A Quick Refresher Course On Movie Theater Etiquette

By  · Published on November 11th, 2014

First lesson: Don’t mace people for asking you to turn off your phone during a movie. Wait, scratch that. First lesson: Don’t use your phone during a movie. Then, don’t mace someone if they ask you to turn it off. Easy enough, right? Apparently not.

During a screening at last night’s AFI FEST (Mr. Turner, to be precise, which doesn’t sound like the kind of film to stir ire in people, but there you go), a man was reportedly maced for asking a woman to turn off her cell phone during the film. A number of outlets have reported on the incident, from Variety to The Hollywood Reporter, and it seems as if the man set the woman off by tapping on her shoulder after she refused to acknowledge his prescence or request, leading her to scream about him hitting her and then macing him. This is a problem. This is obviously a problem, right?

Here at FSR, we’ve talked about movie theater etiquette plenty before: from what you should eat in a theater to what could happen if we allow texting in theaters, but we seem to have been remiss when it comes to basic etiquette. Perhaps we just thought this stuff was obvious. Clearly, it’s not.

The mace woman isn’t an outlier (can that be her official supervillian name? “Mace Woman”?), and while this particular incident reached some peppery extremes, in-theater etiquette is on a steep decline, no matter where you go.

Here is a simple lesson, the first lesson, the best lesson: when you attend an event in a public place, you are expected to act in a way that is courteous to others, and they to you. This is Golden Rule stuff. If you want to use your cell phone in a way that disturbs other people, it’s not okay. If you want to talk loudly or crunch your snacks mercilessly or continually move around or just behave like a wild baby, it’s also not okay. It’s even less okay if someone asks you to curb any of these bad behaviors and you snap at them with either verbal or physical violence.

You are not the only person in the theater (and, hey, if you are, have at it). Act with decorum and respect. Act like a human.

Last summer, I attended a small industry screening for a new horror film that was about to hit wide release so that I could review it for publication. The screening was held at the official screening room of the studio putting it out – both New York City and Los Angeles are home to these, often pretty swanky, private screening rooms – and although it wasn’t a critics-only screening, it was only for industry folks. Movie people. People who make movies or participate in the making and selling of movies. What I’m saying is, this should be the exact crowd that relish a pristine watching experience, the kind of people most likely to behave well. That’s not what happened. (It’s also important to note that phone usage is often dazzlingly high at festivals – from Sundance to TIFF – festivals that, like this screening, are attended by industry professionals. Larger press screenings? It happens there, too. That’s a problem, too, but one for another day.)

This particular screening room is small and cushy and nice, but it’s also teensy enough that, if someone whips out a phone, everyone can see. It’s not pleasant. Within the first twenty minutes, someone whipped out her phone. And this wasn’t just for a time check or to scan for a text message, this particular woman – again, a guest of the studio – started dashing off emails and scanning webpages. Someone behind her asked her to turn it off, and after huffing for a bit, she finally did. Forty minutes later (notably, during the film’s most terrifying sequence), she did it again. For longer. More tapping, more typing. Again, the person behind her asked her to turn off the phone. She didn’t listen. It got heated. If I remember correctly, the person who asked her to turn it off eventually yelped, “this isn’t your living room!” to which she responded, “you can’t tell me what to do!”

Extremely civilized. Eventually, yes, she did turn the phone off, but only after more admonishments from still more people. She didn’t seem to get it. And that’s the weird thing about people who insist on using their cell phones in a public space like a movie theater: they don’t get it. Even if you were convinced that cell phone use was okay, wouldn’t the requests of other people to turn it off stir just a touch of decorum in you?

Weirdly, when the film ended and the woman and her friend exited the theater, they were greeted by a publicist for the studio, who wanted to know what had happened. It soon became clear that the cell phone offender was actually the guest of the other woman, who I assumed was the more industry-involved of the pair and, in my mind, should be the one to be even more mortified. As I slipped out of the screening room lobby, my last view was of the two women gesticulating wildly to the gobsmacked studio rep, who seemed to be on the receiving end of some sort of rant about how the situation was not okay. Because she couldn’t use her cell phone.

It was a weird day.

Technology consumes our lives these days, and while that’s meant that even someone has uptight as I am about theater etiquette has needed to loosen the reins – yes, it’s okay if you check the time on your cell phone during a film, and if you also glance at it to check the status of an anticipated email or text or call, that’s fine, too, but take that stuff outside when and if your expected item comes in – there are still a few basic rules that can’t be ignored.

You are not the only person in the world (or, hey, this movie theater), and if your behavior is making others uncomfortable or annoyed and they ask you to stop, it doesn’t justify violence or a federal case.

It justifies manners.