Sunday, November 24, 2013
Cellphones and movie theaters shouldn't mix
Late last August, I was visiting my son in Richmond. He and I took in a late-night showing of the latest X-Men movie, "The Wolverine." Throughout the film the glow of cellphone screens lit up the theater.
It's a common experience, but one that isn't limited to lighter fare mostly attended by young adults. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I experienced a similar cellphone glow during a showing of "12 Years a Slave," a more serious movie attended by a much older crowd.
It's rude to use a cellphone during the showing of a movie. It's disturbing to the other attendees. But rarely do ushers enforce the policy laid out clearly by the trailers that precede a movie.
Are other viewers responsible for saying something to those who use their cellphone for texting or tweeting or checking their email during the showing of a movie? It used to be that a well-placed glare at someone who was talking too loudly might do the trick, but with a head buried in a cellphone screen, such glares can go unnoticed.
There is, of course, the concern that confronting a cellphone user might itself be more of a disruption to the rest of the viewers than the glow of the cellphone itself.
So what's the right thing to do?
There's a practice among some friends having dinner out to put all their cellphones in the middle of the table at the beginning of the meal. Whoever grabs his or her cellphone first picks up the bill for everyone's meal. While it would be a nice practice, it's unlikely that theater cellphone users would pick up the tab for everyone else's theater ticket if they choose to be rude and use their phones during the feature.
I believe it's the movie theater's responsibility to try to enforce its policy of no cellphone use during movies. It would also be good to think that telling an usher or manager that there is excessive use of cellphones during a showing would result in some action. But since these cellphone glows can be intermittent, it's unlikely that a manager would return in time to confront the perpetrator.
While viewers might be reluctant to say anything to the users, I believe it is the right thing to do, as long as they don't perceive that doing so would result in any harmful confrontation. The disruption caused by asking someone to stop using their phone during a film is momentary compared to the cellphone glow that comes regularly without warning.
If theater management is unwilling to enforce its own policy against cellphone use during the feature, then I believe the right thing is to give viewers a choice to see a movie in a theater where cellphone signals are blocked. If they won't enforce a policy to guarantee the enjoyment of a movie, then they should invest in the technology in their theaters that will do this for them.
That would leave the choice among the viewers of whether to separate themselves from cellphone use for two hours or not. Short of this, movie theaters might increasingly find themselves with fewer patrons willing to shell out money to be among rude patrons.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin