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The future of cinema etiquette

By Patrick Gaffey

There’s nothing like settling down for a film you’ve been waiting to see and the person next to you decides now is the perfect time to check Facebook

The summer of 2023 has heralded the return of cinema, as anyone who struggled to fit into a sold-out screening of Barbie, Oppenheimer, or Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse can attest. Many saw the rise of streaming and the pandemic as the cinema’s death knell, but all signs this year have pointed in the opposite direction. Audiences have been deprived for too long of the comfort of the silver screen, and found that nothing can replace it.

Everything seems to be improving for the future of cinema as a whole, with one notable exception: a decisive decline in the standards of cinema etiquette. Talk to anyone who has gone to a crowded movie screening, and you will almost inevitably hear complaints of fellow patrons talking or texting. Such behaviour is hardly surprising – the same can be found at any concert or sports game – but it feels particularly egregious at the cinema. Even the slightest flash of a phone can ruin the experience of an audience sitting in darkness and silence. Nothing is quite comparable to the annoying arrogance of someone who finds it acceptable to scroll through their phone during a movie, showing off how superior they feel to the others around them.

Those of us who hope for a pure experience at the cinema, free of phones or chatter, seem to be fighting a losing battle. In 2016, AMC, the largest cinema chain in the USA, proposed establishing “texting-friendly” screens. According to the chain’s chief executive Adam Aron, “You can’t tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cell phone. That’s not how they live their life.” Overwhelmingly negative feedback led the company to scrap the proposal, but it seems only a matter of time until another chain picks up their idea. Is the future of the cinema a “texting-friendly” environment? Has our society become so atomised that we can’t expect audiences to spend two hours outside the absorption of their own phone? 

Even if cinemas don’t explicitly allow such behaviour, it is difficult to see how they could stop it. Confiscating or blocking phones could lead to intense legal issues. Dublin’s Savoy cinema learned this lesson in 2003, when their use of a ‘jammer’ to scramble phone signals led the Commission for Communications Regulation to threaten them with a fine of over €25,000. If the tide is going to turn, it will be thanks to a mindset change in cinema audiences, not the decisions of cinema managers.

What rules could form the basis of this new mindset? Typically, audiences are expected to leave their phones in their pocket and on silent mode, and perhaps this needs to be encouraged and enforced more strictly. This would certainly solve the problem in most cases, but there are rare exceptions when breaking this rule could be a good idea.

While scrolling, texting, or making calls are always a problem, there have been times when my fellow audience members’ phone usage has enhanced the experience. When I saw Psycho on the big screen, several members of the audience took out their phones to snap a photo when the famous Bates Motel made its first appearance. There was a tacit agreement among the audience: those who would not use their phones before or after could briefly capture the memory of the moment. The same thing happened when I saw Spider-Man: No Way Home on the day of its European release, and the theatre was bathed in the glow of phone cameras flashing at several points. Rather than annoying, the experience was strangely endearing. If cinema audiences can share laughs, tears, and screams, then why can’t they sometimes share the experience of photographing a special moment?

Every member of a cinema’s audience has a phone in their pocket, and there’s no point in denying it. In the vast majority of cases, any use of it is an obnoxious and arrogant social taboo. But if we learn to control ourselves, and to keep away from being drawn to them, then we can recognise those rare occasions when pulling out our phones brings us together rather than tearing us apart.


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I think this is a really interesting article and I’m looking forward to seeing how things change in the future!