The Crass Picture Show

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The movie industry, reeling over consecutive years of sharply declining attendance, has made an effort to discover what its erstwhile customers want. The quality of the movies was not considered to be an issue, as nothing will dislodge the notion that one way or another, people will watch anything.

It appears that audiences do not want to show up on time for a movie only to be subjected to a barrage of advertisements. They do not want to pay high prices for tickets and above-market prices for drinks and snacks. And they do not want to be subjected to the rudeness of strangers.

It is that last complaint that the theater owners and Miss Manners most focus on, but for different reasons.

They want to save money; she wants to save a humble but useful social custom.

The quest is probably hopeless. Now that people can watch movies at home, increasingly soon after the release dates, more cheaply, without advertising and among their own friends, rude or not, why should they go out?

Miss Manners's answer is that the movie theater was a godsend to courtship. And not just because the lights go out.

It provided a nonthreatening, inexpensive venue which, in times long past, was even somewhat glamorous. A movie date gave each person an idea of the other's interests and tastes as they discussed which movie to see. (Or it would have, had they not both said, "Oh, I don't know. What do you want to see?") It lasted long enough to take up much of the evening while leaving enough time for a leisurely drink afterward. It provided a conversational topic that was apparently neutral but could lead almost anywhere someone cared to take it. And oh, yes, there was that part about sitting close in the dark.

These functions could still be served had the theater not become an annoying place to be. It is populated, sparsely or not, with moviegoers.

And today's moviegoers consider their films to be interactive. They talk, they shout, they make and take telephone calls, they get up and move around. They eat and drink noisily. They allow their children free range. They offer a running critique. They pick fights with one another. They take up more than their share of seats, putting up their feet, tossing their coats and sprawling over the arm rests. They vilify anyone who attempts to quiet them.

In other words, they make themselves at home. Which doubtless suggests to other people that they might as well go home. Or to make equal nuisances of themselves by quarreling with those who are being rude, thus adding to the rudeness that drives others away.

This has driven the theaters to the desperate measure of going into the etiquette business. But instructions flashed on the screen before performances are routinely ignored.

If the movie-theater industry is to save itself, it will have to employ rule enforcers, Miss Manners regrets to say, which is to say bouncers disguised as ushers. Its only other hope would be even more desperate: to book more subtle films that require an attentive audience.

Dear Miss Manners:

What is the proper way to request cash in lieu of gifts via a bridal registry?

Sit on the floor with a hat turned upside down on the floor beside you.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) atMissManners@unitedmedia.comor mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

2006Judith Martin

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