Well, that didn’t take long.
No sooner had AMC Entertainment chief executive Adam Aron’s revealed that he was considering allowing filmgoers to use their phones in some AMC theaters than the feathers hit the fan. After telling Variety’s Brent Lang that texting during movies has become inevitable (“You can’t tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone,” he told Lang. “That’s not how they live their life.”), and the immediate social media conflagration ensued, Aron issued a contrite statement on Friday.
The idea has been “relegated to the cutting room floor,” he said. “With your advice in hand, there will be NO TEXTING ALLOWED in any of the auditoriums at AMC Theatres. Not today, not tomorrow and not in the foreseeable future.”
Aron’s initial self-evident observation and his humble mea culpa were an object lesson in how personally people take their cinema and how profoundly our collective relationship with the medium has changed in just a few short years.
When I became a film critic 20 years ago, flip phones were considered high-tech and home entertainment centers were still called TVs. Today, smartphones, state-of-the-art home screens and ear-splitting sound systems have blurred the lines between what constitutes a movie and what constitutes content. The ritual of going to the movies — the decorum involved with sharing space with strangers for a few hours — has been steadily stripped of its sense of occasion. The multiplex is just one more place to look at images that move and make noise — an eddy within a vast river of undifferentiated visual stimuli.
For those who still see going to the movies as a discrete social and aesthetic event, the idea of taking anything blinking, beeping or flashing into the cinema is not just a breach of etiquette, but a crime against art. Film is a visual and aural medium; we have only our eyes and ears with which to apprehend it. Anything that gets in the way of that encounter is tantamount to slashing the Mona Lisa or throwing red paint on the stage during a Balanchine performance. There’s a particular social contract — a tacit covenant sworn by those who have agreed to enter the same dream — that is immediately abrogated when a phone goes off or a Bluetooth lights up. If we’ve all voluntarily succumbed to the same spell, how dare anyone break it? Why on earth would anyone want to?
It’s this vulnerable, near-mystical aspect of going to the movies that has felt so threatened of late. And, admittedly, it was abhorrent to hear one of the chief stewards of that already fragile experience possibly kowtowing to the forces of its extinction. But upon reflection, it was possible to see some merit in Aron’s idea. If AMC could successfully quarantine the texters, perhaps the seat-kickers, drink-slurpers and constant talkers could be next. Get ’em all out!
In many ways, Aron’s proposal echoed the bifurcation of American society, so much of which seems permanently split into self-segregating binaries, whether it’s Red State-Blue State or Quiet Car-Talking Car. If the world is divided into two types of people — those who think it’s acceptable to whip out their phone during “Jurassic World” and those who do not — isn’t it more diplomatic, even humane, to keep them apart? At least until non-reflective holographic screens are permanently attached to our retinas at birth?
Tellingly, the day before Lang first interviewed Aron, he reported on the Motion Picture Association of America’s findings that, although the global box office hit a record high of nearly $40 billion in 2015, frequent moviegoing — which the MPAA defines as seeing at least one film a month — decreased by 10 percent. The only two demographic groups in which frequent moviegoing increased were children between 2 and 11 (we see you, Pixar) and adults between 25 and 39.
This means that the teenagers Hollywood used to depend on for dear life are more entranced with Snapchat and Instagram than superheroes and Imax. Meanwhile, graying middle-agers for whom seeing a film has always signaled a special night out are staying home — no doubt put off by the prospect of tiny glowing rectangles and other distractions ruining their experience. Aron understandably saw only one way to entice both groups back to the fold: by keeping them as far away from each other as possible.
The radical, ultimately unwelcome, spitball of a beleaguered executive was actually a Solomonic response to a disorienting new reality. Going to the movies used to be a cherished, almost sacred, communal experience. Today, the community can’t even agree on what that experience actually means.