Sit Back but Don’t Relax: Theater Etiquette 101

Person on iphone

One of my favorite things to do at the movies is to find people in the audience on their phones…and tell them to turn it off.  It honestly gives me a sense of pride and satisfaction to attempt to preserve the etiquette of theater-going.  In recent years, a lack of audience etiquette has been a strong contributor to the degradation of the theater-going experience. More than once have I personally witnessed poor theatre etiquette, much to my infuriated dismay.  I have ominously stared down a couple sitting behind me who would not quit talking about their intimate after-movie plans well into the opening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  I have witnessed a man play Angry Birds while Eponine lay dying in the arms of Marius in Les Misérables. I have sat next to a woman who brought her infant child for nap time to a showing of Guillermo Del Toro’s Mama, which you may be aware is most definitely not a film for children.

On one side, stage performances have suffered immensely. Take the instance in 2016 when Patti Lupone during a production of Shows for Days snatched a cell phone from a woman in the audience who was texting throughout the whole performance.  Or when, only a short time prior to that debacle, a drunken audience member at a production of Hand to God climbed onto the stage and tried to use a fake set outlet to charge his phone. Not to mention taking photos, video recording, and talking while the actors are performing on stage.  On the other side, the behavior in movie theaters seems more severe.  It may be since there are no actors actually performing live, audiences feel less of an obligation to behave respectfully.  I tried to take a look back at some history to figure out why going to the movies has unfortunately been reduced to a casual wear-your-pajama-pants-out kind of evening.

The movie theater industry has overgone a drastic transformation since the 1920s, during which time theatrical entrepreneur Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel was enlisted to develop the movie theater experience from Nickelodeon’s into a glamorous affair.  He beautified theaters into lavish “palaces” sticking to the motto “Treat the audience like Kings and Queens.”  Going to the theater to watch a film was something for the somewhat elite, where films were still a very new thing among society and patrons dressed to the nines and paid a pretty penny to see the newest phenomenon take the nation by storm.  Refreshments weren’t even allowed in theaters for quite some time, until about the 1950s.  A slow allowance of popcorn vendors outside of theaters caused the industry to realize the importance of refreshments and its revenue pull.  They then started selling their own popcorn, and the idea of snacks in the theater has been a part of the experience ever since.

With the introduction of television, the extravagant theaters began to die down since film was more accessible to the masses.  And during the 60s and 70s, Multiplex’s came to be, allowing theaters to offer something for every movie-going individual. So, do we blame capitalism for destroying an experience that was once regarded as almost aristocratic?  Just because I have popcorn in my lap and several movies playing around me throughout the theater, it doesn’t make me respect the artwork taking place on the screen any less.  I mean, regardless of the fact that I paid for a ticket to see the movie and being able to do so seems to be more of a privilege rather than a right, I’m doing more than just sitting back, relaxing, and enjoying the show.  I’ve gone to the theater to learn.  To think.  To be educated.  When theater was first created in Ancient Greece, as dictated in Aristotle’s Poetics, theater was meant to “delight and instruct”.  In other words, to entertain as well as educate.

Every film maker, actor, crew member, or designer working on a film has a desire and hope that the art they are putting together will do something to the audience.  That it will bring them some feeling or teach them some lesson, one that they have been striving to perfect for your viewing pleasure.  To sit idly by on your iPhone while something as momentous as that is flashing past your movie screen seems to me to be a complete disservice to those great creative minds.  So my hope for those indifferent audience members, and my hope to you humble readers, is that you treat the movie-going experience with respect and eagerness to change and be changed.  Have a willingness to be malleable and affected by the story that takes place in the theater.  It took a lot to get to you now, it deserves the same amount of attention right back.  So instead, sit back, relax, but appreciate the art.  Here are some ground rules to be a better advocate and role model for proper theater-going etiquette:

  • Turn off your cell phone.  Not just vibrate, not just silent.  Off and away.  You’ll be surprised how liberating it actually is and how much more you’ll be invested in the film when your distracting cell phone is no longer vying for your attention. (We will also accept Airplane Mode/Do Not Disturb features)
  • Hire a sitter. Unless you are seeing a movie that caters to children, do yourself and the audience members around you a favor and use that money you were going to use on snacks to hire someone to watch the kiddos.  Have yourself a date night.  You deserve it.
  • Don’t talk during the movie. I personally am a fan of some minor discussion and audience participation, especially during a premiere where excitement is high.  But you’re smart!  Know when is the right and wrong time to pitch in.
  • Keep the snacking to a minimum and clear your area when the movie is over. Yes, movie snacks are expensive.  I am not opposed to sneaking in the casual pouch of snackable goodness from the gas station down the street in your bag.  But your leftovers from the steakhouse?  Not so much.  Be courteous with what you bring in and make sure to clean up after yourself.  The theatre employees are not your mother.

Now go out there and make those filmmakers proud!