The latest idea out of Silicon Valley is one that means to bring new audiences into dying movie theaters: Raise the lights a little and allow smartphone users to text and Tweet and web-browse to their hearts' content while the movie plays.
As suggested by San Francisco venture capitalist Hunter Walk, the idea is to set aside a handful of screening rooms as cell-phone-friendly wi-fi zones, so that moviegoers who like multitasking while they watch movies can "look up the cast list online, tweet out a comment, talk to others while watching or just work on something else while Superman played in the background," Walk wrote on his blog.
"Instead of driving people like me away from the theater, why not just segregate us into environments which meet our needs," Walk continued. "I'd love to watch Pacific Rim in a theater with a bit more light, wi-fi, electricity outlets and a second screen experience. Don't tell me I'd miss major plot points while scrolling on my iPad – it's a movie about robots vs. monsters. I can follow along just fine."
Predictably, Walk's blog post drew a barrage of criticism from movie traditionalists making familiar arguments: that cell-phone usage is rude to other moviegoers, that many go to movie theaters to cut themselves off from the world for two hours, that anyone who can't disengage from their mobile device for two hours is either an addict or someone with attention deficit disorder. Critics with a broader perspective found Walk's idea sadly reflective of a movie culture where no one pays much attention to films because movies made now don't do enough to engage viewers.
Walk addressed several of these points in a follow-up post, suggesting that his second-screen-experience theater wouldn't be for every movie (presumably, Oscar-hopeful movies that require thought and engagement would be exempt), and that his idea actually caters to moviegoers who don't want disruptive mobile users to sit among them by removing them all to a separate theater. Walk says he hopes to test the idea soon in San Francisco.
Walk's idea echoes a similar idea floated last year by two major theater chains at CinemaCon, the annual spring convention for theater owners in Las Vegas. Amy Miles, CEO of Regal, one of America's largest theater chains, proposed relaxing the anti-smartphone rules during such youth-friendly movies as 21 Jump Street. "You're trying to figure out if there's something you can offer in the theater that I would not find appealing but my 18-year-old son [might]," she said. IMAX's Greg Foster agreed, saying of phone-using teens like his 17-year-old son, "We want them to pay $12 to $14 to come into an auditorium and watch a movie. But they've become accustomed to controlling their own existence." Forbidding mobile usage may make such potential young moviegoers "feel a little handcuffed."
Not every theater chain was ready to go along with the idea. Particularly not Alamo Drafthouse, the chain known for its zero-tolernace policy on mobile use and loud chatter. Alamo CEO Tim League told the panelists, "Over my dead body will I introduce texting into the movie theater." Calling such behavior "the scourge of our industry," he said, "it's our job to understand that this is a sacred space and we have to teach manners."
League said the movie theater experience should be "magical," but Regal's Miles replied that "one person's opinion of magical isn't the other's."
Indeed, the second-screen experience is becoming increasingly common for TV viewers. Ratings agency Nielsen released a study in June that found that nearly half of smartphone and tablet owners use their devices every day while they watch TV. Some are using their mobile devices for general web-surfing, but many are using them for activities releated to the program they're watching. Like Walk in the theater, they're looking up cast information, live-commenting to social networks on what they're seeing, or buying products (or downloading coupons) from products advertised during the show.
Plenty of shows nowadays encourage second-screen usage, drawing visitors to their own channel's websites during a show as a way of keeping them engaged not just with a show, but with its whole network slate. And an August study by Nielsen shows a symbiotic relationship between program viewership and tweets about the show; Twitter use drives up viewership, and vice versa.
Bringing second-screen activity to movie theaters, then, would just allow mobile users to watch movies the way they already watch TV. Still, there's some irony in that notion. After all, for the last several years, home viewers have been buying bigger screens and better sound systems in an effort to transform their living rooms into movie theaters, while cinemas have tried to make themselves less like living rooms by offering amenities you generally don't have at home – 3D, IMAX, gourmet food, wait service and even vibrating seats. Wouldn't it defeat the purpose for movie theaters to become more like living rooms?