When it comes to Hollywood drama, we’ve gotten used to squabbles between stars, tension between writers and directors, and leaked emails from studios, but last week, for once, the drama was back in theaters where it belongs. The CEO of AMC Theaters floated the idea that texting could play a bigger role in the movie theater experience, with sections devoted to texters or whole screening times open to just a texting experience. Now, thanks to some vociferous pushback on social media, AMC Theaters has rethought this proposal, issuing a firm statement saying that yes, they do live in the 21st century, and yes, they do know how to use Twitter, and yes, they did hear audience frustration about proposals to allow texting in theaters, and no, texting will not be allowed in AMC movie theaters.
AMC has never condoned texting as a public policy, instead preferring a soft ban on cell phones signaled by a message that plays at the start of all screenings. But the ban remains unenforced by the management of specific theaters. Where specialty theater chains like Alamo Drafthouse advertise their willingness to remove patrons who text from the cinema for disturbing fellow audience members, in the past AMC has refused to take a strong stance either for or against texting in the movie theater. This laissez-faire policy is in effect an allowance, as patrons of AMC movie theaters know that despite the general disapproval, there are no real consequences if they want to pull out their phones during a film. But with this latest statement, AMC has an opportunity to do what will make the people happy, and I’m here to tell you on behalf of the people that what the people want are rules. Lots of rules, harshly enforced.
The problem with AMC’s wishy-washy stance on moviegoers’ texting preferences is that they assume that people who text feel as strongly pro-texting as the people who hate texting. But while the people who hate texting in movies hate it, who actually loves texting at the movies?
Now that we all have smartphones, we spend 24 hours a day plugged in to the needs of every human being around us. Yes, you can turn off alerts; yes, you can go into airplane mode; but when do you feel you completely have the right to be out of touch? The times of complete non-contact have become limited to planes, tunnels, and trips out of the country — and even then only sometimes.
That movie theaters haven’t taken a hard stance on cell phones seems to me like one of the most hilariously anticapitalist choices a corporation could possibly take. This is their grand chance to differentiate the theatergoing experience from sitting at home with Netflix. Despite best-ever box office returns, theatrical attendance has been down, and why wouldn’t it be? Any theater is better than no theater at all, but multiplex chains like AMC are the McDonald's of the movies: They get the job done, but it's an experience designed to make you forget that you’ve had an experience. What have multiplex peddlers like AMC done to make watching a movie in theaters a better experience than watching a movie at home? It’s more expensive, the food is worse, and your choice of what to see is generally limited to tentpole films and the one choice indie that managed to sneak into the rotation. And then once you get into the theater, you’re watching a dimly lit image that looks basically the same as what you could get on Blu-ray, and you’ve still got the distractions of phones all around you.
Everyone knows being told not to do something only creates the desire to do that thing in the first place — theaters like AMC have created a moviegoing culture where texting is something you get away with, and actually watching the movie sans distraction is an unnecessary obligation. If AMC started sending an usher out for every person who pulled out their phone, sure, some people would be upset and embarrassed, but it’s like house training a dog.
Digital media has proved to be a substantial threat for theaters, but theaters are losing ground by trying to compete directly with services like Netflix and Amazon. Streaming services have no location. They’re a floating commodity, and their biggest asset is that they can fit into any environment, from your living room to your laptop. Theaters are by definition tied to a space — you’ll never make a movie theater into your living room, so why try? The draw of home viewing is that you get to make the rules for how you watch. The draw of the theater is that someone has already made the rules for you.
Maybe you’re reading this and are the texter in a movie theater. Maybe you pay $13 to go to a movie to not pay attention and to leave complaining about how bad movies are and how you should have just waited for Netflix. Maybe you’re a talker and a texter — a double whammy of movie theater sins — and because you’ve been going to AMC Theaters your entire life, no one has ever told you that you’re being cheated out of your money. Maybe you’re just an asshole and you get off on the dirty looks you get from other patrons.
But consider that if what’s fun is a healthy animosity for your fellow man, you can get that feeling multiplied by a thousand by getting people kicked out of a movie for texting. And if you’re just disappointed by the movies in general, consider that maybe the movies would be better if you actually paid attention to them. Not every experience has to be an expression of your indomitable will and antiauthoritarian spirit. You’re paying as much for the experience as you are for the movie, and without rules, there is no experience.
People think they want freedom, but in fact, people are sheep. That we believe we want freedom is one of the most endearing indicators of our own human sheepiness — as is our addiction to movies, an art form and communal experience where we pay to sit in the dark while images someone else has chosen trick us into entering a different emotional reality. None of this should be news to AMC, but just in case they forgot, theatergoers sent a reminder: Sometimes you’ve gotta forget the data and just read the room.