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Friday, August 9, 2013

Confessions of a Movie Theater Employee 2: Talking and Texting

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the second edition of Confessions of a Movie Theater Employee (COAMTE for all you Twitter users).  I want to start this article off by thanking those of you who took the time to read and share the previous installment, it really meant a lot to me to see something so simple take off like it did.  For the longest time, I have been wracking my brain to try and think of something to write about.  With the tips and tricks out of the way (see here), I decided I would start this series off in earnest with an editorial of sorts.  Today, we will be discussing one of the more controversial topics of going to the movie theater: talking and texting.  For purposes of this article, we will focus solely on the talking and texting which takes place during the movie.  I use the word we as I hope that you will join me in this discussion in the comments section below.  So, without further ado, let's take a look at perhaps the most annoying habit of virtually all movie goers...

DISCLAIMER: It is not my intention with this article or any that follow to seem rude, conceited, or superior about my experiences of working at the movie theater.  This is all in good fun.

The Problem
Put yourself in this situation: You have just settled into your seats at your local cinema to enjoy a movie you have been dying to see.  Perhaps this is a film you have been following from its announcement, through the stages of production, watched all of the trailers, and even convinced some of your friends they should join you in the experience.  In other words, nothing is stopping you from seeing and enjoying this movie if you have anything to say about it.  After some ads and trailers, your movie finally begins, when, suddenly, some people sitting in front of you already have their phone out.  Okay, no big deal, maybe they are just turning it off.  Five minutes, ten minutes pass and they still have their phone out.  You can't pay attention to the movie, the one you have been dying to see, at all, because that annoying light from their phone's screen is flashing in your eyes.  After a while they finally put away the phone and you feel you can go back to enjoying the film.  Suddenly, some people behind you begin to have a full on conversation at a level where you hear every word, a conversation that is not even relevant to the movie that's on the screen!  How do you react?  You've been wanting to see this movie for over a year now and these people are ruining it!  What do you do?!

This is a situation we have all undoubtedly found ourselves in at least once.  Some people may even have a similar experience every single time they go see a movie.  What has happened to our culture?  Why do we live in such a rude and self-centered time that we cannot even take two hours to be courteous to others.  We have all spent the same $8-15 to be there, so why would someone deliberately waste their money in such a fashion?  The answers to these questions have plagued many for the past few years, and it is a debate that seems a long way from reaching a conclusion.  No matter where you stand on the issue, you cannot deny that incidents of talking and/or texting during a movie are almost as expected an occurrence as the trailers.  If we choose to view this as a problem, how do we even attempt to solve it? 

One Solution
As can be expected, many movie fans are reacting to this epidemic of talking and texting in quite the negative fashion.  Most of these complaints, however, tend to taper off as the person either decides it is not worth getting so angry over or simply write off the problem as one without a solution.  While there have been various attempts made to curb this bad behavior, one idea that is beginning to crop up time and again is the idea of segregation: simply separating the movie goers who are there to just watch the film from those who would like to also talk and/or text.  On the outside, this appears to be a very obvious solution that works to the best interests of everyone involved.  As a former movie theater employee, however, I would have to say that, in practice, this idea would go about as well as the segregation of American schools before the Civil Rights era.  Take this into consideration: a movie theater decides that certain auditoriums will be designated for those who would like to be able to use their phones.  Guaranteed that within the first week of such a practice, you would have at least one person show up late for a movie (it happens ALL the time) and have to settle for one of the text-enabled showtimes.  Then you have a disgruntled customer who has to go through the very annoying experience this solution was crafted to avoid.  Sure, one would be best advised to show up on time, but sometimes life gets in the way of you and the movie theater, should that person be punished just because they had to run a few errands or their tire blew out beforehand?  This same scenario could be reversed for a customer who wishes to use their phone in the theater.  Frankly, segregation of the talkers and the shushers would end up hurting one group if not both in the long run, and, at the end of the day, the movie theater wants the business of both types of customers.

NOTE: Some have brought up the idea of building entirely separate movie theaters which do not enforce anti-texting or talking rules.  Unless such theaters were to be built in large cities with multiple cinemas, this does not seem like the wisest business venture.  Both of these theaters would have to show the same movies, and, unless the town were large enough to make up for that divide of business, this would mean one of the two theaters would inevitably close from lack of funds.  A closed movie theater is something no one wants to see, even if they encouraged texting.

How I See It
So what are my personal opinions on the whole talking and texting situation?  With that, I decided my answer should be two-fold.  While I was working at the movie theater, we had the following protocol for dealing with this problem:
  • Auditoriums were walked twice per showing.  This allowed for us to not only check the emergency exits, but to also make sure customers were following the rules against talking and texting.  
  • Customers in non-compliance to said rules would be given a warning and asked to put the phone away.
  • If a customer was warned once, but continued with the behavior, they would be given the option of leaving without a refund or giving their phone to the employee until after the movie.
  • Any other instances of talking and texting would need to be reported by another customer.
These were really our only guidelines with dealing with the situation, and how strictly these rules were enforced mostly depended on how busy we were on a given night.  As weekends are peak times at the movies, this usually meant that we would enforce a zero tolerance policy of sorts on cell phone usage.  On the not so busy days, however, we may warn the person against using their phone, but it tended to be something we would not worry ourselves with too much unless another customer complained.  This may not be the best of practices, but, when there are only three employees working on a non-peak day, it can be a bit difficult to constantly police auditoriums.  From the movie theater employee's perspective, this problem is one of not following the rules plain and simple.  We have these rules clearly posted throughout the building and there are ads before the trailers which warn that a person could be asked to leave if they do not follow the rules.  One would assume these simple rules that are so customary would be easy to follow, but we all know that this is not the case.  This is really an area where employees and fellow audience members must share the load of cracking down on those who do not follow the rules, it is not something that should be left to the responsibility of any one individual.

As a movie goer, and a proud movie fan, however, I can comfortably say that this is a problem which really gets under my skin.  Nothing is more frustrating than paying upwards of $15 to go see a movie, only to have that pleasurable experience ruined by someone who cannot stay away from Facebook for 2 hours.  I have been known to follow Miss Piggy's example above and turn around to stare at the perpetrators, or, if the person was in front of me, many a "SHUT UP" or "PUT UP THE PHONE" has escaped my mouth, although such daring feats of shaming were done in the safety of the theater I worked at.  Frankly, this is a problem which has no true justification from the perpetrators.  If the text message or conversation was so important, why would someone knowingly put themselves in one of the only situations where those two things are not allowed?  Once you pay for that ticket, you abandon your freedoms in the Constitution and become subject to the rules of the movie theater.  If these are rules you cannot follow, that is not the problem of your fellow movie goers, but is clearly something wrong with you.  I came to the movie theater to see a movie, I go to Starbucks or practically any other location to talk to my friends.

In Defense Of...
Any good argument is going to take the time to examine the other side of things.  Texting in the movie theater is really a black and white issue, and there is no real defense for it.  Talking, on the other hand, can be a bit more of a gray area.  In many ways, the best movies are those which are more of a communal experiences.  One could easily argue that we enjoy and long remember the films we had fun watching with others just as much as the ones which speak to us on a more personal level.  There is just something about the experience of watching a movie with a friend and whispering to them every now and then about what is happening before your eyes, it is a habit even the best of cinephiles are guilty of.  It must come from some deep desire in each of us to not just share our thoughts after the film is over, but to take part in that experience together as much as possible.  I know that I will never forget films like Grindhouse or The Avengers in large part due to the fun of watching it with certain people.  Horror films are an excellent way for the entire crowd to have these cathartic experiences together, as are comedies.  The tidal wave of emotions that can hit a crowd throughout a single movie are part of the pleasure one gains from seeing a film in the theater.  Mind, talking is most definitely something which can be done in excess (and that is where the problem lies), but talking or overt reactions in moderation is not too much of a negative.

Recently (as in this week), a blog post was made by blogger Anil Dash that critiques those who wish to silence the talkers and texters in the theater.  You can read Dash's post here.  While reading through the post, it is hard to not feel that, in at least some small part, Anil Dash made the entire blog post as a method of trolling.  In that regard, his blog post has succeeded in that it has gotten wide attention in its very short time on the web.  While there are a few points made which are agreeable, there is really one large mistake Dash makes with his post: he refers to movie theaters as public spaces.  In his writing, Dash explains that, in India, the culture there is more than approving of behavior in a movie theater which many Americans find alarming, such as rampant talking and texting.  Although one such as myself can hardly comment on a culture that is not their own, it is due to Anil's statement that a movie theater is a public place that causes much of his argument to fall apart.  Simply put: movie theaters, or any place where you must pay money for admittance, are not public property.  When someone breaks the rules at Disneyland, they get kicked out (and, possibly, end up on the evening news).  The rules may not always be fair, but the exchange of money is the signing of terms of agreement, you are agreeing to obey the guidelines set forth by that institution.  If movie theaters were open spaces where anyone could walk up (like a park), then Dash's argument would be completely understandable, but, at least in this country, no such thing exists.

As mentioned earlier, if we are going to acknowledge that talking and/or texting is rude and an out of control behavior in our movie theaters, then how what are the best methods of solving this issue?  There are, in fact, many ways this can be done (one of which is pictured above).  Unfortunately, none of the offered solutions really seem to have any staying power, or ability to apply to all movie theaters, so we must once again return to the drawing board.  While we attempt to find a more long-term and effective solution, however, we can begin to crack down on this problem by working together.  Movie theater employees most definitely have a responsibility to uphold the rules, but you as an audience member should also have a say in this matter.  If you can do so peacefully, take the matter into your own hands and stop that texter!  If this cannot be done, then seek out the nearest employee for assistance, that's what they're there for.  But this is not a concerted effort which has to only be made by just those two camps.  For those who talk too loud or text in a movie theater, it is also your responsibility to know that you have paid good money for your seat, and maybe, just maybe that phone call or conversation can wait.  Don't waste your time and money doing things you could do for free elsewhere, take that time to enjoy the beauty being displayed before you on the movie screen.

What about you?  Where do you stand on the talking and texting debate?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
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1 comment:

  1. I'm an old MST3k fan, so I find it hard not to comment on the sillier moments of a film.
    As for text: I've had work text in the middle of a flick. I tend to excuse myself and sneak away to the lobby before responding. Yet asking someone to handle their latest Tweet outside is tantamount to insulting their family and patriotic honor (true story: I was accused of doing both).

    I have not heard any talk of text/talk friendly theatres. Although I could see that as a fantastic campaign for bringing back drive-in theatres. Alas, these all feel moot as the movie theatre is going the way of the dinosaur. With projection booths doing away with 3.5mm film and human caretakers, and the concession stands going disturbingly self-service: I ponder if we won't all be texting and talking in these hollow dark rooms with zero supervision.
    Won't that be a frightening time?


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