Lately I’ve been hearing many horror stories from people who have had really awful experiences while at the movies. Everything from having to endure entire conversations from surrounding moviegoers while a film is still in progress, to seeing cellphones disrupting screenings. Others even talk about being in theaters with moviegoers who heckle the screen. For those of us who go to the theater to find solace, to sit in a dark room with strangers in what we hope will be a few hours of undisturbed peace, such behavior from fellow moviegoers is the highest form of sacrilege.
There used to be an unspoken agreement between everyone at a theater that once the lights dim and the credit start to roll, we should all respect each other’s moviegoing experience by making as little disturbance as possible. It’s not asking much. It’s just that we’d rather lose ourselves in the world of Narnia or Middle-Earth than in your phone call about picking up your dry cleaning. We’d rather be angry that Lando Calrissian betrayed Han Solo instead of the fact that someone keeps hitting the backs of our seats with their feet. We’d rather watch Bruce Wayne turn into The Dark Knight than listening to someone recite a play-by-play account of the film they’ve seen twelve times yet have permitted none to enjoy even once. We’d rather be mesmerized by the performances that are on the movie screen before us than by the blinding light streaming from your iPad, which by the way, no one in their right mind should be bringing into the movie theater.
The cinema has turned into such a hostile environment for moviegoers that it’s no wonder that sometimes, against our personal preference, we decide to sit at home instead and settle for video on demand, or wait for a movie to be released on DVD. To borrow a phrase from Regal Cinemas’ slogan, movies shouldn’t be reduced to a 40-inch LED TV, and yet sometimes we may be forced to settle for that. Speaking of movie theater chains, these are also culpable for the decay of film culture, because some seem to care so little for the enjoyment of their patrons. Cinemas that claim to have zero tolerance policies when it comes to cellphone usage sadly, and more often than not, shirk this responsibility. Not enough seems to be done about ensuring that obnoxiously loud attendees are instantly removed from the theater for disrupting films. Odd, considering that the very existence of such theaters is dependent on the moviegoing audience. When the experience of going to the cinema has become so devoid of peace, enjoyment and last but not least, quiet, what would be the point of going? It would be in the interest of such theater chains to be more vigilant about enforcing no-cellphone and noise policies, because who wouldn’t want to make their target market happy?
At the end of the day, however, the issue stems more from a growing disrespect of cinema as a space than corporate incompetence. Blame can be placed on many factors. Some may point to the ADD culture fostered by a barrage of information, dependency on technology and seemingly constant need for social media interaction. Some can point out that one can just as easily watch a movie at home, so going to the cinema isn’t all that sacred to others. Unfortunately we can’t do much with blame. What we can do is make this problem - and it is a problem - known, and hopefully change this culture of cinema to one of mutual respect for shared space. It might seem trifling to some that we care so much about watching our films in peace, but perhaps that’s because cinema isn’t their religion, and they don’t think of the theater as their church. For most of us, the cinema is where we go to explore, discover and feel enlightened. When we get lonely, we go to the cinema and visit our friends, to paraphrase a line from Almost Famous' Penny Lane. So I hope it can be understood that we feel such great loss when this space is trampled on again and again by those who don't comprehend its importance.
So let’s take back the cinema. And I’m not talking about picketing theaters or shouting down noisy moviegoers. I’m talking about promoting a culture that respects this space and those who frequent them. If you’re sitting next to someone who won’t stop talking, tell them to please be quiet or leave, and if they don’t, bring this to the attention of the theater ushers. Usually this doesn’t do much, but at least it will make them aware that people do take this seriously. We pay for our ticket and we spend a ton on overpriced concessions. The least we can expect is for legitimate complaints to be heard. If bringing issues to the attention of ushers is not helpful, perhaps taking this to corporate may make some headway. If all else fails, we’ve got the web, and the internet loves a good PR nightmare.
Hopefully it doesn’t come to that. Because if you ask me, I’d rather just sit quietly here in my popcorn-smelling seat and enjoy my movie. That really isn’t too much to ask, is it?