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Patrick Goldstein, Los Angeles Times, Published May 07 2012

Theater texting? Hold the phone

LOS ANGELES – When it comes to people texting in movie theaters, I’m not just a crank. I’m a vigilante. When a couple of young women sitting near me started texting at a screening the other night, sending bright shafts of light from their phones into my eye line, I growled, “Hey, cut it out or I’m gonna throw your phones away.”

My 13-year-old son has heard so many anti-texting sermons that when I was recently touting Clint Eastwood’s performance as a take-the-law-in-his-own-hands cop in “Dirty Harry,” hoping he’d want to watch the film, my kid immediately asked, “Does he shoot people for texting in movie theaters too?”

So I wasn’t exactly a disinterested observer when I read about a panel at last week’s CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas that was highlighted by a noisy debate over, yes, texting in theaters. Several prominent industry figures seemed to endorse the idea that, at a time when teenagers are going to the movies less and less, it might be time to relax our prohibitions against texting in theaters.

Regal Entertainment chief Amy Miles, who oversees the nation’s largest theater chain, said that while her company discourages cellphone use, executives have talked about being more flexible in auditoriums showing youth-oriented films. “You’re trying to figure out if there’s something you can offer in the theater that I would not find appealing but my 18-year-old son might,” she said.

IMAX Filmed Entertainment chief Greg Foster also seemed to endorse a relaxation of standards. He noted that his 17-year-old son “constantly has his phone with him,” adding that “we want (youths) to pay $12 to $14 to come into an auditorium and watch a movie. But they’ve become accustomed to controlling their existence.” A cellphone ban might make them “feel a little handcuffed.”

Tim League, head of the Austin, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse theater chain and a militant opponent of cellphone use in its theaters, did not take this lying down. League said theaters were a “sacred place” that should be free of distractions, saying that texting would be introduced in his theaters “over my dead body.”

The response in the blogosphere was equally blunt. Dripping with sarcasm, Jonah Gardner at Filmology said that when it came to allowing texting: “Why stop there? Encourage people to come to the movies to make important phone calls. Have them bring their laptops and do some work. Invite businesses to hold meetings during Saturday night screenings of ‘The Hunger Games.’”

Before I launched into a full-on anti-texting rant, I decided to hear what Miles and Foster had to say firsthand. I was in for a big surprise. Contending that their remarks had been misconstrued, they said, ahem, they weren’t really in favor of texting at all.

Miles was very clear. “Customer etiquette is a big deal with us,” she told me. “We strongly discourage any cellphone usage in our theaters. So we weren’t trying to convey to the world that we had a new policy on texting – we do not.”

Miles acknowledged that theater officials had discussed trying ways to create a more interactive environment in certain auditoriums, but both operational and piracy concerns had stopped the chain from pursuing any texting experiments. “Even if kids’ habits are different, we’re never going to bring that generational issue into our theaters.”

Foster was just as insistent. “There is no way we would ever allow texting at Imax theaters. We are the last bastion of showmanship for filmmakers who make great works of art and we would never encourage anything that interferes with the audience being allowed to enjoy the immersiveness of that experience. Our patrons pay a premium ticket price and they expect a premium cinema experience.”

I wish I could say that these no-wiggle-room clarifications mark the end of the texting-in-theaters squabble. But it’s just the end of the beginning. When I did an informal survey of my adult moviegoing friends, they were just as aggravated as me, happily volunteering stories about how they’d snapped at younger patrons who were texting in the middle of a movie.

But history proves Americans almost never resist technological change. Robots replaced factory workers. Napster and file-sharing decimated the recording industry. Newspapers are now being delivered on e-readers. There’s no easy way to fight consumers’ desire for convenience and access to information.

As my colleague Richard Verrier reported recently, consumers are using app-equipped cellphones to find nearby theaters, share moviegoing plans with friends, skip box-office lines and store trailers for future viewing. One service, Run Pee, even tells you the best time during a movie to take a bathroom break. Most exhibitors have encouraged these technological aids, figuring they could lead to more frequent moviegoing among the tech-savvy.

But having tethered moviegoers even more tightly to their cellphones, will exhibitors really continue to draw the line when these customers nestle into their seats and the lights go out? I doubt it. Having already adopted policies allowing, for example, reserved seating and alcohol imbibing, it’s hard to imagine that exhibitors won’t try similar experiments allowing cellphone usage in certain auditoriums.

It might be intriguing if the kids were texting each other probing analyses of the cinematography or production design. But judging from the teens I know, that’s hardly the case; the texts are usually idle chatter, extensions of conversations that began at school or on the baseball field. And no matter how thoughtful the comments might possibly be, I’m still being blinded by the light of their phones.

I remain a purist. The whole idea of going to the movies is about leaving all your other baggage behind. It’s why we call it escapist entertainment. If you’re checking your text messages, you’re missing out on the feeling of awe and exhilaration you can get only in a darkened theater. Film is a communal experience. The only screen you should be watching is the big one in the front of the theater, not the tiny one in your lap. One screen might tell you where your pals are going to dinner. The other one can make you laugh, weep and shriek with delight. Which one should you really be paying attention to?