THE UNBEARABLE ANNOYINGNESS OF CINEMA AUDIENCES

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There are two sorts of people who go to the cinema. There are those who go to watch the film. And then there’s the other lot, the ones who are there to chatter and text, munch, slurp and generally spoil the experience for everyone in the first category. They don’t realise they’re doing anything wrong, but even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Because people are like that now.

For the rest of us, it adds an unwelcome element of nail-gnawing tension to any cinema visit. When, exactly, will that couple behind you stop talking? When the studio logo appears? OK, maybe not. Start of the credits? No way. End of the credits? First dialogue? Never? If the talkers are not bigger and more intimidating than you, you can ask them politely to shut up, and they usually will… for about two seconds. I have perfected a vicious glare, though talkers are usually too busy yakking to notice, and it doesn’t really work in the dark anyway. You sometimes end up having to touch their shoulder to get their attention – it’s not as though they’re directing it at the film – in which case they react as though you’re a crazy person who has just assaulted them.

There was a time when no-one did anything at the cinema except watch the film, and if anyone was stupid enough to talk, they would immediately be shamed into shutting up by everyone shushing them. If you wanted to snog, you’d sit in the back row, where you weren’t disturbing anyone.

So why did it change? Was it because of video, which got us used to watching films in our own homes, where we could chatter as much as we liked? Or was it a change in social attitudes (“There is no such thing as society” – Margaret Thatcher, 1987) which encouraged people to do whatever they wanted, and to hell with everyone else? Mobile phones didn’t help, though the devices didn’t reach their apogee of annoyingness till the smartphone came along and got its owners hooked on texting and emailing via an illuminated screen that drives everyone else nuts when it intrudes into the corner of their vision.

There has definitely been a rise in multi-tasking, which now makes it hard for some people to concentrate on any one single activity; they need to have at least three or four things on the go – eating, texting, talking, watching. I expect one of the reasons so many of today’s trailers lay out a film’s entire plot, from start to finish, is because audiences are so easily distracted they would otherwise be incapable of following the story they’re supposed to be watching.

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But although everyone I know just wants, like me, to watch the film in peace, the situation is unlikely to improve. We’re in a minority now, and cinemas simply don’t care about our custom. Many of us look enviously over the Atlantic at the Alamo Drafthouse cinema chain, which has “a zero tolerance policy towards talking and texting during the movie” and famously co-opted an ejected texter’s angry voicemail as a PSA. Yet even the Drafthouse serves food (and employs waiters to serve it during the movie) so you still have to put up with other spectators noisily chowing down on chips or pizza.

Of course cinemas are wary of imposing too many restrictions. The films themselves are little more than loss-leaders, and it’s in the refreshments that most of the profits are made. And chains are reluctant to antagonise customers by forbidding them to play with their favourite techno-fetish, otherwise more of them would surely have tried to follow the lead of cinemas in France, where in 2004 a law was passed allowing the use of signal-blocking technology in cinemas.

So what is to be done? Must we purists give up watching films on the big screen and instead stay closeted in front of our DVD players? Must we surrender our once-glorious picture palaces to this new wave of annoying audiences? It makes you question the purpose and layout of cinemas in the first place. Why not redesign them, so the front-facing rows are replaced by clusters of armchairs arranged around coffee tables, enabling people to chat to one other more easily, maybe even browse magazines if they get bored?

Or how about providing noise-blocking headphones for dinosaurs like me, so we can hear the soundtrack as it was meant to be heard, without the constant murmur and tippity-tapping? Or, better yet, sound-proof enclaves where we purists can cluster like remnants of a past age, the film buff equivalent of the cigarette addicts cramming themselves into the smoking rooms at airports?

In fact, why show films in cinemas at all? If people want to eat and talk while they watch, why not screen movies in restaurants?

The Vue chain has introduced free wi-fi into some of its cinemas, though not in its auditoriums… yet. A spokesperson said last year, “If a film comes along that warrants social media engagement, and it’s the right audience, we would certainly consider including it as part of the cinematic experience. For example, for the launch of the globally crowd sourced movie Life In A Day, we encouraged those in the theatre to tweet their thoughts throughout the film, while a live twitter stream ran along the bottom of the screen.”

Welcome to the future of film-going. We might as well get used to it.

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This piece first appeared on the Telegraph website in April 2013. This version has been lightly edited.

PS. The other day, when I politely asked a bloke sitting a couple of seats away from me to stop texting during Tom Hardy’s monologue near the end of The Drop, because I found the light on his phone distracting, he yelled at me, “Well go and sit somewhere else then, bitch!”

PPS. The Moviegoers Code of Conduct by Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo.

 

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17 thoughts on “THE UNBEARABLE ANNOYINGNESS OF CINEMA AUDIENCES

  1. Well bravo for actually having the courage to say something to your noisy neighbours, ma brave. They all look like violent psychopaths to me so I move seats. I did think I’d cunningly got away from this by going to the cinema in the morning, but the smartphone warriors always make sure you can see their screen out of the corner of your eye.
    Interstellar at the Giant Screen in Birmingham last week was a blissful experience: there were about 18 of us there holding a masterclass on how to watch a film….

    • Yes, in my experience early screenings are usually attended by people trying to get away from the texting, talking mob – though as you say, it doesn’t always work. Of course, I’m fortunate in that my work schedule is flexible; lot of poor sods have no choice other than to go to the cinema in the evening or at weekends, when the noise-makers are out in force.

  2. I should maybe add here that I don’t mind audiences making noise if they’re actually engaged with the film and reacting to it. Indeed, shrieks and laughter can add immeasurably to the fun of horror movies or comedies.

  3. I try my best to go to screenings that are less likely to have awful audiences but the cinema chains do not help or care at all. One example is that appalling Cineme app thing that haunts the trailers and encourages everyone to turn their phone on. Ugh.

  4. Once, I’ve been to a cinema, early screening, with maybe only two other people inside.They were so preoccupied chatting they wouldn’t even look my way (I was using sign language: the calm-down signal) and I was actually sitting at some distance between them and the screen. Just two people and they still ruined it! I mean, really, no hope!…

    • SO frustrating when that happens. I suspect I would walk out if it was annoying me that much – but then I have a UGC card, so I’d probably just go to another screening. Even so, makes you want to break something.

  5. Haven’t seen the Cinema app recently but have had some good experiences going to films that are not popular or accessible to the younger audience – Nightcrawler and Mr Turner good examples of that. I do politely ask people to switch phones off and it works 9 times out of 10

  6. After yet another screening filled with lit up phones and/or talkers, I sometimes wonder why I even bother going, when all is does is getting me worked up. But then again: I love it to much…
    What I find hard is predicting WHEN to expect rude people. Multiplex audiences? For sure. But on the other hand for instance when I saw Interstellar recently at a packed IMAX at a large multiplex: a young-ish audience, but not a peep and not one flashing screen. And that’s no exception. On the other hand I’ve had some bad experiences at ‘serious’ film festivals and art houses, where I’ve had people look at me as if I was the crazy one when I politely asked them to be quiet.

    • I know what you mean. More than once my heart has sunk when a bunch of boisterous young people stroll laughing and chattering into the salle just as the film is about to start, and then maybe make some noise during the opening credits, and I think OH NO, but then they settle down and are as good as gold for the rest of the film.

      I’m just amazed by the number of people I know (ie just about everyone) who find going to the cinema such a stressful experience, purely because of the audience. We’re clearly in a minority here, and behaving badly is now such the norm that we’re the ones that get treated like the crazies when we complain. I guess there’s nothing to be done about it – we’re dinosaurs.

      • If we’re dinosaurs, couldn’t they put us all of us cinephiles on an island and let us be in peace, whilst we occasionally pick off the intruding Loud & Screen Addicted ones one by one in a gruesome manner?

  7. I suspect it was ever so, to judge from the mid-1950s and some of Alex Atkinson’s faux-naif sociological text accompanying an illustration in Ronald Searle’s “The Big City”:

    For a couple of shillings customers were accommodated at ground level, in cramped surroundings which rendered the full enjoyment of a meal rather hazardous; while for sums ranging up to half a guinea more comfortable seats were provided, in the upper parts. Here the advantages were, that the floor sloped steeply enough to facilitate the disposal of rubbish; that a metal container was allotted to each customer attached to the seat in front, for smaller items of litters, such as toffee papers; and that the service was, on the whole more personal with less emphasis on queuing. Inside the “auditorium” (as the banquet-halls are named) I found, upon my arrival, complete darkness, and the sound of shrill music combined with the intermittent boom of some monstrously over-life-sized conversation. These latter noises, which accompanied the flashing of moving pictures upon a screen, were provided by the management, presumably to drown the continual champing, sucking, blubbering, rustling, chewing, splashing, snorting, snuffling, gurgling, crackling, slobbering sounds attendant upon the simultaneous consumption, by upwards of five hundred close-pressed people, of cold drinks and sticky snacks. I later learned that the profits from the sale of these sugary provisions were large enough to pay for the hire of the moving pictures; and, as the manager explained, the customers had now come to accept these picture-plays as integral part of the beanfest. Certainly, the picture-plays were not shown to the best advantage. For one thing, the management, conscious of the danger the “films” might one day start to come between the clients and their food, and thus reduce profits, had arranged that the public might pass in and out at any time; with the result that the screen was almost continually obscured by the arriving or departing. For their convenience, uniformed ladies are encouraged to roam the darkened aisles, equipped with torchlights which form a never-ending source of excitement, appearing now here, now there, like a willo-the-wisp. I remained until all had eaten their fill, when the playing of the National Anthem signalled the end of the beano. In the entrance-hall the manager bowed goodnight to his patrons. He was clad as a head waiter.

  8. I live at great distance from the nearest Alamo Drafthouse, but I’ve been there for two Fantastic Fests. Admittedly, that’s probably a more considerate crowd than the average, but I had no issues with food noises or even with the wait staff whisking in and out. They set up the theater with serving food in mind and it works really well. Popcorn is served in a bowl, not a rattly bag. Most of the foods aren’t noisy ones, though I suppose you could make quite a clatter with the silverware if you were completely oblivious.

  9. Thanks for this Wendy – I’ve often wondered how that Alamo Drafthouse food thing worked out in practice. Rather well, to judge by what you say. So hurrah for them! Wish other cinemas would follow suit.

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