Everyone knows a thing or two about bad behaviour in the movie theatre. If you don’t, then you’re the one doing it. Whether it’s a constant check for new texts or some people who chat so much you wonder why they paid for the ticket or that weird guy who isn’t in a conversation but he just won’t shut up, going to the movies can be luck of the draw when it comes to having a good or bad experience. But then, sometimes bad movie behaviour is perfectly acceptable. Maybe you’re at a horror movie film festival and the crowd is rowdy. Or maybe you’re at a press-only screening for a film festival and someone is checking their work email. Or maybe you’re at a drive-in theatre (my personal favourite) and the people in the car next to you have steamed up the windows. I’m trying to look at bad movie behaviour in an objective way.
First, let’s look at Talkers. In my screening of The Dark Knight, the guy next to me repeated every line the Joker said on screen to his girlfriend in the theatre. Nobody wants to sit next to imitation Joker, repeating every line of the film, and this is an experience we have all had. I remember a group of teenage girls in the opening night screening of Scream 4, which also happened to be in an AVX theatre. They talked non-stop, and incredibly loudly, through the first ten minutes of the movie. A kindly gentleman behind me tried to silence them with an equally loud ‘shut the fuck up’, which eventually drew the attention of an usher who finally quieted them. What was so shocking was that they obviously hadn’t seen the film before, and had paid a premium price to sit in an AVX theatre, only to constantly talk and not pay attention to the movie. There doesn’t seem to be a rationale for this kind of behaviour, and it is certainly not excusable. You are not alone in your living room, you are in public. People can hear you.
Cel phones have become the bane of moviegoers existence, but are honestly only requested to be turned off because they can be used to pirate a film, not because they blind other patrons.
Now it’s true that talking is horrible, but when you start hitting the film festival circuit the dynamic changes. While the kind of environment you find at a film festival generally lends itself to a different moviegoing experience than your local multiplex. This tends to apply mainly to genre film festivals, where the films are a little lighter in terms of subject matter. Pretty sure it would be inappropriate to hoot and holler during a screening of a serious documentary at Hot Docs. Show up for a screening at a festival like Toronto After Dark, or the Midnight Madness screenings at TIFF, and plenty of loud noise is usually accepted, provided it’s appropriate and in keeping with whatever film you may be watching. During Monster Brawl, which screened at Toronto After Dark in 2011, the crowd was encouraged to cheer for their favourite monster as they faced off in a series of wrestling matches in the film. This actually made the experience better, and anybody who has watched the film at home would probably agree. It’s just not the same without the cheering fans. Start yelling at the screening in any regular public screening and you’re likely getting thrown out.
Next let’s look at the cel phone. Cel phones have become the bane of moviegoers existence, but are honestly only requested to be turned off because they can be used to pirate a film, not because they blind other patrons. People are slaves to these devices and can’t seem to keep themselves from pulling them out when they feel them buzz, even if they are at the climax of a major action film. It’s terrible, and ushers (or security at special screenings) often do little about it, even when they do see it happen.
There is one situation where cell phone use is permitted, and that’s at press screenings, especially at large festivals like TIFF. You see, press screenings at large festivals are for critics to see the film and evaluate it critically, but they are also for buyers and investors to see the film in order to determine if it suits their upcoming slate or is a project they would like to throw financial support behind. In cases like this, it’s rare that a buyer at a festival has a spare two hours to take in a film uninterrupted. Phones are a standard at screenings like this and are simply a part of doing the job.
Surely not everybody agrees with this point, as we found out during TIFF in 2013 when Alex Billington of FirstShowing.net called 911 to report somebody using their cell phone during a press and industry screening of The Sacrament. (I’ve seen The Sacrament and I can’t believe anybody would be on their phone in that film, because it’s fantastic, but that’s not the point.) Billington was pretty upset, although calling 911 is going too far, but a press screening is work. This is not a screening that you even paid for, except for some of the costs associated with getting to the screening, and that’s the price you pay for a free movie. Outside of a press screening, the cell phone is a horrible piece of technology, and they should never be used in a theatre.
North Americans are the worst movie watchers there are, and we’re total pigs in the theatre. You know, people finish a film and just drop their fucking popcorn box on the floor or their soda container and they just leave it there. It’s stunning to see that because that happens nowhere else.
I recently spoke with Kevin Murphy. He’s best known for his work on Mystery Science Theater 3000 as co-writer and voice for the robot Tom Servo, but he’s also the author of a book called “A Year at the Movies: One Man’s Filmgoing Odyssey.” For this book Murphy spent an entire year going to the theatre once every day. It wasn’t the films he was writing about, however, but the actual experience in the theatre. During that year he found himself in hundreds of theatres, so he has experienced not only many different theatrical situations, but also in a variety of different places in the world. I asked him if any place in the world had a theatrical experience as bad as we have in North America. “No. No. Absolutely not,” Murphy responded quickly before continuing, “We’re the worst movie watchers there are, and we’re total pigs in the theatre as well. You know, people finish a film and just drop their fucking popcorn box on the floor or their soda container and they just leave it there. It’s stunning to see that because that happens nowhere else.”
In reality, there’s only one place that you can go to and watch a movie without worrying about anybody else, and that’s the drive-in. No matter how many fancy VIP theatres they build, or how amazing they try to make your theatrical experience, some person is going to wind up ruining it for you. That’s the real reason the drive-in has managed to survive so long. Do you want to shell a lobster while you watch a movie? Do you find it difficult to avoid smoking for 90 minutes? Is beer too expensive at the VIP theatre? Do you find it annoying when the usher asks you and your partner to get dressed because your heavy petting session is distracting the other audience members? If yes, then the drive-in is for you!
The only people who can annoy you at the drive-in are in the car with you. That means you all went together, and you are probably aware of your companion’s bad habits. Nothing is off limits unless you find the sound of your car horn exciting or leaving your high beams on while the movie is running. All the frowned upon behaviour in a theatre setting, like cell phones or excessive noise, doesn’t matter when you’re trapped in your own metallic bubble. Have a conversation on your phone. Nobody will care. Live tweet the entire film if you feel like it. Get drunk in the back seat (but make sure your friend drives home). Just about anything goes at the drive-in, which is the exact reason why I’ll be spending my entire summer at the closest one.