Picture this: the adverts and trailers have finished and it’s time for another laugh-free lobotomy courtesy of Orange Mobile that hawks the phone brand at the same time as telling you to switch the cocking things off. A man in the audience, having spent the last twenty minutes furiously texting, pauses to watch the advert. He laughs, then goes back to texting as the film starts up. Because it’s funny, isn’t it? The idea of turning your phone off, that is. Who turns their phone off these days?
I do, obviously, but then I have the manners and sensibilities of an elderly Victorian gentleman. But the man described above is real; I had the misfortune to sit near him as he pulled his phone out every half an hour to make sure he was keeping his Facebook status current or whatever the fuck. And it occurred to me as I fumed and arranged my arm to block the light and, naturally, failed to confront the witless cunt, that the battle was already lost, was lost some time ago in fact.
Because, it’s not just cinemas, is it? It’s everywhere now. People walk down busy streets staring straight down at their phones, the world moving aside for them. In restaurants and pubs, people leave their phones out on the table so that nothing is missed. Notifications and messages and incoming calls trump every conversation, every person, every intimate moment: all are put on hold so that the phone can be attended to because far worse than not having any messages is the thought that you might have some messages, and be missing them because your phone wasn’t to hand. It’s why Orange feels comfortable urging customers to abandon their phones, even if only temporarily; it makes the brand look socially responsible and light-hearted but they know nobody’s going to take their advice.
That’s why the cinema is now a place where people use their phones, because everywhere is a place where people feel they can use their phones. The next generation of cinema-goers will have grown up in a world with omnipresent mobile devices; not having your phone out in a cinema will be the unusual case.
Importantly, for cinemas to survive, they’ll have to cater for the likes of them, not for the likes of me. I’m not a good customer; I might attend regularly but I’m not a family of four, I don’t attend 3D screenings, I don’t buy popcorn, sweets or drinks, I can tell when a film is being projected poorly and I’ll stop attending if it continues. All any cinema gets from me is the bare minimum of the ticket price and maybe the price of a coffee.
The cinema chains have made it clear where their target market lies by heavily pushing 3D over 2D, by moving ticket sales to the food and drink area, by scrapping ushers and projectionists and other moderating, quality-controlling elements. They might trot out those Orange adverts before every film but cinemas want the kind of customer that can’t sit for 30 minutes without checking their phone, because if those people feel they can’t go to the cinema without being able to do that, they won’t go to the cinema. Cinema owners have already started considering how to allow patrons to use their phones. They’re not about to deploy signal blocking technology and bouncers for my benefit.
So, unless there’s a large-scale societal shift in the way we use these devices, and I don’t see any reason there will be, phone usage in cinemas is just going to be how things are. Those of us who think a cinema should be a silent, dark place will have to content ourselves with watching everything three months later than everyone else, in the privacy of our homes, where we will use our phones during the boring bits just as everybody else does.