If you can walk out of a theatre this summer without harbouring a case of simmering rage, then you’re a stronger moviegoer than I am.
While the staggering success of the Barbenheimer phenomenon has delivered a resounding rebuke to the notion that streaming killed the multiplex, it has also sparked another, perhaps even more depressing question: Have we all lost our sense of common respect for one another? Or, to put a finer point on it: Can we not leave our phones alone for more than five minutes?
This past week, audiences have been flooding social media with complaints about disastrous theatre etiquette – from moviegoers watching YouTube clips at full blast to patrons pulling out their smartphones and taking pictures of the movie – with flash! – as it’s playing. The situation has become so aggravating, incessant and widespread that the U.S. theatre chain Alamo Drafthouse issued a tweet clarifying basic human decency: “Don’t take pictures during the movie with the flash on. Don’t even touch your phone during the movie. Just – just don’t. PSA over.”
While any visit to the movies over the past two decades has required civil audience members to gird themselves for the occasional glow of a screen or ping of a text, the situation has devolved with remarkably swift and devastating speed since theatres reopened after the worst of the pandemic. At a Barbie matinee last week, it was difficult to escape the glare of a cellphone flashlight, the buzz of a notification, and, yes, the blinding flash of camera as someone just had to catch an image of Ryan Gosling onscreen. One guest directly in front of me even spent a good portion of the film Instagramming her reactions live. (Reader, I moved, but passively-aggressively harrumphing the whole way.)
Perhaps it is because at-home viewing – and the substandard, half-attention-worthy entertainment that many of the streaming giants have been pushing – has fostered a new relationship between audiences and art. Every film is now expected to be a second-screen experience for audiences, with one eye trained on our social-media feeds and group chats, the other on whatever happens to be playing in front of us.
When audiences of a certain generation encounter a film that actually requires careful attention – as is the case with both Greta Gerwig’s sly and sharp Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s dense and knotty Oppenheimer – they are left flummoxed, their phone becoming a safety blanket. Actually, scratch that last age qualifier, as I’ve witnessed as much abhorrent behaviour from teens as I have middle-aged adults and senior citizens.
The only excuse that can reasonably be deployed in protest – “What if I need my phone for an emergency?” – isn’t much of an excuse at all. For decades before mobile devices existed, audiences either worked around or prepared for the threat of home or workplace calamities. If you think that your wife might go into labour any minute now, maybe wait to catch Sound of Freedom until it’s available on-demand.
Loud and pungent snacks might be another issue, but I’m not going to touch theatres’ one consistent source of revenue. As much as I pine for the days when it was just popcorn, candy and beverages, I understand why theatres have had to up their concessions game by introducing nose-tickling hot wings and hastily assembled burgers that require customers to sloppily smack their lips.
In case this lands like a holier-than-thou film-critic rant – which, yes, partly – there is just as much bad behaviour from so-called cinephiles as general audiences. If there is any doubt, just sneak into a press and industry screening at the Toronto International Film Festival this September to witness the thousand-points-of-light that illuminate auditoriums full of critics and sales agents and producers.
The situation is regrettably simple: Almost everyone is guilty, and almost everyone deserves to know that they are sullying what is still, or can be, a unique and frequently magical experience. It is only the preventative measures that are more complicated.
Just as no one should expect ushers to police behaviour – theatre employees have enough trouble making sure their 70 mm prints don’t break down or keeping the freestyle soda machines from accidentally flooding lobbies with Diet Cherry Limeade Fanta – no one should hope that every auditorium happens to have a vigilante audience member who is eager to yell some common sense into the Tommy Texters and Sally Soundtracks of the world. (That kind of stand-and-deliver bravery can also result in deranged violence.)
While we can dream about cinemas installing magical signal-blocking tech that shuts down any wireless network five minutes before a movie begins – as if we’re about to fly over the Atlantic – that kind of draconian investment is about as likely as hiring unionized projectionists.
Instead, it will be pure public shaming that might get us to some place of renewed decency. Or perhaps, paradoxically, any improvement will just require more and more audiences going to the movies, with Barbenheimer itself expanding expectations and obligations. The first time someone who hasn’t been to a film in a long while sits down in a theatre, they might be tempted to act the fool. But the second, third, fourth time, maybe it will be that fool in front of them who inspires a behavioural course-correction.
Be the Barbie you want to see in the world – not the Barbie you TikTok.