We don’t know how to be at the movies anymore


Last night, I saw Logan at the movies. I’d be waiting to see it for ages, and was very happy to have finally found the time. I arrived ten minutes after the start time on the ticket, as always, to skip the first few local ads before the new release trailers started. I found my row, settled into my seat, and pulled out the chocolate and Diet Coke I’d pre-bought and smuggled into the theatre to avoid paying the reprehensible cinema candy bar prices. The overhead lights dimmed, and the cinema darkened as the first production titles ran. As the colourful characters of Marvel comics flickered across the screen to mark the opening title sequence, I heard a noise behind me.

The teenagers sitting one row back had begun to giggle and whisper. Presumably, their conversation had nothing to do with the movie, but nonetheless it continued well into the first scene. And the next scene. And several scenes after that.

I tried not to let it ruin my experience. After all, I had payed over twenty dollars to see this film and, despite the chatter, I really was enjoying it. But not long after the whispering started, a phone went off. A woman a few rows in front swore loudly, before frantically fumbling through her handbag in attempt to silence the ringing. About twenty minutes later, a man, sitting with a small boy most likely too young to be watching an R-rated film, pulled out his own phone and began to text, before scrolling through Facebook and emails for a while. The light was a little distracting, but again, I tried to ignore it.

This feat became increasingly more difficult throughout the film. The whispers, ringtones and phone lights became more common as others began to mimic the behaviour. Around an hour and a half in, some patrons began to feel as if they’d been sitting for a little too long, and needed to stretch their legs. Five separate parties left their seats, stumbling awkwardly in the dark and stepping on a few toes before leaving the theatre. Soon after, the travellers would return with an armload of snacks, and repeat the process even more clumsily. By the end of the film, I was frustrated.

Going to the movies is my favourite to spend my time and relax, but I’d had to struggle to enjoy myself.

I wish this had been a one-off. An amalgamation of restless, particularly bad-mannered people who were coincidentally placed in the same theatre at the same time.

This was not, however, a one-off. These kinds of interruptions have occurred at almost every movie I’ve been to see for the past year – and it appears to be getting worse. It seems that we, as a society, just don’t know how to be at the movies anymore.

Why is that?

It won’t come as news to anyone that we have become increasingly reliant on our technology. Our smartphones are the centre of our world, and it seems that our lives, quite literally, depend on them. In March 2016, the NSW Government announced the introduction of new street-level traffic lights at major intersections of the Sydney CBD in response to the huge rise in pedestrian deaths over the past year. The lights are built into the ground, so that users glued to their phones are still able to see the colours change and avoid walking into oncoming traffic.

Yes – we’re using our phones everywhere, all the time, and it’s made big changes to the way that we consume entertainment. The traditional avenue of pre-scheduled television shows and movies has been largely overtaken by platforms like Netflix, Presto and Stan for those in the 14+ age group. The big difference with these platforms being, of course, that you don’t need to be at home to watch your favourite show or movie anymore.

Netflix Logo

Netflix is a contributing to bad-mannered cinema-goers. Image via Netflix

Let’s take Netflix as an example. In 2016, it had over five million users in Australia alone, and that number has only grown. Moreover, according to Nielsen’s 2017 Consumer and Media Review, the number of people accessing Netflix via a desktop, laptop, smartphone or tablet had increased by 48 per cent between December of 2016 and December of 2015. This growth, however, was attributed largely to increased Netflix engagement via smartphones specifically, which saw a massive increase of 82 per cent during that year.

The effect of smartphones is huge. We can now get our entertainment media whenever and wherever we want. On the bus, at work, walking down the street, in the doctor’s office – our theatre is in the palm of our hand. Of course, this kind of self-determined media engagement also lends itself to increased freedom of mobility. Anytime we want, we can press pause. We can go get a snack, or have a full conversation, and then come back to it when we feel like it. Entertainment is flexible, and we are in complete control at all times.

The problem is, we’ve stopped being able to decipher when that flexibility isn’t applicable anymore.

Cinema-going is in a steady decline worldwide; partly due to platforms like Netflix, mostly due to illegal torrenting, and a little bit to do with the ridiculous prices of movie tickets right now. I understand, as someone who goes to the movies at least once every three weeks, I’m in the minority. So, we’re becoming increasingly less familiar with in-cinema etiquette, and extremely familiar with the complete lack of etiquette involved in consuming media elsewhere. It’s a wonder why movie-going hasn’t died out completely. Yet, we find ourselves drawn back to the theatre every once in awhile.

There is something magical about being in a cinema. We’ve been stunned and fixated by the movies for over a hundred years, from the glitz and glamour of the Golden Age of Hollywood to the truly incredible visual effects only made possible in the last decade. Of course, with torrenting being such a prolific practice, we could experience all that at home alone if we wanted. But we still choose to go to the cinema, because it offers something else. We go for the shared experience of viewing a great film. We’re just not very good at sharing anymore.

I don’t know how to fix this problem. It’s very possible that the damage has already been done, and I may never see a movie in peace again. But I suggest that the next time you do go to the movies, you should try going alone. Turn your phone completely off, sort your snacks out and go to the bathroom before the film starts. Give yourself a full ninety-or-so minutes to be completely immersed in a different world; even if you’re the only one trying.

I highly recommend going to see Logan, by the way; it’s great. But don’t bother if you’re going to be the kind of person who wrecks it for everyone else. You know who you are.