Written by Sasha Hornby
If film is my religion, then the cinema is my place of worship. I can’t remember a time I didn’t adore watching movies. My mum will tell tales of how I would be transfixed by Fantasia while still in my baby walker, asking to immediately watch again when the VHS finished. I vividly recall the first time I went to the cinema– it was 1997, and the film was The Lost World, the second instalment in the still-surviving Jurassic Park series. I was 7. We snuck in our own sweets at a time when this was considered “against the rules”, and let me tell you, the feelings that accompany such an unscrupulous act still endure to this day. As the overhead lights dimmed, and the projector started to whir, I was hooked on the feeling: pure escapism.
Over the last two decades, I have been a regular at the movie theatre, with some of my fondest memories taking place at the multiplex. I remember running to get a good seat (before allocated seating was the norm), after queueing for hours on the opening night of the third Lord of the Rings. I remember marvelling with wide-eyed wonder at my first IMAX film, The Dark Knight, at the National Media Museum (incidentally the first film I would see multiple times on the big screen). More recently, I remember taking my son, then age 3, for his first cinema visit to see The Good Dinosaur, and watching his face light up with awe in the same way I imagine mine did, and still does.
My love affair with the silver screen is long and historied. Which is why it brings me no joy to say I think it’s time me and the cinema broke up.
The offences I witness on a near-weekly basis range from the mildly irritating to the wholly unforgivable. Deeds that fall onto the mid-to-lower end of the “bad movie manners scale” occur with such regularity, that we, the audience, have come to expect them. The texters, the talkers, the feet-on-seaters, the snoggers, the latecomers and the noisy eaters. In over two-decades of theatre-going, the past two years in particular have left me despairing at the decline in cinema etiquette, with one experience in particular leaving me bereft.
Picture the scene: a cool Saturday afternoon in September, the 16th to be precise. I went, alone, to my local multiplex to see IT, the 80s-set retelling of the Stephen King horror novel featuring the infamous Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The auditorium was packed, buzzing with nerves and anticipation. I wasn’t in my “usual seat” as, shock horror, it was taken. Instead, I was seated in the middle of a row, in front of four young men. And thus began the most anxiety-inducing 2 hours of my life that had nothing to do with a child-eating clown. Honestly, more stressful than watching mother!
Bum barely on the seat, one suggested I might be more comfortable on his lap, and another offered to hold my hand if I got scared. Cue the eye-roll. As the film played, each jump scare elicited a more dramatic reaction, with over-the-top screaming and kicking of my seat. But being the stubborn cinemagoer I am, I ignored every provocation, instead choosing to shake my head, put my hood up and sink into my chair. Like any good horror movie, I was drawn into a false sense of security watching the credits, when I felt two hands grab my shoulders and violently pull me back. The only words I could muster in anger were “please don’t touch me”, and the retort was “it’s only a joke”.
I know this is an extreme example of a particularly shit shit-show, however, it is by no means an isolated incident. After airing my frustrations and introspections on Twitter (because did it even happen if you didn’t whine about it on Twitter?) I was horrified to hear fellow patrons’ stories. Not-so-inconspicuous sexual encounters, crying babies in 18-rated screenings, photos and/or videos being taken for social media – with flash on! Those who visit alone regale the scariest tales of all – being grabbed, pushed, openly mocked. There’s something deeply saddening about hearing a person picked popcorn out of their hair after a flick.
There are 3 suspects ripe for taking the blame in this unending crime-wave. The audience, the picture houses, and the movies themselves.
Audiences have always been a bit of a law unto themselves; it’s why we have ushers. I can admit, in a whispered voice, that I have been known, on occasion, to rest my feet on the armrest in front. Once, to my great tasty shame, I hid a burger and onion rings in my bag and devoured them during the trailers. Nonetheless, never have I ever used my phone, talked loudly, imposed on someone’s personal space, or been generally disruptive. Is societal decline to blame? Have people lost the ability to focus? Or is it the need to be constantly connected to the world-at-large that drives a person to blind the rest of us with their blue light emitting screens? Perhaps sitting in a dark room full of strangers mimics the anonymity of the web, where all sense of social decorum is thrown out of the window. Whatever the reason, politeness is out, and boorishness is in.
Now, an individual should always be held responsible for their own actions, but it cannot be denied that cinema complacency has to accept some of the culpability, particularly big chain multiplexes. The average screening will be lucky to have an usher pop in at all. If they do, the likelihood that the person working at minimum wage in a thankless job will actually call out disorderly folks is slim – and I don’t blame them; there are rarely consequences for the mischief-makers, and a very real risk of verbal abuse (or worse) – personal safety always comes first.
Another factor could be the growing trend to make the cinema experience like your home away from home. Comfy seats with reclining backs, or even sofas, food and/or drink that goes beyond the usual popcorn and an Ice Blast – a cinema in Leeds offers freshly baked pizzas and cocktails delivered to your seat! Please don’t think I am kicking the proverbial gift-horse in the teeth, I welcome the cosy chairs like Sophie welcomes her 3 dads in Mamma Mia – with open arms, singing with glee. I can’t help but wonder, though, if it feels like home, is one more likely to treat it like home?
Cinema-going has undergone something of a resurgence in recent years, surely helped by the introduction of subscription cards. In the UK, two of the largest chains, Cineworld and Odeon, both offer a service where you pay a set amount each month, and can go to the cinema as many times as you wish. Another UK chain, Vue, introduced an “Every Film Every Day” £5 scheme – a great deal considering average ticket prices in the UK are twice that (at least). Does this cheapen the experience as a whole? I posit that it does. It is much easier to put up with a dreadful crowd when the perceived monetary cost is low. It is also much easier to put up with a dreadful crowd when you’re seeing a film “for the sake of it” to “get your money’s worth”, as I imagine some subscription card holders do.
On to those wonderful filmmakers, their part is small, yet let me say this. My local is showing 10 different films tomorrow (a Wednesday). Of those 10 films, 5 have a runtime less than 2 hours. And of those 5, 3 are kid’s movies. My point is this – films are pretty long these days. With adverts and trailers averaging anywhere between 30 and 45 minutes, you could be sat on your butt for over 3 hours, not moving, not taking care of critical faculties, not engaging with anything but a big screen. Bliss for some, difficult for many.
Before I continue, I must state the obvious. NOT ALL MOVIES. NOT ALL CINEMAS. NOT ALL MOVIE-GOERS. There are trends. Certain genres, for instance, attract the ghastliest cinema-sinners. The same genres that are often not taken seriously by the likes of the Academy are also often not taken seriously by the wider audiences: horror, comedy, romance (mystifyingly known as a “women’s genre”), big-budget CGI-heavy franchises. Conversely, certain screenings attract the most innocent of film fans. Midnight screenings, marathon screenings, screenings in superior formats such as IMAX, screenings in well-preserved legacy formats such as 70mm, screenings for limited releases of indie films or non-Hollywood films – the kind only those ‘in the know’ really attend. Heck, even off-peak screenings pull in a more polite bunch. With a little effort, it would be relatively easy to avoid those deserving of picture house hell. But should you have to put in the effort? The quick answer: no.
So how do we fix it? I have seen op-eds crying for ushers for months. “Proper” ushers, who show you to your seat and check in regularly. Who aren’t worked to their bare bones serving popcorn only to clean it up off the floor 2 hours later. What I hear from people who actually work serving snacks and inspecting tickets is “I don’t get the time to look in on screenings, as I’m so damn busy doing everything else.” (That quote is minus 1 or 2 expletives!) It seems to me that adding just one or two extra people in peak times would ease the strain – better for staff and customer alike. I’m just saying, more ushers mean more sets of eyes available to observe busy screenings.
Blue sky, outside-the-box thinking, bring back intermissions. If it worked in the Golden Age of cinema, why can’t it work now? Just make sure the movie isn’t cut mid-sentence! Perhaps 15 minutes in the middle of a 3-hour epic would give you a chance to check your phone, stretch your legs, nip to the loo, get a drink or a hot dog, and chat excitedly with your friends before going back for the final act. We are so spoilt for choice between 2D, 3D, IMAX, VIP, 4DX, etc., that adding showings with interludes can’t hurt?
Still, ultimately the onus is on us, the audience. A tale as old as time, we need to stop being dicks to each other.
I’ll close with this, a 10 commandments if you will…
- Switch your goddamn phone off. Airplane mode that bad boy. No exceptions.
- Are you the director? No. Then keep your commentary to yourself. Also keep your spoiler talk out of the lobby. Think of the cinema as a movie library and hush.
- If you’re going to insist on resting your weary legs on the seat in front, I’d like to think it goes without saying to not do so when someone is sat in front of you, and under no circumstances do you remove your shoes or socks. Seriously, just stop it.
- Don’t hook up. There have to be dark places better suited to such exploits. The rest of the room shouldn’t have to sit awkwardly trying to ignore two people getting freaky under a coat.
- You know what’s cool? Punctuality. Arrive on time.
- You know what else is cool? Sitting in your own bloody seats. Yes, this only applies to allocated seating, but heads will roll if this simple rule keeps being ignored.
- Speaking of seats, I’m looking at you armrest hoggers and manspreaders. You’re in a shared space, so take up only what you really need. And no, the aisle seat does not mean extra legroom.
- When it comes to food, ask yourself this – does it snap, crackle or pop? Will it stink up the place? If the answer to either of these is yes, leave it at the door!
- Got rubbish? The floor is not a bin. The seat you are vacating is also not a bin. Clean up after yourself.
- And finally, never ever ever ever lay an uninvited hand on, or get in the personal space of, a perfect stranger. Apply this one 24/7.
“If we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – Paddington Bear