Are People Really Watching Movies On Their Phones? (No, They’re Not)

Senior Entertainment Writer
07.10.15 36 Comments
Movie phone

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It’s not clear where this myth that people are watching movie on their phone started, but it seems like a popular gripe from filmmakers today. In an interview with Indiewire that published Friday, producer Jason Blum said, “Twenty years ago, everyone would’ve thrown up at the notion of watching a movie on your phone. And people still throw up today about it, for better or for worse, I should say, that’s what people wanna do.”

OK, let’s break that down a little bit. First, yes, in 1995, people would have been confused at the notion of watching a movie on their most likely land-line phone. “Would the sound just come out of the earhole? Where would the picture be? Do I look into the part I talk into?” In rare cases, this confusion may have led to vomiting, I suppose, but everything about this quote is hyperbole. Phones from 20 years ago do not at all resemble “phones” today. And, more importantly, no one is really watching movies on their phone.

Are people watching movie trailers on their phones? Sure. Are people watching 30-second cat videos on their phones? Yes. Are people regularly watching two-hour movies on their phones? That’s ridiculous.

Have people watched full movies on their phones? OK, yes, they have, but no one really sets out to do that. “Oh no, I forgot my iPad and I’m stuck on this eight-hour flight and I don’t have a book. Hm, I still have Wanderlust on my phone. I guess I have no other choice.” This is how most people wind up watching full-length feature films on their phones. No one thinks this is ideal and everyone who is watching a movie on a phone would much rather, at that moment, be watching a movie on a large television or in a movie theater.

In the new book We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, Robert Zemeckis laments about how he wanted to get every scene just perfect when he was making BTTF, but doesn’t feel the same way today. Why? Because of all the rapscallions out there watching movies on their phones.

“Back in those days I was much more of a taskmaster. […] But nowadays, audiences are so different. I don’t think they appreciate the attention to detail. Maybe subconsciously they feel it, but maybe they don’t. Having a perfectly composed shot doesn’t matter if you are watching it on an iPhone, does it? You wouldn’t see it.”

If I didn’t know this was a quote from Robert Zemeckis, I’d read that as just an excuse to be lazy. (I do not think Zemeckis is lazy.) And I do think he’s wrong because the reason Back to the Future is still so popular today is because he was such a taskmaster. People do notice these things. People are not watching movies on their phones.

I once tried to watch a full movie on my phone from a flight from New York to L.A. – I made it through about 15 minutes before deciding that I’d rather stare out the window. Right now, no one is thinking, ‘The new Star Wars movie looks great. I can’t wait to watch it on my phone.’

“People are watching movies on their phones” seems like more of a catch-all phrase for the way movies are distributed now. What “people are watching movies on their phones” really means is that more and more non-franchise movies are being released on video on-demand. This is an actual trend that will continue. People DO like watching movie in the comfort of their own homes on their huge televisions (not their phones) and, understandably, a lot of filmmakers haven’t embraced this yet. And part of this equation is the movies are available on iTunes, which are possible to watch on a phone, but no one does that other than people with no other choice and, again, would rather be watching that movie on another screen.

The “people watching movies on their phones” is the new boogeyman. They don’t exist, yet everyone keeps talking about them like this is an actual problem. There are a lot of problems with movies today (and movie coverage, as exemplified by The Dissolve closing its doors this week) but these so-called “people watching movies on their phones” is not one of them. And next time you do see someone watching a movie on their phone, just know that person is miserable and would rather be doing anything else at that given moment.

Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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