Why All Movie Theaters Should Ban Cellphones

The new CEO of AMC is threatening to allow cellphone use in cinemas to attract more Millennials.

Scott Roth / AP

It’s become a sadly common experience at this point: a night out at the movies, a fortune shelled out on tickets and snacks, suddenly ruined by someone in the audience taking out their phone. Some theater chains recognize how annoying this problem is for viewers: The Alamo Drafthouse has a zero-tolerance policy and will eject any patron distracting viewers with their light-up screen. But not every company is following suit—according to the new CEO of the theater chain AMC, the battle against moviegoers who use their phones has already been lost.

“When you tell a 22-year-old to turn off the phone, don’t ruin the movie, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow,” Adam Aron said in an interview with Variety. “You can’t tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That’s not how they live their life.” You heard him: The youngsters simply can’t sit still for two hours without checking their phones, so we might as well abandon hope. But one of the chief advantages of the theatrical experience is being removed from such distractions, and in a time when cinema chains are being threatened by expanded home-viewing options, they should try to promote that distinction, rather than abandon it.

The biggest problem with cellphone use in a theater is that it doesn’t just distract someone’s seat-mates; the annoyance of a screen lighting up is unavoidable to anyone in the rows behind the phone user as well. I’ve watched someone go through their emails for a good 10 minutes while I was sitting 10 rows behind them, and all I could do was wait for someone nearby to tap them on the shoulder. At a recent viewing of Zoolander 2, I sat next to someone who excitedly took out their mobile device, opened their Notes app, and wrote down the name of every celebrity cameo in the film. (If you haven’t seen Zoolander 2, it has a lot of celebrity cameos.) The film writer Matt Singer recently recalled someone taking pictures of the screen during a 3D movie, perhaps unaware that their phone didn’t also have 3D glasses on.

As cellphone use has proliferated, movie theaters have divided into two camps: Smaller businesses like the Alamo Drafthouse that make a point of strictly enforcing behavioral rules for its theatergoers, and larger chains like Regal and AMC that remind viewers to turn off their phones before the movie stars but pay no real heed after that. When Aron, who became CEO of AMC four months ago, opines on encouraging texting, he’s acknowledging the truth that unchecked phone use is already rampant in cineplexes around the country.

Aron’s argument is largely generational. Millennials love their phones, and they experience and document all their media experiences with them, so why deny them that right? “We’re going to have to figure out a way to do it that doesn’t disturb today’s audiences,” he acknowledged. “Today’s moviegoer doesn’t want somebody sitting next to them texting or having their phone on.” Today’s moviegoer doesn’t, but according to this 60-something CEO, tomorrow’s does, and that’s a reality to be lived with, not challenged.

One possibility, raised by Variety’s Brent Lang, is to have “a certain section” of the theater reserved for texting; Aron also suggests making “specific auditoriums” texting-friendly. One can only imagine such a nightmarish environment, as Batman v Superman plays on the big screen while much tinier screens light up every other second around you. In a perfect world, such a ticket would be available at rock-bottom prices, but Aron is probably imagining the opposite: yet another surcharge to help float the revenue stream of the struggling theater industry. Whatever generational gulf might exist on this issue, Aron is still taking the most patronizing approach. A film is objectively less enjoyable, for you and everyone around you, if you look at your phone while it plays; telling “Millennials” that they don’t have the discipline to keep their phones in their pockets for two hours doesn’t change that fact.