Allowing Texting in Movie Theaters Was an Awful Idea, But an Understandable One

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Art patrons are very protective of the elements of art they consider essential to the experience of the art itself: the vinyl record, the printed book. For moviegoers, that's the theater, the place where most of us had our first meaningful experience of film; as a result, the theater experience can seem sacrosanct: You don't talk, you don't walk around, and you sure as hell don't look at your phone.

That's why it was so alarming last week when the CEO of the nation's biggest theater chain shrugged his shoulders at the holy altar of the big screen. AMC Entertainment's boss Adam Aron, an exec with a diverse résumé — hotels, the NBA, cruise lines — took over the company four months ago, and since then, he's spearheaded an agreement to purchase Carmike, making AMC the biggest theater chain in the world and giving Chinese company Dalian Wanda Group, the majority owner of AMC, an enormous presence in the industry. Last Wednesday, in a conversation with Variety, Aron said AMC was considering moderated cell phone use, in effect making theaters texting-friendly.

"When you tell a 22-year-old to turn off the phone, don’t ruin the movie, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow," he explained. "You can’t tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That’s not how they live their life."

Clearly, very few people want to live a life in which 22-year-olds are permitted to text during movies: the response was swift and resoundingly negative, and, last Friday, Aron released a statement backtracking from his suggestion. But setting aside the discussion of whether it's good or really, really bad that we're all this attached to our phones, Aron even floating the idea of texting in theaters shows how desperate exhibitors are to solve attrition among "millenials," that most horrible of focus-grouped brandspeak.

In 2014, the number of movies 12-to-24 year-olds saw in theaters declined by 15.5 percent from the year before, from 8.4 films down to 7.1. And within the subset of customers that drives the industry's profits, those frequent moviegoers who buy a ticket at least once a month, attendance is down among both age groups 18–24 and 25–39. In 2012, those two age groups made up 21 percent and 24 percent of frequent moviegoers, respectively; in 2014, they made up 19 percent and 19 percent. Theaters aren't the only industry facing this dilemma, with sports franchises rushing to outfit their stadiums with Wi-Fi so young fans don't literally walk out because they can't get service; a Harris poll conducted last year showed that 31 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds spend more than half their time at live events looking at their phones.

Since taking over AMC, Aron has operated from the perspective that theaters are losing business to the home-viewing experience, which is, of course, correct, and he's recognized an important reality: People won't go to the theater by default anymore; you have to give them a reason that's more attractive than their couch and Netflix. Aron's first efforts furthered moves toward recliner seating — which AMC calls "the key feature of full theater renovations" — and expanded food-and-drink options. Recently, however, his intentions have become more controversial. Before the texting debacle, AMC became the only theater chain to express interest in Sean Parker's Screening Room, which would allow people to watch first-run movies at home, violating the 90-day theatrical window that exhibitors have, to date, protected like a constitutional right. 

AMC is hardly the only exhibitor throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks: There are theaters that spray you with water and scents, others that encourage iPad use, and some that have 270-degree screens. But just as theater chains risk losing business to home viewing, they also risk destroying what it is that makes moviegoing distinct from home viewing. Currently, the theater is a specialized space that offers not only the opportunity to view a piece of entertainment, but the opportunity to view it in a certain way: communally, as an event, without distraction. If theaters become too much like watching at home, filled with interruptions and alternatives and second screens, they essentially zip to the other end of the curve, losing what it is that makes them a unique destination.

Exhibitors, then, have to decide where on this spectrum they want to fall. While the Textpocalypse might have been staved off by the heroic voices of people whining on the internet, this problem isn't going away, and theaters are going to keep unveiling goofier and more opulent amenities in the hopes of putting millenial butts in increasingly expensive seats. It's a simple business question: What combination of bells and whistles is most likely to attract the largest number of paying customers? That calculus may seem perverse to moviegoing purists, but compromises are unavoidable. No temple can survive if there isn't a congregation.