The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas, earned headlines last year when it kicked out a patron for texting.
But it wasn’t the act itself that became newsworthy. It was how the esoteric theater chain — which opened a location in downtown Kansas City this summer — embraced the incident.
“There was a young lady at a movie who kept getting her phone out,” recalls Eric Hartman, general manager of KC’s Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet, who was based in Austin at the time.
“We gave her a warning or next time we’d ask her to leave. She proceeded to use her phone, so we escorted her out. After she went home, she called us and voiced her opinion about it. We thought it was hilarious.”
Alamo turned her profane voicemail into a “don’t talk or text” announcement that runs before its movies. The simple video includes the audio of the woman’s message, with added subtitles highlighting her skewed pronunciation and grammatical errors:
“I will never be comin’ back to your ‘Alamo Drafthouse’ or whatever. I’d rather go to a reglear (sic) theater. Thanks for taking my money, (expletive).”
Alamo responds onscreen, “You’re welcome. Thanks for not coming back to the Alamo, texter!”
For many, the incident struck a chord. Viewers who perceive going to the movies as a somewhat sacred practice often feel the avalanche of new technology has tainted the experience.
“Technology — whether it’s smartphones or Kindles — is something that’s not going away. What we hope to do is allow people to see a movie the way it should be seen,” Hartman says. “We want people to enjoy a movie and not have others next to them talking or pulling their phones out.”
Katherine Hollar, chief marketing officer at Lathrop Gage law firm, saw “The Dark Knight Rises” at the Alamo Mainstreet.
“I thought they conveyed the policy in a clever way. I appreciated that they put the hammer down after the trailers,” Hollar says. “Part of the fun of seeing a movie in a theater is the ability to get lost in another world, and that’s spoiled by little squares of phone light and commentary from your neighbors.”
But Hollar adds that not all chatter is unwelcome.
“There should be one exception to the ‘no talking in theaters’ ban, and that’s to make snarky comments during the previews. That’s my favorite thing,” she says.
It’s not just technology within a theater that can prove the enemy to filmgoers; it’s technologyinstead
of the theater.
A decade ago, multiplexes, cable TV, DVD players and VCRs provided the core options for watching new movies. Now those archetypes have been supplemented by all kinds of devices and processes: iPads, Video on Demand, Hulu, Netflix, Redbox, etc.
“For comedies and other low-key fare, I can be very happy on the couch at home,” Hollar says. “I watch a lot of movies on In Demand. Now that the time frame between theater and cable release is so short, it’s not much of a sacrifice. And there’s more legroom.”
Chris Bylsma, a KC-based actor and filmmaker, has no interest in watching movies on his phone or other portable methods.
“I can appreciate the technological advances that have made this possible, but when I watch a film I want to get completely immersed in it. I just can’t imagine hunching over a tiny screen with those little earbuds plugged into small speakers and actually enjoying myself,” Bylsma says.
Statistically, Bylsma is in the majority. But that number is slowly decreasing.
According to Deloitte’s State of the Media Democracy 2012 survey, 42 percent of Americans (ages 14-75) streamed a movie online in 2011. A mere 16 percent streamed in 2009.
Data gathered by comScore Video Metrix notes 182 million Americans watched online video content in December 2011. The average time spent was 23.2 hours per viewer. A year prior, 172 million users watched videos for 14.6 hours per viewer. The number of viewers increased only 5.8 percent, but the time spent rose 58.9 percent.
The key variance may be linked to viewers streaming more full-length movies rather than just the latest cute kitten video on YouTube.
In 2011, 13 percent of Americans owned a tablet, up from just 5 percent in 2010, says Deloitte. But only 1 percent of consumers identify streaming to a tablet as their preferred way to watch a movie.
The Alamo’s Hartman claims to have never used a computer or a phone to see a film.
“I can’t understand how people could even enjoy watching a movie on a 2-inch screen,” Hartman says.
Among the dozen viewers consulted for this story, not one chose a portable device as their primary method for watching flicks. Rather, it was a fallback. A last resort. Generally, it was a way to pass time in an uncomfortable setting — at an airport or dentist’s office.
“I’ve never personally watched a movie on my phone but do on my iPad all the time when traveling,” says Jeff Eden, a partner in Digital Evolution Group, an Overland Park-based e-consultancy firm. “That said, our kids watch movies on our phones if we are traveling or — as many parents can empathize — when we need a digital pacifier in an emergency.”
Eden has yet to visit the Alamo Mainstreet, although he admits the no-talking, no-texting policy is appealing.
“It does sound compelling,” he says. “Though, as a digital marketer, I think there can be some very entertaining and compelling pre- and post-show opportunities to incorporate smartphones into the moviegoing experience (such as) live, interactive trivia contests during the pre-show that encourages audience participation.”
Cinemark theaters are running a “No texting or talking on your cellphone” promo before their main features. And virtually all local theaters exhibit some variation of a “Please silence your cellphone” request.
Going one step further, the Alamo imposes even more policies to heighten the moviegoing experience.
Anyone younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult. No one younger than 6 is even allowed in the Alamo, with the exception of occasional kid-friendly movies scheduled for early shows.
The theater also enforces a “no infant” policy to discourage parents who would like to treat a packed screening room like an unwitting baby sitter. But it does feature “baby day” on Tuesdays at selected shows where parents can gather, with infants.
“We’ve been in Austin since 1997, so most everyone already knows our policies,” say Hartman, who reveals the Alamo chain has plans to expand into Dallas, Denver, New York and Washington, D.C. “In Kansas City, there will be a learning curve for audiences.”
Audiences are also adjusting to learning new ways to watch films. While technology has introduced innovative conveniences, most agree that the traditional movie theater still represents the ideal environment — even with the occasional texting or unwanted chitchat.
“For big, bad action movies, I love to be in a theater,” Hollar says. “I am embarrassingly geeked out for the new ‘G.I. Joe,’ primarily for the scene in the trailer when Cobra unfurls its flags at the White House. I like the surround sound. I like it when the seats shake. And I like it when we as an audience can have those ‘Heck yeah!’ moments together.”
Bylsma concurs: “The size of the screen and especially the quality of the sound system is just so much greater than your typical ‘household’ setup. Plus, there’s just something about ‘going to the movies.’
“I think it’s similar to going to a ballgame. It doesn’t matter if you’re going for the full experience — the popcorn, the large drinks — or if you’re just going to spend time with some friends. You’re around like-minded individuals who are all taking time out of their day to enjoy the same thing, and that just never seems to go out of style.”