The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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May 18, 2012

Benji Tunnell: SRSLY? Theaters should not allow texting during movies

JOPLIN, Mo. — As much as I love the moviegoing experience, I’ve watched it decline over the last decade.

Concession prices have skyrocketed. 3-D has ushered in an era of dim, often lackluster presentations. And for some illogical reason, audiences sit through advertisements shown before each movie.

Not just advertisements, but advertisements for television shows -- a movie theater’s chief competitor for viewers’ decreasing attention spans. That’s like Wal-Mart displaying Target ads in their stores. It is stupid and makes no sense.

But the biggest plague to attack our darkened auditoriums has been lack of theater etiquette. Specifically, the surge of cell-phone usage and the indifference of self-absorbed patrons who refuse to exhibit common courtesy during movies, as well as theater managers who choose to do nothing about it.       

At the most recent CinemaCon, an annual theater exhibitor gathering, a panel discussion was scheduled to address the question of whether texting should be allowed in movie theaters. Panel organizers deemed the idea of accommodating texting worthy of a discussion.

The result was an enlightening look at a divide in the movie theater industry today. Those on the panel in favor of finding ways to adopt the idea were those from larger theater chains.         

First up was Regal Entertainment CEO Amy Miles, whose chain has been looking into allowing text usage in more youth-oriented films. The problem with this should be obvious, in that the goal of movies is to reach as broad an audience as possible.

If the theaters are going to determine before a movie even plays that it is geared toward a certain age group, what is going to motivate anyone else from trying it out? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: If a theater makes accommodations for a younger audience, it will limit itself to only that audience.

Not to mention that not everyone of a certain age feels tied to their electronic devices at all times. As hard as it might be for Miles and others to believe, there are teenagers out there who actually go to movies for the experience, and not as a social activity.

More galling to me is the statement by IMAX’s Greg Foster. IMAX is a premium movie experience accompanied by a premium price. But Foster supports the idea of relaxing text bans because kids always have their phones with them and it’s what they are used to.

“We want them to pay $12 to $14 to come into an auditorium and watch a movie,” Foster said. “But they’ve become accustomed to controlling their own existence.”

Foster’s argument for allowing phone usage makes a better argument against the practice. By Foster’s logic, the rights of the select few who feel entitled to their distractions from the movie outweigh the rights of the other 250 customers, each of whom paid as much to see the film unencumbered by annoyances.

Foster and Miles fear upsetting even the tiniest demographic that they are unconcerned with the silent majority of filmgoers who prefer distraction-free experiences. Independent theater owners tend to take a stronger stance on the subject, and are able to build a loyalty that the major chains likely will never see.

Chain theaters are interchangeable. Customers don’t think twice about wheter a theater is AMC, Hollywood, Regal or others. But the locally owned theaters focus on the experience rather than pandering to demographics. And it is why they see the same faces returning again and again, regardless (or sometimes because) of the 14-plex across town.

There are some people in the exhibition industry with some degree of sanity. I’ve been a fan of Alamo Drafthouse for a while (even though I’ve never been to one of their locations) for this reason: One person’s cell phone will not be allowed to ruin the experience for the rest of the paying customers. Check out some of their policy trailers on YouTube if you want a laugh.

Tim League, CEO of Alamo, brought common sense into the argument. After Foster’s idiotic statement, League responded with this: “Over my dead body will I introduce texting into the movie theater. I love the idea of playing around with a new concept. But that is the scourge of our industry É it’s our job to understand that this is a sacred space and we have to teach manners.”

That is precisely the argument that needs to be made.

It is high time theater owners and managers start returning theaters into special places again, where the magic that is happening on screen is allowed to reach the audience intact. Patrons should voice their displeasure with the status quo, and if that is ignored, perhaps it’s time to start visiting other theaters.

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