Texting in Movie Theaters: What’s the Solution?

photo credit: William DeShazer, Chicago Tribune

I went to see Skyfall this past weekend (one-word review: eh). Like any movie-viewing experience these days, I was pulled out of the film several times by people in front of me who decided that they couldn’t wait a single minute more without checking their phones. In a dark theater, the light from one cell phone screen goes a long way.

Some theaters are wisely taking action against the use of cell phones–any use, even just looking at the screen. I say “wisely” because providing a positive movie-viewing experience is their livelihood. If you have a bad experience in a theater, you might be slightly more inclined to stay home and watch The Avengers on your flatscreen instead of spending $20 at the theater for a ticket, soda, and popcorn.

One theater chain, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, will straight-up kick you out of the theater if you look at or use your cell phone. The audience is warned about the policy before the movie, and one of their workers stands in the theater for the duration of the movie to keep an eye out for cell phones. I like that policy and hope to go to one of their theaters when I visit Austin.

Another theater chain, Cinemark in California, is trying the exact opposite approach. When you buy your ticket, you’re invited to download a smartphone app that you then activate before the movie begins. The app monitors cell phone use during the movie, and if you don’t look at your phone or use it at all, the app will send you a coupon for a discount for tickets, drinks, or popcorn the next time you attend a Cinemark movie. It’s a brilliant approach to solving the texting problem.

Here’s why it won’t work:

Peer pressure is more powerful than money.

Case in point, a classic real-life example described by behavioral economist Dan Ariely: A day care was dealing with parents who were increasingly late to pick up their kids. So the day care decided to start charging parents $20 every time they were late. Clever, right?

Not so much. All this did was replace the social faux pas of being late with a palatable fee. Thus even more parents picked up their kids late than ever before. Now they didn’t have to feel bad about being late since they were paying for it.

Despite Cinemark’s move being one of positive reinforcement instead of negative reinforcement, I believe the effect will be the same. Now if you really want to check your fantasy football scores during a movie, you’re sacrificing $1 off at concession instead of the ire of the person behind you. Sure, that person might still be pissed, but who are they to complain? If they want to keep their phone off, that’s their choice to make for the price of a dollar.

What do you think? How would you solve this problem if you ran a movie theater?

8 thoughts on “Texting in Movie Theaters: What’s the Solution?”

    • I could see this becoming an issue in case of an emergency; no calls would be able to go out or come in, and the movie theater could be held responsible for that.

      I’ve heard about another, larger, theater chain that throws people out without a refund on their first cell phone offense. There are no warnings, other than the standard “Don’t use your phone” PSA at the beginning of the movie.

      I know I’ve briefly looked at my phone to check the time during a movie before, but I usually try to keep in buried in my purse so that most of the screen is hidden instead of holding it up for the world to see. I’m such a ninja about it that I don’t think anyone notices. 🙂

    • I think the idea of signal blockers in theaters could be highly beneficial, especially if the theater is advertising the existence of such a device. That’s a good point about people not having access to their phones in the event of an emergency if a signal jammer is present, but when movie theaters were created, cell phones did not exist, and people were able to survive just fine for a couple of hours without having constant contact with the outside world. If someone has something so important going on in their life that they need to have constant access to a cell phone, then maybe a trip to the movies is something those people shouldn’t be doing at the time.

      Most of the time in theaters when people are checking their phones that I’ve noticed, it seems like they are either replying to a text or checking up on social media– both activities that should be able to wait until the movie is over. It’s a huge distraction, and the last time I noticed someone with a cell phone out, all of my attention was drawn to the tiny lit up cell phone screen instead of the movie, and I have no idea if what I missed in the film was important. Sure, at times I’ve been tempted to check my phone during a movie (especially if it’s a boring movie), but have restrained myself out of respect for the other patrons in the theater.

      • I totally agree with you that people are far too dependent on their phones and should be able to go two hours without feeling the need to text someone or see what’s new on Facebook. But cell phones are a part of our world now, and I can assure you that if someone was having a heart attack or choking on popcorn, and precious time was lost because you had to go to the ticket counter or concession stand to call 911, the movie theater wouldn’t be able to avoid a lawsuit based on the argument that cell phones didn’t used to exist. They’re going to be held liable because they kept people from using their cell phones in a critical situation where they could have helped.

        I’m sure we’re not the first people to think of this idea. My guess is that theater owners have toyed with the notion of it before, but were told by their lawyers that it was a bad idea. Otherwise I’m sure someone would be doing this already.

        It’s like if kids keep sneaking in through the emergency exits to watch movies for free. I think we can all agree that putting chains on the exit doors to prevent that, Joe Clark style, would be a terrible plan. Instead, you increase your personnel or security, or accept that it’s part of the cost of doing business.

        I think you have to expect a reasonable number of distractions whenever you are in a room with hundreds of other people. Even if cell phones were banned or blocked, there are still plenty of opportunities for someone to disrupt your movie experience, and we’ve all dealt with those just fine. Someone is still going to cough or sneeze, or make far too much noise with their candy wrappers, or get up to use the restroom because they’ve finished their gallon of soda and there’s still another 4 hours left of Cloud Atlas. I’m not defending cell phone users; I’ve seen some ridiculous people out there with no respect for those around them trying to enjoy a film, and to me it is the 2nd worst movie-going offense (the worst being incessant talkers). But I don’t understand how a tiny light can be so hypnotic that it causes you to miss parts of the movie entirely, assuming that it’s not that magic glowing briefcase from Pulp Fiction or something. 🙂 I don’t like it either, but I refuse to let it ruin the movie for me.

  1. It’s funny to me that you are advocating a strict Cell Phone usage ban during a movie because it’s distracting, but you were excited about a theater that provides full service food.

    As far as I’m concerned, Cell Phone usage is usually not as much of an issue with me. Someone having a conversation on a phone is just as annoying as someone who talks through a movie with a friend who is present. How strict a theater wants to be about such distractions defines the theater’s Persona/Brand/Character. So long as you know what to expect from a specific theater (having been there before, and having an idea about it’s Persona/Brand/Character), you will select your venue accordingly.

    • Red–In my experience, movie theaters that serve food do so before the movie starts or during the previews, not the movies. They also use stadium seating so that even if the person in front of you gets a drink refill during the movie, the screen isn’t blocked. They’re very discrete.

      That’s a good point about other movie distractions. I would definitely support a theater with strict guidelines on distractions over one without such guidelines.

      • Alamo Drafthouse in Austin (they have several locations) is awesome. You get to have food/ drinks while watching the movie. So successful that they’ve opened one up in NYC.

        As for texting during movies, I admit I’ve definitely done it. I try to make it quick and cover the light so it doesn’t distract too much from the movie-going experience. Since we are in public I think you have to tolerate all sorts of distractions like people getting up to go to the bathroom etc. I agree that over-texting can be kind of inconsiderate but people will vote with their feet. Hence the success of Alamo for those who want a more serious viewing experience.


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