The Living Room Factor

May 14, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

There are plenty of things to complain about regarding movie theaters: poor audio & video quality, out-of-frame pictures, sticky floors, indifferent employees, uncomfortable seats, an endless stream of ads before the start of the feature, and so on... But the biggest complaint concerns other patrons, especially those who aren't yet old enough to drink alcohol. They walk in late, don't turn their cell phones off, munch loudly on popcorn and slurp their sodas, and chatter incessantly. (My apologies to those of you in this age group who are not guilty - and I know you're out there. Tarring you with the same brush is unfair. Unfortunately, you are the exception.)

Yesterday, I got a first-hand look at another example of movie-theater rudeness. It happened while I was watching an afternoon showing of Unleashed. Shortly before the commercials were about to start, a couple walked in and seated themselves across the aisle from me. They were both around 18 or 19. The guy settled into his seat and dug into his popcorn. The girl removed her shoes and propped up her bare feet on the back of the seat in front of her. I momentarily gawked, scarcely believing what I was seeing. Appropriate behavior for a living room? Yes. Appropriate behavior for a movie theater? Not in my opinion.

Then it dawned on me. The reason why so many young people do so many unpardonably rude things in theaters is because they don't realize their actions are inappropriate. No one bothered to teach them proper etiquette. How many 7-year old kids are dropped off at a theater and left to fend from themselves? How many parents accompanying their children reprimand them when they do something that might interfere with the enjoyment of others? Based on personal experience, not many.

I can recount dozens of tales about unaccompanied young children attending Disney movies. Sometimes, even those who are there with their parents run amok, and nothing is done. 6-year olds run screaming up and down the aisles in the middle of the feature. If I had ever acted up at a movie, my parents would have grabbed me by the ear, arm, nose, or whatever else was handy, taken me out of the theater, and we would have gone home. Then it would have been a long time before I saw the inside of a movie theater again. Draconian action isn't needed, but some sort of sense of consideration has to be instilled. If kids aren't taught when they're young what's appropriate in theaters, how are they going to practice it when they get older?

Someone recently e-mailed me asking what changes I would propose that theaters make to reverse the downturn in ticket sales. I provided a response, but now I'm not sure that there's anything the local multiplex can do. If the biggest problem is the patrons, the industry is doomed. Theaters can hire courteous and consciencious employees, scrub the floors, fix the audio & video issues, and monitor the movies for projection problems, but that may not be enough. The audience will dwindle until all that's left are the uncouth teens and pre-teens who are more interested in socializing than movie-going, and theaters will start closing. Home video, which is already a huge market, will boom and studios will become increasingly less concerned about theatrical runs. (The trend has already started with Steven Soderbergh's recent six-picture deal to direct movies that will be released simultaneously in theaters and on DVD.)

And all because of boys and girls who treat theater auditoriums like their living rooms...