AMC Theatres’ CEO Says He’s Open to Texting in Theaters, Which Is Still a Terrible Idea
Last month, I tried out the new 4DX theater at the Regal Cinemas in Manhattan’s Union Square. Seating in the theater is assigned and it was a packed house; by the time I bought my ticket, my only choice was a solo seat wedged between two other parties. To my left was a married couple. To my right was a guy who looked to be in his early 20s. When the movie started, he took out his cell phone and began taking pictures of the screen. He snapped a photo of the title card. Then he took it out again when Superman made his first appearance. Then again for the debut of the new Batmobile.
4DX is also in 3D, which meant every photo of the screen came out blurry. (It didn’t help that our chairs were shaking and rocking violently, either.) Undeterred, my neighbor kept trying to offset the fuzziness by taking pictures through his 3D glasses. After snapping a half-dozen more dark, blurry, ugly photos of the screen, he finally quit. He spent most of the third act of Batman v Superman reading restaurant reviews on his phone. Thanks to surcharges and online ticketing fees, he’d paid almost $30 to take a couple crappy pictures and look at Yelp for two and a half hours.
I thought of this intellectual titan when I read Variety’s interview with AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron from CinemaCon. Asked whether he would be open to allowing texting or cellphone use in his theaters, he responded:
Yes. When you tell a 22-year-old to turn off the phone, don’t ruin the movie, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow. You can’t tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That’s not how they live their life.
Aron said the loosening of restrictions on cell phones could take different forms. AMC might open up certain sections of theaters for texting or, “what may be more likely,” he continued, “is we take specific auditoriums and make them more texting friendly.”
I guess this news should make me happy; if there was a texting section in that 4DX theater or a texting-specific auditorium, I wouldn’t have had to reckon with that jackass taking pictures of the screen. (It could have been worse; at least he wasn’t immediately uploading his photos to Facebook, something I have also had someone do while sitting next to me in a movie theater.) But the thought of opening up certain spaces in theaters to texting depresses me even more than having my experienced ruined by inconsiderate jerks, because the only possible outcome I can imagine to that policy is the slow demise of all theatrical moviegoing.
The first issue is logistical. Separating texters into certain sections or certain theaters sounds fine (it would seemingly make them easier to avoid), but both options have serious problems. The only place to section texters off in a shared theater where they won’t disturb others would be the back of the auditorium. That would be bad news for customers (like me) who prefer to sit in the back of the theater and like to actually watch and hear the entertainment they pay for. What happens when the non-texting seats in the theater fill up? Will non-texters have to sit in the texting section against their will, like a non-smoker forced to sit in the smoking section of a restaurant? How do you make sure the texters sit in their section? And what if the texters like to sit close to the screen (the better to get those pictures with their cell phones)? It’s a recipe for disaster.
The texting-specific auditoriums option isn’t much better. In theory, it would at least quarantine texters so they can’t infect others with their affliction. But it would create another level of confusion in a transaction that is arguably already way too complicated. Now you have to not only know what movie you want to see (and whether you want to see it in 3D or 2D or IMAX or Dolby Prime or D-BOX or 4DX), you’ve also got to make sure you pick the correct texting or non-texting theater. Plus, splitting auditoriums this way would also decrease the number of available screenings for both options, making going to the theater trickier for both groups. In an era when there is more competition than ever for our recreational dollars, do we really want to make it harder to see what you want how and when you want it?
I don’t envy AMC or their competitors; they’re in a difficult situation. Hollywood studios increasingly only care about younger audiences; the same audiences that can’t live without constant smartphone usage. If your target demographic wants to use their cell phone, how do you tell them not to without losing their business? Figuring out how to appeal to phone-obsessed kids without pissing them off is like a Kobayashi Maru; there’s no way to win the scenario without cheating. As shown in this video from the Alamo Drafthouse, a theater chain that has made quiet, dark theaters not only a policy but a priority, some customers truly believe they should be allowed to do whatever they want in a movie theater. After all, this is the “Magnited States of America.”
Even if you execute one of these texting-friendly plans, you’ve still left yourself with a serious problem. In the short term, you might convince more teenagers to come to the movie theater. But in the long term you have essentially trained your next generation of customers that the movie theater is a place to go to look at a cell phone, not a place to go and share an emotional experience with others. Once those teens get older and they don’t need somewhere to escape from their parents for two hours, will they go back? At that point, why pay $15 to use your phone and not watch a movie?
Meanwhile, courting those young viewers has so thoroughly pissed off the previous generation of viewers, the ones who actually like going to the movies, that they might finally give up on the whole thing. It’s an Alien vs. Predator scenario: Whoever wins, we lose. In response to the outcry about the Variety interview, AMC Theatres tweeted out the following:
That’s a nice sentiment, but I wonder if it really is possible to make sure “all guests” will enjoy the experience when some want to be on their phones and others feel the opposite. With all the technological advancements in home theater and streaming content (not to mention smartphones), it’s possible that theatrical moviegoing is doomed no matter what exhibitors do.
If it can be saved, it won't be through allowing texting. It will be in preserving what makes moviegoing special, so that people want to keep going back not out of habit or a desperate need to get out of the house but because the best way to see a movie is at the theater. That means giving customers the royal treatment and more bang for their buck, with better sound and images, better seating, better food options, and easier and clearer ticketing. When it’s great, moviegoing is an escape from the drudgery of everyday life, including the constant need to check our email or update our Facebook page. At its best, it’s the sort of thing you want to take a picture of — but don’t because that’s f—ing rude.