It felt like half of the summer movie season was consumed not by conversations about the movies themselves, but the way people were behaving in theaters. The more prevalent cell phones become, the more often you see people texting, Tweeting or whatnot in the middle of the movie, and there are fervent camps on either side of the debate about whether or not that's OK. Texting during movies isn't an issue that will be solved by online debate, so it crops up every time someone fires a shot from either side-- Anil Dash's pro-texting screed that kicked off the big summer texting conversation, and now First Showing's editor-in-chief Alex Billington calling the cops after getting fed up with phone users in a press & industry screening of Ti West's Sacrament at the Toronto Film Festival.
Alex's reactionary move-- which he tweeted about and has apologized for (but only after defending it on social media for hours, it's worth noting)-- isn't really what I'm here to talk about. Calling 911 for something as basic as someone texting in a movie theater is a waste of resources and time, and everyone including Alex knows it. But Alex's campaign to draw attention to the issue of people using their phones in movie theaters has worked, in that it's drawn national media attention from the likes of Gawker. "Blogger Calls 911 On Cell Phone User" makes for a much better headline than "Stop Texting, Goddammit," which is the kind of headline many have written. Plenty of people have spent years shushing and loudly asking their fellow moviegoers to turn off their damn phones-- I remember the first time I did this being during a press screening of 2009's Ninja Assassin, so it's far from a new problem. Alex just escalated it to a ridiculous level-- but as at least provided another opportunity for us to air out our grievances again.
The increased use of cell phones in press & industry screenings at film festivals is a problem, but it's an incredibly specific one, which again makes the use of 911 in this situation insane. But everybody has surely been to a movie theater in the last year and seen another moviegoer whip out their cell phone, seemingly ignoring the fact that a phone screen is essentially a flashlight, and will shine in the eyes of people behind you no matter how much you try to cup your hand over the screen. Alex tried to defend his 911 call at first by claiming piracy concerns, and sure, there are sometimes people who record movies on their cell phones and upload the video online (I saw a guy doing this during the 3D re-release of The Phantom Menace, which I cannot explain for the life of me). But for those of us who don't work for movie studios or theaters, piracy isn't really a concern; getting that goddamn light out of your eyes when the dude 4 rows down is checking Facebook is much more important.
Some, like Anil Dash, will argue that using cell phones in movies is the way of the future, and with events like this one getting promoted, some theaters and studios seem willing to get over their fear of privacy in hopes of enticing more people into theaters with the promise they can Candy Crush their way through a movie just like they would at home. But it can't just be irate film bloggers and The Alamo Drafthouse who think this is bad news… right? Even though I feel like I've spent months watching this debate play out, I'm taking it to you guys now because I think it's time for reassurance. Be as outraged as you like by Alex calling the cops on a texter-- that's essentially a "wag the dog" spectacle that allows pro-texters to make fun of how absurd the anti-texting movie snobs are.
But use this latest brouhaha to think about the kind of movie experience you want to have in the future, and what movie theaters can offer at a time when your TV has pretty great resolution and a decent sound system. If a movie theater isn't a place where you can get away from the distractions of the rest of your life, what is? And if a cell phone is an unavoidable part of life even in a theater… how can we include them without driving our fellow moviegoers to calling in the authorities?
It's a tricky situation with many answers, but let's start with just two of them in this poll before getting into the conversation below.
Is it OK to text in a movie theater?