It’s a disastrous time to be a movie lover.  The movies themselves are part of the problem, but for folks who like to spend a few hours at the cinema in a darkened auditorium, the public part of the movie-going experience is starting to pose too big of a barrier.  Never mind the ticket prices that take a 50 cent hike every summer, the 20 minutes of (at best) commercials and (at worst) spoilers for upcoming films, and the dying craft of projection.  The real problem lies with the knuckleheads who fill the seats.

Exhibit A : The Clueless Parents
My wife and I tried to catch a late afternoon matinee of Splice at the Northlake Movie Tavern where matinee prices are still only six bucks, but we didn’t even make it to the trailers.  Right after we sat down another couple came in and sat on the opposite side of the theater, with their two year old in tow.  I knew that there was a toddler in the theater because as soon as they sat down, it started crying.  The kid was too big to really be comfortably held but still too young to have any kind of attention span for a movie.  Had we been in the theater for Shrek 4, the parents would have seemed quaintly clueless, but in an auditorium where a very R-Rated and psychosexually disturbing horror film was about to unspool, they seemed downright negligent.  Who takes a toddler to the movies is my first question, but what on earth would make anyone think that it would be OK to subject a child to THAT movie?

I’m not sure if I was more bothered by the fact that we were going to have our movie experience ruined by a crying child or by the notion that people who would bring a kid to see Splice are even allowed to have children.  I’m not talking forced sterilization here, but shouldn’t there be some kind of minimum decency criteria before you can be responsible for another human being?  If the couple with the toddler wasn’t bad enough, the family of four that sat in front of us with two prepubescent boys pushed me over the edge.  What the fuck is a nine year old doing at a movie like Splice

I can only hope that these folks just didn’t know what they were getting into (which judging by the reaction to the film over the weekend seems true for a lot of people,) but shouldn’t parents at least know what a film is rated and what it’s about before they pile the kids in the car?  I thought it was bad enough when a moron had to drag her traumatized elementary schoolers out of Daybreakers, but Splice just ain’t right for kids.

Exhibit B : The Uninformed Consumers
People rarely buy products without looking at the label or at least having some idea of what they are spending their money on.  A movie for a family of four will easily start at $40 and only go up as concessions get involved.  So why would anyone spend that kind of money on a film they know NOTHING about. 

I see this all the time as people standing in or blocking the line stare up at the movie listings and wonder aloud what everything is.  I can understand why there are so many sequels and movies made from TV shows–that simple name recognition is literally all that people have going for them when they show up at the multiplex.  As we went to a second theater to see a later, child-free screening of Splice, we were held up by a man who was asking the clerk in the ticket booth to give a short synopsis of just about every film playing.  The guy knew he wanted to take his family to the movies, but beyond that he had seemingly no idea what any of them were about. 

It’s fair to say that some films are marketed in such a way that the potential audience can’t know what they are getting themselves into, but when the audience doesn’t even recognize the titles, actors, or genres of the movies playing, that’s not the studios’ fault.  People are afraid to try restaurants where they don’t know any of the dishes or ingredients, but that same fear doesn’t apply as broadly to movies.  As a result, we all get stuck in theaters with people who react badly when the movie surprises them.  If we’re lucky, they will just get up quietly and leave, but more often than not folks just roam around to different theaters trying to find something that fits with their sensibilities, regardless of how long it’s already been on the screen. 

But the real damage is done in the word-of-mouth that spreads faster and more dramatically now than ever before.  Movies like Kick-Ass and Watchmen suffered from audiences who didn’t understand what they were paying to see, who felt ripped off and returned the favor by badmouthing the film everywhere.  I’d argue that Splice is having the same problem–bad word-of-mouth from people who probably never would have gone to see it if they understood what kind of movie it would be in the first place.  The studios DO share some of the blame here, but really, when you go to a movie expecting one thing and then rail on it because it turned out to be something else, doesn’t that mean you should have done some homework first?

Exhibit C : The Centers of the Universe
It’s not enough to remind people to silence their cell phones, and it never will be.  The exhibitioners are reactionary.  They know that the talking and the ringing phones annoy us, but they are too spineless to do anything about it.  They couldn’t anticipate the distraction caused by people using their phones as silent computers until that too was already a problem.  Something else will be next, not texting or tweeting but some other method of interaction that isn’t strictly forbidden but is still completely disruptive. 

No one (except maybe the Alamo Drafthouse) wants to turn away customers by forcing them off of their phones, and I get that.  But at some point the few people who are so self-absorbed that they can’t put their fucking Facebook page down for two hours are going to ruin it permanently for the rest of us, and we’ll just stop going.  It’s a poker match now between the exhibitors who figure that if they offer enough explosions, 3D glasses, and bankable stars that we’ll all be compelled to keep going to the movies, and the real film lovers who can’t even enjoy art-house fare without pinging Blackberries lighting up every two minutes.  So far, we’re losing.

I really don’t think that the next generation of moviegoers is even going to think that there’s anything wrong with lighting up a screen while everyone else is sitting in a dark room.  We are staring at screens of all sizes, all day now and there’s almost no regard at all for public space.  As people get more and more fixated on those screens, they tune out the rest of us and operate in a tiny, falsely-private bubble in the public arena.  We see it with texting drivers, folks chatting on the phone when they should be interacting with cashiers and other service workers, and most notably in movie theaters where people who probably wouldn’t even think about talking during a film have no qualms at all about checking email during one.

So bring on the expensive, exclusive VIP movie experience already.  Give me a comfortable chair and let me buy some decent food, but if you do nothing else, keep all of these people from spoiling the fun.  I don’t want to be forced into watching everything at home–a good communal experience with a movie is the kind of thing that you just can’t replicate.  That’s the beauty of cinema, and something that makes it very different from simply watching a screen at home.  I want to share movies with complete strangers and laugh with them, get shocked with them, and cheer with them, but that’s getting harder to justify every year. 

I wonder if the theater owners realize that they are killing the product by allowing the theatrical experience to be so overrun by assholes?  More importantly, I wonder if they care.