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Cell phone usage devalues audience’s cinematic experience

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It’s no news that millennials have a hard time putting down their cell phones. Whether walking, sitting, listening to music or talking to friends, it seems that younger generations are find- ing it increasingly impossible to stop using their phone. While in some cases this incessant use is acceptable – who hasn’t played a game of Candy Crush or taken a Buzzfeed quiz while waiting in a line – others are less so. Perhaps the most salient example of an inappropriate time to scroll through one’s cell phone is in movie theaters

Despite the frequent messages prior to the showing of films that ask audience members to turn off their cellular devices, according to a recently published piece in The Atlantic, more and more moviegoers, millennials in particular, are using their cell phones during showings. As such Adam Aron, the CEO of the movie theater chain AMC, wants to now allow cellphone use in cinemas.

Aron puts forth a semi-compelling argument for his view- point. Essentially, he claims that because millennials can’t stop using their phones and movie theaters don’t allow phones, if phones are allowed millennials might be more inclined to go to these theaters. However, I fundamentally disagree with such an action, as allowing cell phone use in theaters, and subsequently allowing the distractions they innately bring, hinders the primary goal of movie theaters: to create a wholly immersive movie watching experience.

Since their inception, movie theaters were built with the intention of creating a uniquely special experience. In fact, during the 1920s to early 1940s audiences flocked to movie pal- aces, lavish buildings meant to house huge crowds. The movie palaces sought to create an environment for filmgoers that not only facilitated their viewing of films, but also enhanced that experience; going to the movie theater was not just a way to pass time, but rather an event.

Though such opulent cinemas are rare now, modern theaters still strive to augment the experience of watching a movie. Surround sound, enormous screens, comfortable chairs, all strive to make the audience more immersed in the film. Allowing cellphones in theaters fights directly against this immersion.

The most obvious problem that comes with allowing cell phone use in theaters is their potential for audience distrac- tion. Movie theaters are meant to be dark, and regardless of genre, though particularly true for horror, watching a movie in the intended dark of the theater adds yet another layer to the experience.

The dimming of theater lights is perhaps one of the most powerful nonverbal cues today; as the theater darkens, audience members quiet down and prepare to take in the film before them. Furthermore, the darkness emphasizes the picture on the screen; filmgoers have nowhere else to look.

The lights from cellphones blatantly disrupt this emphasis. There are few things that can take someone out of the viewing experience more than constant flashes of fluorescent lights. Incidentally, filmgoers often shift from watching the movie as intended to watching the person in front of them take a selfie to show that they actually did go to the midnight premiere of the new Star Wars – after all, pics or it didn’t happen.

As a sort of middle-ground, some cinemas have suggested designating specific seating sections of the theater as cellphone friendly. In this scenario, all of the people who think texting and taking pictures while they watch a movie is acceptable are lumped together and kept away from those who do not.

Apparent naiveté about the way in which light travels in a dark room aside, this “solution” is just as problematic as an overall allowance of cell phones, as it also works against a fundamental aspect of watching a film in a theater: the sense of community. Movie theaters, at their cores, provide an avenue for a group of people to come together and watch a film in its intended format, as an immersive and encompassing event. Sectioning off the theater based on cellphone usage, though well-intentioned, disrupts the communal film experience only truly possibly in a movie theater.

So the next time you go to a theater near you, remember that those warning messages beforehand to turn off your cell phones are in service of the filmgoers and as such are warranted and meant to be followed. The messages about buying the theater’s concessions, on the other hand, are not; movie theater popcorn is much too expensive these days.

Madisen Egan ’16 (eganm@stolaf.edu) is from St. Paul, Minn. She majors in English and biology with a concentration in film studies.