Movie Theaters: If Not Texting, Then What?

This may not be the coolest thing to admit.
By  · Published on April 15th, 2016

Editor’s Note: right as this piece was being published, AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron announced that it was listening to the masses and would be allowing texting “not today, not tomorrow and not in the foreseeable future.” We did it, everyone!

This may not be the coolest thing to admit, but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for CinemaCon. I spent years as a theater manager for a small chain in Southeast Alaska; every spring, the owner, and Director of Operations would fly to Las Vegas for the annual convention and bring back boxes of literature on the latest attempts to reinvigorate film exhibition. I’d spend days in the projection booth reading through old issues of Box Office Magazine or technology brochures and mumbling angrily to myself about the overly commercial approach taken by the National Association of Theater Owners. It’s only natural, then, that some of these commercial ideas would get stuck in my head.

We here in film criticism tend to focus an awful lot on the relationship between studios and audiences, only stopping to talk about exhibitors that we really love (Alamo Drafthouse) or really hate (nearly everyone else), but even accounting for the shrinking market, there are still a lot of people just trying to keep film exhibition alive in smaller communities. My long-standing sympathy towards the independent first-run theaters means I’m always going to be open to hearing about weird new ideas connected to film exhibition. I’m fascinated by the threat of Screening Room, a new box for your television that will allow you to stream new releases day-and-date for the low-low price of $50 a title. I’m also fascinated by a service like Cinetransformer, a mobile movie theater that tries to do for movies and television shows what the food truck did for street meat. Throw in new experiments in virtual reality – a topic we’ve already discussed in some detail – and a conference like Cinemacon is an incredible mish-mash of purely commercial exhibitor practices.

All of which is a long build-up towards texting in movie theaters. On Wednesday, new AMC CEO Adam Aron talked to Variety about the possibility of texting in movie theaters, admitting that it was an idea being kicked around to encourage millennials to patronize their local movie theater. “You can’t tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone,” Aron said in the interview. “That’s not how they live their life.” On Thursday, when outrage at Aron’s comments had reached its boiling point, the CEO turned to Twitter to backtrack slightly from his earlier statements, clarifying that the experiment would be handled in only a “VERY FEW” screens. While the original Variety piece made it sound like texting was a foregone conclusion, Aron wisely framed it more as a series of small experimentations that may or may not have any long-term effect on the company.

Then came the takes. Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League weighed in with his very thoughtful – and very respectful – counter-argument that movie theaters are a place to both escape and connect directly with filmmakers as artists. The Guardian, as is their wont, placed themselves on the opposite side of the issue, noting that social media has been a boon to any number of televised entertainment and that the movie theater was a lone holdout. My small corner of the internet was filled primarily with negativity towards the idea, with a few people taking the extra time to make passionate and rock-solid arguments against the idea of texting in a movie theater. Our columnist Danny Bowes, for example, pointed out that this could be a death knell for rural and suburban areas serviced only by a major theater chain.

And I hate the idea of cell phone usage in a movie theater, I do, but I also can’t help but wonder if we’re on the verge of a paradigm shift. Another important moment at Cinemacon this past week was when the Motion Picture Association of America released their audience data for the previous year. According to the report, the number of frequent moviegoers between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four – people who go to at least one movie a month – dipped for the fourth straight year. It’s no secret that younger audiences are increasingly absent from movie theaters and film festivals; I’ve spent the past few weeks listening to a host of film festival executives speak at Columbia University about the challenges they face getting young people to come to their screenings. Senior citizens make great patrons of the arts and can be counted on to support film for the sake of a film. Twenty-somethings? Not so much.

Take a look at the big picture – technological competition, declining demographics – and it’s not so hard to see why a movie theater executive might think about resetting social norms at their venue. Many locations are even currently engaged in this type of behavior, albeit without any formal prototyping plan in place. My regular theater for wide release films is the AMC in Harlem, where people text, answer phone calls and even take pictures of the screen with little regard to how their actions affect the viewers around them. It drives me crazy, but I also recognize it as an opportunity to challenge my underlying assumptions about how audiences interact with the film. These billion-dollar grosses aren’t all coming from self-professed cinephiles at Alamo Drafthouses; sometimes it’s important to remember that your average, non-regular moviegoer could give two shits about the artistry or authorial intent of the cinema. We shouldn’t bring the theater experience down to the lowest common denominator, of course, but it is a factor in the health of the industry as a whole, and you’re crazy if you think the answer is just to shame them out of existence.

Maybe texting, as a controlled practice during specific screenings, is the answer to bring millennials back to the movie theater. Maybe we’ve described the theatrical experience in religious terminology for so long that we’ve forgotten some offshoots of Christianity thrive on their interactivity, not their quiet reverence. Maybe the current theatrical model is doomed to die out with the current generation of cinephiles, people who would rather stop going to the movie theater altogether than compromise the integrity of their viewing experience. Or maybe the answer is somewhere in between. Recent studies have shown that millennials read books and visit the library more often than previous generations; they’re also the generation that made vinyl a growing market once more. Does this sound like a cross-section of people who, as Aron claims, would rather cut off their left arm than give up their cell phone?

If you were to ask a lot of cinephiles, the long-term cure for Hollywood is relatively simple: feature more diverse cast and crew, scale back production costs, release on fewer screens and don’t be afraid to tinker with non-traditional roll outs. These ideas do have merit (the first one is essential), but they also don’t do enough to address the fact that exhibitors are facing a crisis of platform, not only of content. So we have plenty of questions and far fewer answers. There’s no epiphany to be had in this piece, no single answer that can solve the woes that the exhibition industry faces or ensure the continuity of the theatrical experience. Exhibitors are worried and willing to experiment; audience demographics give them every reason to justify some changes to the current model. My only real fear in all of this is that we resist any forms of change for so long that we miss the window where the exhibition industry might have shifted to a more sustainable long-term model. You won’t need to worry about people texting when you’re the only one in the theater.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)