re treated like an adult. Keep your phone in your pocket, and we’ll all have a good time. Don’t, and this happens…
I don’t buy the idea that millennials can’t hold off Snapchatting and Vining for two hours, and I don’t think the Drafthouse model works just because it’s the theater the Cool People go to. Here’s what I do buy, though: When you’re in a packed house, and everyone is watching the movie, everyone has a better time. I know because I once sat with about 400 people during an advance screening of The Avengers at which everyone’s phone had been confiscated and bagged by security. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen happen in a movie theater. That audience was glued to the movie, and no one left even remotely disappointed that they couldn’t Tweet until they got to their car.
But hey, if you think there’s actually a demographic that will only pay for a movie ticket if they can sit in a dark room with a big screen in it and stare at a much smaller screen the whole time, go nuts. You’re just not getting my money.