your £$ support needed

part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

what are the potential upsides of allowing people to use their smartphones in cinemas?


By now you’ve likely heard about the proposal put forth a month ago by venture capitalist Hunter Walk that multiplexes put aside screens in which the use of smartphones is encouraged. A taste:

Instead of driving people like me away from the theater, why not just segregate us into environments which meet our needs. I’d love to watch Pacific Rim in a theater with a bit more light, wifi, electricity outlets and a second screen experience. Don’t tell me I’d miss major plot points while scrolling on my ipad – it’s a movie about robots vs monsters. I can follow along just fine.

This prompted exactly the sort of outrage you might have imagined. Scott Mendelson at Forbes exuded that terrifying kind of calm rage while getting at the most insidious problem with such a concept:

[O]n a practical level, Mr. Walk’s solution, of offering separate auditoriums for text-happy/chatty moviegoers, will only increase the harm of a very current problem. First of all, you run the risk of text-friendly theaters becoming more popular than “turn off your damn phone!” theaters, leaving traditional moviegoers segregated to the smallest auditoriums. Second of all, and this is a big one, there are only so many screens on which to show movies. We already have the biggest blockbusters taking up 2D, 3D, IMAX, and/or EXT screens. Now you want to give the biggest movies another screen just so certain moviegoers can play Candy Crush while they watch Pacific Rim?

Do you want to be in a position where your local multiplex doesn’t get that print of Fruitvale Station, even for just a week, because that available auditorium was reserved for another “second screen auditorium” of The Wolverine?

Moved to come to Walk’s defense was Anil Dash, who accused those who wish to preserve the moviegoing experience as “monastic,” akin to anti-feminist, anti-gay, pro-slavery conservatives, and being “super, uniquely sensitive.” Seriously.

Are there are any good reasons to consider Walk’s proposal? I certainly haven’t come across any. But, purely as an exercise in creative contrarianism:

What are the potential upsides of allowing people to use their smartphones in cinemas?

Remember, this is an exercise in thinking outside the box. Even if you personally would prefer that people around you not text, talk on their phones, or be disruptive in other ways at the movies — as I imagine most of you reading this would — let’s brainstorm. Feel free to throw out crazy ideas. Might it, for instance, lead to the creation of interactive movies where the mood of the audience controls the plot, in which reaction tweets are monitored and steer the story in a Choose Your Own Adventure sort of way?

@DeputyMasterWAH suggested we talk about the texting-in-movies topic, but not my spin on it, so don’t blame him.

(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me.)

  • rurugby

    It has the advantage of saving me money, by making me watch movies at home.

  • Stephanie C.

    Rather than calling the current movie going experience ‘monastic’, I would call it *immersive*. I am not against the concept, actually, of a movie that is partly ARG. I was considering scripting a web series that would incorporate something of that nature.

    The problem lies in the technology…you actually roll something out that gives everyone relatively the same experience, and doesn’t actually leave out someone if there’s a glitch or they get dragged in with their friends but they have an old flip phone and they just watch the movie? I wonder if it could be done effectively with a good old hacker film; if there was a virtual ‘virus’ spreading through the phones in the theatre or somesuch. But how do you know that the tablets and phones are in the theatre? Bluetooth? a local wifi network? How do you block that from other people? Speaking as a programmer type, it’s an interesting challenge but I don’t know that it would really be possible right not.

    What might be really interesting is two point of views, of the same story (the bad guy, the hero / each romantic lead / the parent, the kid). *Being told in different theatres*. They cross over each other a lot, but you only get the POV of your character. You would be hooked up to someone randomly in the other theatre or you could come with someone and split, and you need to communicate on behalf of the characters. Your understanding of what’s wholly going on would depend on what the other person said.

    I know they played with this a little in the new Arrested Development, where the whole thing takes place in a very short time, but the various characters keep crossing each other’s streams repeatedly. Until you’ve seen the whole thing, you can’t quite tell what’s actually happened.

  • RogerBW

    I think that offering people choice is reasonable. Have some screens, or some showings, where phone use is encouraged (and talking, and uncontrolled children), and the people who want to do that won’t be in the other screens distracting the rest of us. I might even start going to cinemas again, if they also fixed the sound problems.

    As for Scott’s objection, in big cities there are alternative cinemas; in smaller places you’ll hardly ever get a screening of a non-blockbuster anyway.

  • RogerBW

    I think a core problem with a movie-based ARG is the same that people found in experiments with interactive TV in the 1980s: you can only put one thing on the screen, and if you give viewers a choice they want their choice to be the one that comes up, not what the majority went for.

  • amanohyo

    There are two potential uses of a second screen that would interest me:

    1) Rifftrax. This could be done almost as effectively with a simple mp3 player; however, visuals on a small screen could make a joke more effective, similar to the slides/clips used in the monologue gags on the Daily Show/Colbert Report. Smartphones also have the ability to automatically sync the audio. Of course, I would become that one annoying dude who laughs at inappropriate moments in a film… oh wait, I’m already that dude.

    2) Exploring the setting. The thus far largely unsuccessful Nintendo Wii U system has a tablet-like controller than can be used to “explore” a three dimensional space. By using the accelerometer in a smartphone, it would be possible to similarly use a phone screen as a window into children’s movies that are purely CG. When the kids (or adults) get bored, they could look around at other parts of the “set” (as they do in real life). There could even be gags going on behind the official camera and Easter Eggs for bored parents. Potentially this could be done for live action movies as well, but this would require a ridiculously expensive armada of cameras. This would be a nice stepping stone toward the oculus rift type experience that will eventually become the norm for CG movies.

    All that said, I am not the typical consumer or even the typical movie lover. I own a nine year old pay as you go cell phone for emergency purposes, do not have a landline, and spend less than an hour on the internet each day. As a result, the social applications of a second screen do not interest me. The greatest potential of a second screen lies in the ways it would allow you to connect with other people watching the movie. As someone who actively avoids social situations, I am blind to these applications. One thing is certain – we will see adds popping up on these screens if this becomes the norm, which would be unfortunate.

  • Stephanie C.

    ARGs are not ‘pick a path to adventure’ type things, though. they’re extended puzzle games.

  • RogerBW

    As they’re currently considered, yes, fair enough — but technically anything that uses the phone/device for interaction could be regarded as an ARG. (I wouldn’t call Ingress a puzzle game, for example.)

  • Lisa

    A smartphone lights up their faces in the dark – much easier for me to punch!

    In saying that, theatres have started to do relaxed performances for people with autism, etc and they change the lighting and let people chat so I don’t see the harm of having some scheduled performances of films being like that, just not the ones I go to!

  • Stephanie C.

    Matinees for Mommies is a pretty common mid afternoon use, too.

  • amanohyo

    I like your idea of multiple versions of the same movie told from different perspectives a lot – romantic comedies in particular could benefit. Getting the typical couple to agree to physically separate in order to bond in a more meaningful way through the story would be a tough sell, but I’d love to see someone try to pull it off.

  • Danielm80

    I think this sort of thing could work really well on DVD or on Netflix, but maybe not in a theatre. The DVD versions of The Matrix and Serenity had pop-up features for really dedicated viewers.

    Personally, I’d like to see annotated versions of TV series. I’d enjoy Game of Thrones much more if it had a little sidebar to remind me how the characters are related and what they’re fighting about.

  • RogerBW

    The DVD protocol can do a kind of multiple-choice mode with camera angles. Since Blu-Ray requires a JVM, you should be able to do a full-on game. Though I wonder whether the potential audience is playing computer games instead.

  • Beowulf

    Talking, phone use, children — it’s called watching at home. And it costs a lot less!

  • RogerBW

    Yes, well, I’m faintly surprised cinemas survive at all. But I’m also not the sort of person who’d go to a live sporting event, so what do I know?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    So, what I learned today:

    1. Hunter Walk (can’t possibly be his real name), whom I’d never heard of before, doesn’t know the difference between “need” and “want”.
    2. Anil Dash, whom I’d also never heard of before, thinks it smart to counter an appeal to tradition with an appeal to tradition.

    My life is poorer now for knowing who these two are.

    Anyway, if either of these two were near as smart as they clearly think they are, they’d realize that what they want isn’t a movie theater, and more like a movie bar: for $15 cover charge, the room is divided into areas, with a large TV monitor or projector screen on one wall, and speakers at the tables.

  • David_Conner

    Setting aside the ARG idea as such for a moment, The “Interactive Movie” concept has fascinated me ever since I read Roger Ebert’s review of a spectacularly crappy implementation of such almost 20 years ago.


    The fact that, technologically speaking, the basic capacity to do something along these lines existed that long ago, and AFAIK nobody’s done much with it since suggests it’s one of those feasible ideas, like video phones, whose time will never come.

    (I’m thinking particularly that Disney has a copious absence of stuff like that in its parks, though they’d certainly have the infrastructure and R&D to implement it as well as could be done.)

  • LaSargenta

    I see a resurgence of Drive-Ins, this time with cars with blu-ray or other screens, like making those in-car DVD screens wifi compatible. That way, too, we don’t have to listen to other’s “interactions” with the film.

  • LaSargenta

    I hated those things. My kid was a pretty mellow, quiet kid. I ran some experiments of taking him to matinees — and if he started to talk at all, we went out to the lobby. It didn’t take him long (in actual calendar time — it did feel endless when I was doing it) to learn that we don’t talk in the theater. Later, when he had been taken to “kid’s” movies (by others who didn’t remind him and the other guests that talking was NOT the done thing) at times when there were mountains of children, I had to re-teach the lesson.

    However, it was hard to find cinemas that would let me bring in a little kid for non-kid fare. I was constantly encouraged to go to Mommy-n-Me shows. That was the LAST thing needed to actually teach a kid to not talk during a film! Besides, Atanarjuat never played at one of those theaters.

  • Beowulf

    When I was a youngster (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away), our town’s main movie house had a “baby room” in the balcony (remember balconies?). It was sound proof, enclosed in glass, and a wonderful thing. Not a bad idea for cell phone users!

  • Stephanie C.

    they were a godsend to a friend of mine who had 3 kids under 4, though…she couldn’t have kept the year old twins and the 4 year old pacified as you seem to have been able to do when training one child. And my other friend, who went there while she was still on maternity leave, and was going stir crazy. She needed to be able to whip out the boob and see what was going on with her 4 month old.

    And frankly, as someone who does want silence in the movie house, *if* your child started talking at all, by the time you went out to the lobby, you’d already have bothered me. I don’t know what level his volume at, but that just doesn’t seem fair that you trained him (well!) but at the expense of others that way.

    Mommy Matinees aren’t just for the mommies, you know…they’re also for the other patron.

  • LaSargenta

    Every kid is different. Pixie is pretty mellow. I’m sure if I had another, it would be completely different. I also had a great advantage in that when he was very little, he telegraphed things a bit with body language. I was almost always able to get him out before any noise was evident.

    As far as fairness…well, I had to put up with the hearing-aid-needing people in the audience who either refused to wear it or couldn’t wear it due to the sound system and who were *completely* unaware of the volume of their comments to neighbors. No sound my kid made was anywhere near that.

    [Total non-sequitur: Why can’t someone make an affordable hearing aid that deals well with recorded sound over a wide auditory range? It must be rare, otherwise more people would have them! I have friends who are extremely frustrated with what they’ve gotten because they have trouble listening to music like they used to.]

  • singlestick

    You could add a desk, and then hipster screenwriter wannabees could plot the next blockbuster while they are watching the current one.

  • :andmark Theatres

    Sounds spectacular old chap, but tell me will your desk/phone package come bundled with a stout mug of high-quality, fair-trade, organic, single-producer, custom roasted, ironically-named, overpriced caffeinated beverage? Ours does, and that’s not all – for a limited time our bonus hipster screenwriter ticket includes two ounces of falafel, half a cup of pad thai, and one day’s supply of playful headwear subtly emblazoned with the obscure and/or imaginary band name of your choice.

    Landmark Theatres – we’re everywhere you self-consciously pretend that you don’t really wanna be but kind of do sometimes you know?

  • amanohyo

    The narratives of the two films could even gradually converge so that the final minutes of both films were almost identical – and as you say, some of the lines could have entirely different connotations depending on how much of the alternate perspective your date/partner/companion/teammate/opponent was able to communicate to you…

    In the beginning filmmakers would be pressured to make a “boy’s version” and a “girl’s version,” but a lot of the gender inequality would be subverted by the symmetrical form. Attempts to trivialize or oversimplify the “girl’s” perspective would be immediately transparent. If you don’t mind, I’m going to try this out later. Thank you for the idea.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Francine: Spam…

    Roger: Don’t knock it. It’s got its own key.
    Dawn of the Dead (1978)

  • Tonio Kruger

    For what it’s worth, I remember hating drive-ins.

    Of course, I now understand why they were considered a blessing to parents of large families — like, er, mine — who wanted to take their kids to the movies without spending a fortune. (And I don’t exactly consider it a bizarre coincidence that drive-ins start vanishing after the average American family started to get smaller. But enough on that subject for now.)

    But aesthetically, they were a mess. YMMV, of course.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Re: Anil Dash.
    Hunter Walk’s plan to bring back separate but equal theatre venues is shocking enough. But Dash’s essay just takes the cake.
    And for what it’s worth, my paternal grandmother still had memories of having to sit in the balcony with the other Mexicans because the local movie theatre did not permit them to mingle with regular movie-goers after one Mexican woman had an accident in the movie theatre. However, that did not prevent my father from teaching me basic theatre etiquette.
    It does, however, make it a bit hard for me to keep from rolling my eyes during Ms. Dash’s arguments. After all, there are worse things than … gasp!… shushing.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I once dated a woman who was epileptic and on her behalf, I would like to see fewer movies with strobe lighting. But apparently no one is even mentioning that because it is after all, the texters who bear the heaviest burdens of contemporary society… :-)

  • LaSargenta

    …but, it was only at my local Landmark (Sunshine) that I was able to see a decent rom-com. That’s where I had to go to see In A World!

  • We may not have gotten dedicated videophones, but we have Skype, which is even better, because it does not require a separate piece of equipment.

    So maybe interactive movies will happen, too, if not quite in the way we expect it to.

  • A movie bar is an idea I’ve also had. It would be analogous to a sports bar, except instead of football or basketball on all the TVs, there would be movies. We’d have theme nights, quote-a-long screenings of geek favorites, and cool fun like that.

    As for Walk and Dash, they have separately helped to create the Net as we know it. Walk was involved in the early days of YouTube, Google, and Second Life. Dash was one of the founders of Movable Type.

    Take from that what you will.

  • RogerBW

    The level of involvement and action is a tricky point to hit — somewhere between the full howlalong of a Rocky Horror Picture Show and a solo viewing. There is sometimes a feeling about a showing with an audience that doesn’t translate to the DVD, even if they’re not shouting about it.
    The movie bar, I guess, would have a buzz of conversation going pretty much all the time — it’s a bar, after all. It would be challenging, but worth it, to set the place up so that the movie didn’t turn into wallpaper…

  • Melissa Doucette

    My father just got some excellent, mid-range hearing aids – and they cost $4000. Yikes. He had to pay half, but that’s still a big chunk of change. I feel most sorry for people who can’t afford hearing aids at all; you miss so much without them. I wish my father had gotten his 3 years ago (when he was told he needed them!).

  • bronxbee

    my mom won’t get them, though she needs them desperately, because of the cost. she has found, though, that many movie theatres now have some sort of hearing aid for people who request it, free of charge.

  • amanohyo

    Just being silly – I like Landmark and also recently entered one of their fine establishments (E Street) to give Lake Bell some financial support. The place is wall to wall hipsters, chattering and texting and scampering over the seats like a dray of bearded squirrels in skinny jeans, each one more adorably haughty and deliberately awkward than the next. I was thiiiis close to adopting two of them on the spot, but I don’t know… our yard isn’t really ironic enough to raise them properly. *sigh* Someday though… someday

  • Damian Barajas

    Wait, so people want to pay for a movie ticket (plus extra for the privilege!) to read on their Ipad? What’s more, to sit next to other people trying to read on a kindle, next to other people who are talking on the phone?

    Makes sense.

    But seriously, how about an app for your phone that works as a sort of crib sheet for people who have a hard time keeping up with the plot. You would have the names of the characters that are on screen at any moment, a list of characters with info on what they’ve done so far and an ability to go back to a piece of dialog and even save it. As well as a plot synopsys and links to information on the film locations.

    There would be ads like crazy, unfortunately, as soon as a car comes up you’d probably get a commercial for it or something like that.
    See the problem with this is it won’t get built if people want it, It will get made if they think they can make money off of it.

  • David_Conner

    I think that’s sort of happening already, but in the form of games, enhancements to Blu-Rays, “second screen” stuff, etc.

    But I have a hard time envisioning any of those things that would work *best* in the movie theater with a crowd of people environment. If it’s some sort of “choose your own adventure” thing, when would letting 200 strangers make the choice be preferred to making your own choice, at your leisure? And how many movie “extras” would work better in a theater than at home where you have a pause button?

    The only thing I can sort of think might work is something like “live tweeting” – as with, most recently, Sharknado. But even there… tweet with 200 strangers in a movie theater, or a bunch of friends and people you follow because you are already interested in hearing what they have to say?

  • David_Conner

    Actually, now that I think about it, the real potential breakthrough would be not smartphones, but Google Glass. You could have “additional content” and apps of various kinds, but in a way that wouldn’t (I think? I’ve never really seen the things in action) be distracting to other viewers.

    Accessibility is another big potential area – providing live captioning or (native or other-language) subtitles. There’s already some implementation of that, but if Google Glass takes off, then you wouldn’t need expensive hardware, the annoyance of checking the things out and back in, etc. – you’d just bring your own hardware.

  • David_Conner

    Drive-ins have been dead for decades where I am (Washington, DC metro area)… and apparently the remnants are on the verge of dying, as they will have to go digital in the near future, and many surviving drive-ins don’t have the money to upgrade.

    I don’t expect a big rebound, even putting aside the digital conversion problem. The central issue is that if you’re in a location where a drive-in could attract a sizable audience without making them drive for an hour to get there, the considerable amount of land needed is going to have some higher-valued use. From a business perspective, it would almost certainly do better as an office park, houses, condos, whatever.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Re: Walk and Dash: smart people making dumb arguments, I guess. Or tech geeks thinking they can reshape the entire world in their image and annoyed that the rest o the world doesn’t agree.

  • Froborr

    So… transhumanists, basically.

  • Froborr

    Better solution, which also helps solve piracy issues: Release movies on DVD/streaming services the same day they go out in theaters. People who want to text through the movie can watch from home, people who want an immersive experience can go to theaters.

  • singlestick

    Movie house owners would howl over same day streaming. I’m not sure that it would solve privacy issues. But it might make for an interesting experiment. Would people be willing to pay a same day premium, say $50 per household, to see it at home?

  • RogerBW

    If cinemas can’t compete with a home viewing, maybe it’s time for them to admit that and die rather than be artificially protected?

  • singlestick

    RE: If cinemas can’t compete with a home viewing, maybe it’s time for them
    to admit that and die rather than be artificially protected?

    Kinda apples and oranges. How much would you pay to watch the next Avengers movie at home if there were no theaters? Do you think the studios would still spend $220 million or more on the production budget with no theatrical release?

    If there were no theatrical release and only home viewing, would it be reasonable for the studios to try to find a way to determine the number of eyes actually watching the movie, and charge accordingly?

    It’s really not just about “competing,” it’s about multiple distribution channels, and how to best, and profitably, satisfy the demand.

  • Dr. Rocketscience


  • LaSargenta

    Yeah, and I never liked the idea of them back when they were still pretty common. However, this place http://www.bengies.com/Home.php is worth going to. Baltimore area.

  • David_Conner

    This has more to do with the hearer than the hearing aids, probably. I have excellent hearing aids from Oticon that are miles ahead of what I had 10 years ago. But even they can only do so much. With certain extremely high-pitched tones, my hearing is shot to the point that I’m essentially deaf to them, and amplification doesn’t really help at all.

  • David_Conner

    Yeah, assisted listening devices. Unless they’ve changed much recently, they’re kind of a pain in the ass, in practice. Mainly because you have to work your way through theater drones to get them (and odds are, the manager’s probably the only person aware that the devices exist.) And the theater would make me give them my driver’s license as security against me stealing the damn thing, which means after the show, you need to track down a theater drone who can give you back your license….

    The quality was iffy, too. Sometimes really staticky, occasionally they wouldn’t work at all either due to sitting in a drawer for months until the batteries ran out, or the system not being turned on/tested, or who knows what.

    But the main thing is, hearing aid technology has gotten a LOT better. It’s an order of magnitude difference not unlike, say, the difference between cell phones in 1993 versus smartphones in 2013.

    Cheap, they aren’t, but insurance seems to be starting to cover them. Mine now does, allegedly. I guess I’ll find out when I need replacements.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Please don’t make me start quoting Anatole France, MaryAnn. You wouldn’t like me if I start quoting Anatole France.

Pin It on Pinterest