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.
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.
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.