Using A Phone In A Theater Is Evil, But iPhone Theater Mode Could Be A Good Thing


In late December, I finally saw Hamilton. I know, I know: finally may seem a little hyperbolic for a Broadway show in which tickets are still almost impossible to get. But, as a resident of New York City, it was bananas how many people I knew who had flown in town to see the show and yet somehow I still couldn’t get tickets. Last May, that finally changed when the Hamilton Twitter account sent out a notification that a plethora of tickets had just been released. So, with that, I was now a Hamilton ticket holder – all I had to do was wait seven months.

When my girlfriend and I arrived at the theater, we had almost comical seats in the last row of the balcony – a row that’s so squeezed in that it consisted of only two seats. Whatever! It didn’t matter, we were in the building: Nothing could ruin the experience. Well, except the man in front of us who was on his phone for the entire first half of the show.

According to a Sonny Dickson tweet, the next iOS update will include a “theater mode,” with specifics that aren’t quite clear yet, but has led to a lot of speculation and dread. When I first read this, my gut reaction was, “This is stupid.” But I started thinking about this a little more and, begrudgingly, I might be willing to give this a chance.

But first, who goes to Hamilton and spends their time on a phone? You are literally at the toughest ticket in town, yet sending constant text messages are more important? We put up with it for the entire first half of the show. As the lights went down for the second half, out came this man’s phone again, texting away. Finally, my girlfriend whispered to him, asking if he could put the phone away – to the point I didn’t even hear her do it. The man responded calmly that he would and apologized.

That last sentence is, of course, a lie. The man made a huge scene. “You don’t know what I’ve got going on!,” he screamed as he chugged his plastic cup of white wine. At this point I then said, “Dude, turn off your phone.” He yelled back, “You shut your mouth!”

In an uncharacteristic move for me (I do not like confrontation, or most conversations in general) I fired back, “Oh, what are you going to do? Now shut off your phone.” I’m not sure what that even meant, but the end result (an usher had to be called) is this man didn’t get on his phone again for the rest of the show. (I thought about his line, “You don’t know what I have going on,” and tried to think of the worst possible thing. Like, what if his wife was dying and he was getting updates? But then I concluded if that were the case, he probably shouldn’t have been at Hamilton in the first place.)

The point of all this is I finally got to see Hamilton and this man tried to ruin it for us because he was on his phone for the entire first half. And then we had to confront him, which ended in him making a scene. Even after it was over, it was hard to think about anything other than a 60-something-year-old man telling me to shut my mouth. I despise the use of cell phones in theaters: it’s rude and it’s unbelievably distracting. But it’s also a fact of life now.

Yes, yes, I know: What about something like Alamo Drafthouse, which has strict bans against cell phone use? I’m well aware. And a brand new Alamo just popped up in Brooklyn and it’s great. But I don’t live in Brooklyn. It would take me about an hour to get to that Alamo Drafthouse and it’s just not practical for every movie I want to see. (And for my job I don’t get to pick the theater. Most screenings I’m at are for media members only, who are, for the most part, pretty good about not using their phones. But sometimes these screening have test audiences and they aren’t as good about not using their phones.)

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was at a theater and people weren’t on their phone. Are these people honestly thinking, “I’m sure the person behind me won’t mind if I turn on a bright light”? My main goal in life is not to be annoyance to strangers around me. When the jerk in front of me reclines his seat on a plane (yes, if you put your seat back on a plane, you are a jerk), I refuse to recline my seat because I don’t want to ruin the next few hours for the person behind me.

Anyway, whatever we are doing right now isn’t working. I’ve come to the realization that people who use their phone in a theater aren’t reading posts like this because they always seem oblivious that they are doing anything rude in the first place. The constant stream of, “Don’t use your phone in a movie theater!” policing on social media hasn’t stopped anything. It’s only getting worse. (If that’s even possible; people have been shot and killed over this.)

So if Apple can do something, like make some sort of dark screen that can only be seen be someone directly in front of it (I guess this is the best possible scenario), then I’m willing to give it a try because people are not going to stop using their phones in theaters and the arguments that result are not good for anyone. This is all happening anyway, so it Apple can create a function that lessons how annoying this is, I’m at least willing to give it a chance. If the feature comes out and makes things worse, well, I guess I will shut my mouth.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.