THE RARE ART OF MOVIE MANNERS
Common Courtesy for Common Moviegoers
Cheap multiplexes, shoddy presentation, high prices and rude behavior are driving moviegoers back home to their own couches and DVDs. How did it happen, and what can be done about it?
Going out to movies has become a rare event for many of us. Is it because of high prices, lackluster theatres, bad presentation, or bad movies? Yes, all of the above… but not entirely. What most of us like least about viewing movies in public is… The public! How often have you had an expensive visit to the movies ruined by the inconsiderate behavior of others? Has your "Cinema Paradiso" become "Cinema Masochismo?"
It happens nearly every time I go the movies. After paying at least $14 to sit in a lackluster cinebox, plus another $12 for cold popcorn and warm soda, I try to enjoy a long-anticipated film. I have arrived early to find a good seat. Inevitably, just as the film begins, someone with big hair, a big head, a big mouth, or a small child, will bypass numerous empty seats to park directly in front of me. If the theatre has stadium seating, they will sit directly behind me with their feet on the back of my seat.
A woman nearby chats constantly, animatedly, and loudly to her friend - through 11 trailers, 3 sound system promos, the theatre chain intro, the opening credits, and right into the feature. Her conversation has absolutely nothing to do with the film. Oh, but not everyone is ignoring the picture - a couple next to me are commenting on everything they see on the screen.
There is something in the air… is it the strong odor of smuggled exotic takeout food? Has someone overdosed on garlic or missed a bath? Are my eyes burning because someone has hosed on a gallon of cheap cologne, or has the exterminator just left?
My back is jolted repeatedly as teenagers behind me keep shifting their feet on the back of our seats. Each time this happens I look back with a startled glare. They have no idea why. Oblivious to the fact that they're being inconsiderate, their behavior is explained a few rows down by adults old enough to be their parents, who are also sprawled over the seats in front of them. Bad habits begin at home.
A couple rows down, an infant shrieks at ambulance volume, while its toddler sibling stands babbling and bouncing on the seat, both oblivious to the R-rated film. Their parents stare blankly ahead without any reaction. This cautionary display escapes notice of a nearby couple who are performing a mutual physical and tonsillectomy. Their animated passion causes the seats in our row to shudder.
I am surrounded by an endless loud cacophony of crunching popcorn from people who have not learned the subtle art of how to chew with their mouths closed. Could it get any noisier? Oh yes. Someone has a bag of hard candy, continuously alternating between plastic wrapper crinkling and loud sucking. Later a man arrives with a heavy plastic bag full of large tortilla chips. As he rattles constantly through that noisy bag, it sounds like he’s munching roof tiles.
As a quiet moment plays out onscreen, an all-too-familiar sound comes from the audience... the ringing of a cell phone. Several rings later, someone pulls out his phone and actually takes the call. Clearly oblivious to his fellow moviegoers, he begins to converse at full volume for several minutes. No longer the brightest visible object, the big screen now has to compete with dozens of smaller screens around the room. As more people become obsessed with texting, most dark audiences look like Manhattan at midnight.
Halfway through the film, I have no idea what’s happened on the screen. It has become a movie about chatting and crunching, and kicking and crinkling, and rattling and ringing, and texting and screaming, and all of it stinks! Welcome to today's moviegoing experience. Abandon all hope.
Clearly we need to re-establish guidelines for moviegoing etiquette. It’s an issue dear to the hearts of serious movie lovers everywhere. Having conferred with countless film buffs over the years, I have compiled a list of guidelines for fellow moviegoers. If most of us had our way, this list would be permanently posted at the door to every theatre. So, from of years of frustration and desperation we bring you…
What the people around you are thinking, but are too polite to yell at you…
Turn off watches, and phones before entering the theatre.
Take off coats, sweaters, etc. before you walk to your seat, not after you sit down.
In a non-stadium type theatre, if there are other choices available, don’t sit directly in front of anyone, especially if you’re very tall, or have some crazy big hairstyle. If you must sit directly in front of someone, have the courtesy to sit low and ask if they can see past you. Don’t wear a hat.
If the theatre is full, don’t sit in an empty seat without asking if it is taken. An article of clothing or property on an empty seat generally indicates that someone has claimed that seat. Move on and look elsewhere.
When you need to climb over people to get to your seats, politely acknowledge their presence and apologize. If someone stands up to let you by, thank them. Be very careful moving past other people in a row to get to your seat. Don’t step on anyone’s feet or knock over their snacks. Don’t spill your snacks on anyone.
And speaking of snacks, open candy and snack wrappers before the movie starts!
Try to find seats that don’t require you to crawl all over people to get to them. That is especially annoying during the picture. If you must sit in the middle of a row, first make sure the seats are available, then enter from the aisle closest to the empty seats so you will disturb the least number of people. On the way in, apologize profusely.
If you arrive after the lights go down and you can’t see in the dark, don’t stumble up and down the aisle groping for seats. Remember that once you step into the aisle, you are blocking people’s views until you are seated. Stand in the rear of the theatre, out of the aisle and away from the door, until your eyes adjust enough to see where the empty seats are. If you can’t find where your friends are already seated, don’t roam around shouting out their names. Wait for them to spot you and flag you down. If you get up during the film, count the rows from your seat so you can find your way back. When you return, don’t ask what you missed.
Once a picture hits the screen, whether it’s a trailer or the opening credits, it’s time to be quiet! This is not the time for conversation. All the people seated around you have left their homes, stood in line and paid for tickets to see and hear the movie, they did not come to listen to you.
You are not in your living room where the movie can be run back to catch what you talked over. If you cannot watch a movie without making constant conversation, you should give all the other paying moviegoers a break: stay at home and wait for the DVD!
No matter how involved you may feel, don’t talk back to the screen. The actors can’t hear you through all that popcorn crunching.
If you are unable to follow the story, don’t ask anyone what’s happening. Just shut up and listen! Running commentary is only welcome at home on a DVD where it can be turned on and off, not in a theatre where the people around you may want to turn you off. If you must make an occasional comment to your companion, learn to whisper - the kind where you use your breath and not your vocal chords.
If you are accompanied by someone for whom English is a second language, this is not the place to provide a running translation. Wait for the DVD and let them watch it at home with the alternate language soundtrack or subtitles.
Another annoying noise is people who have the sniffles and have forgotten how to blow their nose. As their nose gets fuller, the little sniffs get louder and become nauseating snorts. Try to remember what your mother told you: Blow your damn nose! Bring a tissue or napkin, use it when necessary and dispose of it responsibly.
Any food that produces a loud noise or strong odor does not belong in a public movie theatre. Possible exceptions would be dine-in cinemas, which have likely chosen food items carefully for their situation.
The key to considerate consumption is the lost art of chewing with your mouth closed. It is far less noisy, much more classy, and studies have shown that snacks actually taste better that way! Here’s how it goes: open mouth, insert food, close mouth, then chew. Don't overload mouth. Keep mouth closed until empty.
If you have to open a candy or snack package during the movie, don’t pick at it for ten minutes. Open it quickly and get it over with (preferably not during a quiet scene). If you are really thoughtful, open all noisy packaging before the movie starts. Chew with your mouth closed.
If you absolutely must chew gum, (and why must you?) never pop the gum or blow bubbles, and dispose of it responsibly. Chew with your mouth closed.
If you are seated in the front row of a mezzanine or balcony, do not use the ledge in front of you as a picnic table. It can be confusing for the people seated behind you to see your snacks standing in between the actors on the screen. And if one of your snack or drink items accidentally topples over the edge, you’d better hope the people sitting below have a fantastic sense of humor - or a raincoat. Chew with your mouth closed.
When you reach the bottom of your drink, you will know it - there is really no need for that loud snorting sound when the air starts mixing with the last of the liquid through your straw, so stop it. When the liquid is gone and you’re left with the crushed ice - If you must, chew with your mouth closed!
CHILD / ABUSE
A dark noisy theatre is no place for babies. It’s child abuse. When an infant screams or cries in a theatre, it could mean: A) They are Uncomfortable, B) They're Hungry, C) Their Diaper is Loaded, D) They Don’t Care for the Movie, or E) All of the Above. In other words, (as the entire audience realizes) the child would be much happier elsewhere.
When your child becomes animated, vocal or restless in a theatre, your reaction as a parent is critical - people all around the theatre are speculating on your parenting skills. Soon they’ll be circulating a petition to raise the admission price for young children to at least five times the cost of a good babysitter. If you act quickly however, the audience will silently applaud you for the good parent you are, as you escort your child out of the theatre and attend to it’s needs!
Do we even need to mention that a theatre seat is not the proper place to change or dispose of your child's diapers? According to every theatre custodian, the answer is a resounding YES! - and you had better not go walking your dog in our neighborhood, either! The proper punishment for both cases is best left to the imagination.
Children should not be taken into a movie theatre until they are old enough to appreciate the experience and behave accordingly. They must learn that the theatre is not like your living room. That means sitting still, not kicking seats, saving all questions and commentary until they get outside, and chewing with their little mouths closed. Remember: good manners begin at home, for children and parents.
Begin by watching movies with your child at home. It’s quality time, and you will eventually know when they are ready to fully understand and appreciate seeing a movie with you in public. Once a child has grown old and aware enough to accompany you into a theatre, choose the movie carefully - TOY STORY is a good choice, BRAVEHEART is not. Check out the storyline and ratings and avoid violent or inappropriate content.
While in a theatre with your child, don’t expect to be able to concentrate on the film. Remember at this point in your child’s development it is all about them. Pay close attention to their behavior and reactions.
If the presence of unruly children in theatres has not already led your thoughts in this direction, may I remind romantic couples that while a theatre may not always be a place to bring children, it is definitely not a place to conceive them. Affection is charming, but foreplay is distracting. In other words, Get a Room!
WORST FOOT FORWARD
The seat in front of you is not a footrest. Nor is the ledge or railing in the front of mezzanine section or a balcony.
Putting your knees up on the back of someone's seat will shove them forward and back every time you move, like bad breaks on a car. This makes you literally a Jerk.
All the seats in a row are connected together. Every time you kick, prop your knees on, or throw your feet over a seat, even if that seat is empty, everyone sitting in that row will feel a jolt. (in stadium seating, you could be kicking their heads, and they may be inclined to reciprocate). If your bumps register on the Richter scale, be prepared for damaging aftershocks when the offended party relocates to the seat directly behind you.
When you lay back with your feet way up on the seat in front of you, the people seated behind you do not enjoy your feet cutting into their view of the screen. Keep your shoes and socks on, and show off your cute shoes or pedicure elsewhere. If you can't be comfortable watching a movie without your feet exposed and propped up on the furniture, stay home and wait for the video.
When watch alarms, pagers and mobile phones go off in a theatre, everyone’s concentration is instantly taken off the screen and replaced with one unanimous thought: "Who’s the &#$%@*! idiot?"
Don’t even THINK of actually USING a mobile phone in a theatre auditorium. Your reception may be impaired by all the hate vibes from surrounding patrons. You are not home in your living room, and you can't take a call in the theatre. Turn the damn thing off, or at least set it to vibrate and leave the auditorium before you answer.
Cellphone texting has become the modern equivalent of passing notes in a classroom, and doing it in a theatre is as juvenile as shooting spitballs. The lighted screens on cellphones glare out in a dark theatre like beacons in the night, so put the phone away and resist the urge to text and check for messages every ten minutes. Seriously, if you’re so damn important that you can't be incommunicado for a couple of hours, what the hell are you doing at a movie anyway?
Anyone caught using one of those obnoxious laser pointers in a theatre will be immediately escorted outside by the Idiot Patrol and returned directly to grade school where they will be seated in a corner with a pointed hat on their head.
GO TELL SOMEONE
Practically all film projection today is automated, so yelling "Sound!" "Focus!" etc. at the projection booth is useless because nobody’s in there, and even if they were, it’s soundproofed. Without a dedicated projectionist or ushers in attendance, the 'plexers have now made it the paying patron's duty to report any problems with sound, projection, noise disturbances, etc.
Anyone annoyed enough to walk out and alert the staff risks missing what could be the best part of the movie. No need to go searching for the manager. Just tell the first theatre employee you see, even if it’s the girl selling popcorn. In some labor-limited places she may also be the one who runs the projector. If that is the case, make sure she washes her hands first.
DON'T TELL ANYONE
When talking about (or reviewing) a film you’ve seen, don’t reveal too much. Tell only the basic premise and how you liked it. Don’t run down the entire plot like you did in book reviews for high school. Don’t give away all the best or funniest parts. (That’s what trailers are for) If there is a surprise ending or plot twist, don’t spoil it for anyone. If you return for a repeat viewing, don’t announce what’s about to happen. Remember how much better it is to discover for yourself, and that in the absence of tar and feathers, irritated moviegoers may find effective new uses for their extra large sodas and tubs of "buttery" popcorn.
Any person that produces a loud noise or strong odor does not belong in a public movie theatre. You are out in public. Consider the other people in the theatre. Use proper hygiene, check your breath, watch your garlic intake, and don’t marinade yourself in strong cologne or perfume. Air pollution is bad enough outdoors, but indoors it's intolerable.
Sure, they may have people whose job it is to clean up all the popcorn bags, soda cups, candy wrappers, crumpled napkins, dirty diapers, used tampons, spilled popcorn, trampled candy and splattered soda, but would it kill you to clean up your act and just take your trash out with you?
Dispose of chewing gum responsibly, in a wrapper or napkin, and take it out with you. Putting your gum under a seat or on the floor isn't funny. What goes around comes around, and next time it may be you who gets stuck on it.
If it didn't take so long to clean up the place, showtimes could be scheduled closer together, repeated messes wouldn't result in residually soiled and shoddy theatres, and you might have a chance of walking to your seat without sticking to who-knows-what.
THE END or TO BE CONTINUED?
Please just remember where you are, and behave accordingly. Don’t treat a theatre like it’s your home - unless you live in a spotless movie palace.
I have a particularly fond memory of a past moviegoing experience. A friend and I sat in a packed cinema with large sodas and a big tub of popcorn. When the movie ended, the lady seated next to us noticed the empty tub and cups in our hands. "You two ate all that popcorn?" she exclaimed, "I didn't hear a thing!" We grinned proudly and high-fived each other. "Yeah, we just chewed with our mouths closed."
Moviegoing at its best is a communal experience. Sharing the laughter, the escape, and the emotion, lends a sense of camaraderie and enhances our enjoyment. However in a theatre, the most essential thing we must share with our fellow moviegoers, is simple common courtesy. It’s a rare thing these days, which is why I rarely go to movies anymore. I still venture out on occasion, but very rarely. Meanwhile, I’m staying home with my DVDs. And you know what? I miss the days when moviegoing was special, and people behaved accordingly.
Recently my movie experience was tainted by inconsiderate patrons at the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles. This place considers itself the best of the best, which they state in their little pre-show announcements. They also say that if something is wrong, you should go out and find one of the staff. Yeah, this top-priced self proclaimed "best" cinema actually MAKES IT YOUR JOB to get up, miss part of the movie, and go out to find someone, when something goes wrong! Back in the days of Real Theatres, staff were posted inside the auditorium througout the film to monitor the audience and presentation. When I suggested this to an ArcLight manager, he scoffed and said it's "never going to happen." Think about what they pay their staff, multiply that by two hours, factor in what they charge for admission, and it wouldn't cost them much more than what they get for a single ticket to ensure the quality of experience they claim to have, but often fail to deliver.
I recently heard that one chain offers beepers to their patrons to report any disturbance. Perhaps they can offer a return pass to one patron in each room who volunteers to take the beeper and report any problems. But the fact is that they still might have a slow response time and the paying patrons would still have to endure whatever the problem is until one of the unenlightened young staffers gets the message and anything actually happens. Most cinema staffers are not even trained that it's bad to put feet up on seats, so they're certainly not going to notice half the rudeness that goes on.
If today's exhibitors TRULY wish to enhance the moviegoing experience, they would invest the money to staff every auditorium with someone on a headset who can contact projection and management directly. Someone specially trained to enforce higher standards of movie behavior. The cinema would clearly post the rules at the entrance to every room and run a policy trailer. Let the word get around that you actually DO eject offending patrons and see what happens. But that's just me. My standards are higher than most of today's cinema owners.
This article was the first thing posted here, on a preview page that preceded the actual site by several years. That would mean it's been posted online since about 2003. It was first conceived and pitched to the entertainment editor of a major city newspaper in 1993. After several years of research and development, an early version was submitted to that editor's successor in 2001, who rejected it. The same paper ran a remarkably similar piece just a few weeks later. It was also submitted to a couple more papers, and two major entertainment magazines, all of which then ran their own versions, making many of the same points.
While I didn't invent the idea of writing about movie manners, I did spend a great deal of time on research, interviews, and countless rewrites, compiling the points actual moviegoers wanted to address, then tried to achieve some balance between an amusing tone and conveying useful information. One of the revisions was to drop a gimmicky title and theme that tied the article to a well known movie. That title gimmick has been subsequently used by several others. In prior occupations, I've made pre-show policy announcements at movie screenings, and learned first hand that if you're too stern, you could turn people off, and if you're too jokey, you may come off as clever, but your message is lost. That last approach seems to be the most popular in the, shall we say, "inspired knockoffs."
A while ago, a reader told me they had read a blog about bad movie experiences, and privately sent the blogger a link to this page. And guess what happened? That same blogger posted an amazingly similar article, some of which is nearly verbatim from what you see here! If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I guess I should be blushing. Clearly bad manners are not limited to moviegoers.
© 1993, 2003, 2011 - TJ Edwards; CinemaSightlines.com