Movie theaters may soon encourage cell phone use

The movie industry is working on ways to make smartphones, tablets and even built-in screens in seats a key part of the experience both before the movie and, more disturbing to some patrons, during the movie.
The movie industry is working on ways to make smartphones, tablets and even built-in screens in seats a key part of the experience both before the movie and, more disturbing to some patrons, during the movie. AP file photo

Moviegoers are used to the long pre-show routine of film industry trivia, concession stand ads and trailers for coming films. Then, just before the movie begins, a voice asks you to please turn off your cellphone.

Soon, that last instruction might change. The movie industry is working on ways to make smartphones, tablets and even built-in screens in seats a key part of the experience both before the movie and, more disturbing to some patrons, during the movie.

The “second-screen experience” — using another device to enhance the main attraction — is growing for people at baseball games and rock concerts, and while watching TV shows or playing video games. Sometimes it’s just to read reactions on Twitter, though recently apps have been designed for use during a specific program or event.

Now that technology is beginning to spill over into movie theaters.

“We believe that movies, by definition, are a social experience,” said Cliff Marks, president of sales and marketing for National CineMedia, which is launching pre-movie second screen content.

He sees that as bringing “social media to the next level.”

Industry observers think that most movie-goers will easily accept the second screen experience before movies, but they’re wary about it during full-length screenings.

But with more people expecting to use their second screen at all sorts of events, theaters will be pressured to follow their patrons’ desires. And even with the warning to put away cellphones and iPads, some patrons pull them out during a movie anyway. So instead of fighting a trend, theaters and Hollywood could exploit it.

Feature-length second screen content could be behind-the-scenes looks, subtitles and more interactive features, such as polls and games.

That doesn’t sit well with Jerry Harrington, the owner of the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport.

“That’s an experience other than a movie,” he said. “I don’t know what to call that, but it’s not watching a film.”

Before your movie

Those familiar scenes before a movie are often part of National CineMedia’s FirstLook show. It’s a staple at many theaters, including AMC Theatres, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark Theatres.

Next month, FirstLook will launch its second screen content.

Marks stressed that National CineMedia will encourage second screens only during FirstLook. The audience will be instructed to disengage from the app and their phones once a film starts.

Through a partnership with Shazam Entertainment, which started out as an app that uses voice recognition to identify songs, FirstLook will offer more information about the ads and coming shows.

To access the content, audience members will need to open Shazam and use the app’s sound recognition feature.

Viewers will be able to learn more about advertised products, movies and TV shows that are part of FirstLook. So far, Marks said, advertisers seem intrigued.

National CineMedia expects most of the new service’s users to be 18 to 35. Most of Shazam’s 100 million users and half of FirstLook’s audiences are in that age group, Marks said.

“We acknowledge that these millennials, this age group, want to engage and be social,” Marks said. “But it’s a matter of teaching them when it’s OK.”

Enhancing or distracting?

Stretching the use of second screens into the films presents a whole new layer of concerns.

Last fall Disney tried it with its re-releases of both “The Little Mermaid” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Moviegoers at the trial locations were told to bring iPads and use an app that synced with the movie. Throughout the movie, the app presented lyrics to sing and interactive games users could play with others in the theater.

It was marketed as “Second Screen Live!” and available only in select locations, including the AMC Town Center theater in Leawood.

Disney declined to comment for this article.

AMC Theatres, the big chain headquartered in Leawood and purchased in 2012 by the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, issued a statement: “We’re always open to innovations that make movie-going more fun for our guests. However, we don’t have any plans for additional second-screen showings at our theaters.”

Eric Wold, a senior analyst at the firm B. Riley & Co., said adding new experiences for patrons was essential to keeping a theater afloat.

“Everything from 3-D to reclining seats to dine-in theaters … is crucial,” Wold said, to lure lure audiences with services they can’t get at home.

Over the past 10 years, attendance at the movies has been flat, he said. Box office revenue has continued to increase thanks to the higher cost of general tickets, and the extra expenses theaters tack on for new experiences such as 3-D movies.

Wold said theater executives were still cautious about reversing the most common theater rule — no cellphones or other devices on during the movie. Though some executives are toying with the idea of select screenings where using your phone is allowed, nothing is set yet or moving forward, he said.

“It’s always tough given how much of a distraction it can be to other viewers,” Wold said.

At the Tivoli, which shows mostly independent films, Harrington said he didn’t “understand this needing to be constantly interacting with people. But I’m 61, so maybe I’m in a different generation.”

At the AMC Town Center theater in Leawood, Adam Maddox and John Waldrop, both 25, said they weren’t sure whether the extra screen could enhance a film. They would find using a larger screen at the movies, such as a tablet, too distracting.

They were more open to using a smaller screen, like an iPhone.

“That’s a game changer,” Waldrop said. “But I more (often) use my phone to multitask, to do something different from the movie or whatever I’m watching.”

A new standard

One architect in Kansas City thinks it’s “a foregone conclusion” that second screens will become commonplace — and permanent fixtures — at the movies.

Mike Cummings, a principal at TK Architects, said he envisioned theaters with small monitors on the back of each seat, similar to the screens on some airplanes.

The firm doesn’t have any solid plans to start building theaters with built-in second screens, he said, and like most companies exploring the idea is still working out kinks.

A top concern would be figuring out how to keep one person’s second screen from distracting the rest of the audience. Cummings said he was looking to develop a screen that would be visible only to the person using it, but that could prove difficult.

He also sees a potential to use the screens for subtitles for hearing-impaired visitors.

If second screen content continues to veer toward social media, privacy will also need to be addressed, especially for embedded screens. Theaters would need to clean those screens after each show — physically for sanitary reasons, and digitally to clear any personal account information.

Internet access also is a hurdle, especially for second screen content that requires audience members to bring their own tablets. Many tablet users rely on Wi-Fi only, avoiding the cost of a data plan, so second screen theaters would need to provide Wi-Fi access and find a way to ensure patrons used that access for their content and not for other services.

Despite these obstacles, Cummings said he thought second screens were sure to hit theaters.

“People need to view it as being more immersive in the story, in the experience, than just a distraction,” Cummings said. “A way to engage with the story. That’s how we’re approaching it.”

To reach Molly Duffy, call 816-234-4072 or send email to