Hang up and watch! Movie manners dial wrong number thanks to cell phones

IMAGE: Cell phones in theaters
Cell phones in theatersMike Kemp / Getty Images/Rubberball

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By Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

It's the cinema trend that's more annoying than sticky theater floors, and can anger a moviegoer even more than paying $7 for a Coke: Theater patrons who use their cell phones during films — whether to text, talk, play games, or even surreptitiously record the film.

As smart phones become more and more entwined with our culture, some folks just cannot fathom leaving them at home or turned off, even just for the duration of a 90-minute Hollywood blockbuster.

Cell phones in movie theaters present new problems, but some theaters are fighting back.Mike Kemp / Today

But the movie industry is fighting back. Recently, the Motion Picture Association of America updated the guidelines they provide theaters, encouraging theater managers to seek law-enforcement help if they believe a patron is recording a film with a cell phone. And the national theater chain Cinemark has released a CineMode feature on its smartphone app. Moviegoers receive coupons for free and discounted concessions if they use the app to put their phone into dimmed and silent mode for a film's duration.

The Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain has become famous for its strict no talking/no texting policy, which is clearly spelled out on the company's website. "If you talk or text, you will receive one warning," the policy reads. "If it happens again, you will be kicked out without a refund."

How the crackdown plays out
In 2011, one woman who found herself on the receiving end of their policy was kicked out for using her phone at an Alamo theater in Austin, Tex. She left an angry voicemail that the chain shared on YouTube, and it quickly went viral. At first, the woman claims she was only using her phone as a flashlight, but then she seems to forget she said that, and unapologetically owns up to texting.

"I didn't know that I wasn't supposed to text in your little crappy (expletive) theater," the woman said. "It was too (expletive) dark in that place for me to find my seat, all right? I was using my phone as a flashlight."

The voicemail just gets better from there, with the woman declaring, "So EXCUSE ME for using MY PHONE in USA MAGNITED (sic) STATES OF AMERICA, where you are free to text in a theater!" She goes on to brag that she's texted in "all the other theaters in Austin" and that she'll never come back" to Alamo.

Alamo's response, in a video caption: "Thanks for not coming back to the Alamo, texter!"

Alamo Drafthouse CEO and founder Tim League told TODAY the zero-tolerance policy pre-dates the texting era, and was inspired by patrons who perhaps had a bit too much PBR one night back in 1997.

Tim League, CEO of Alamo Drafthouse, won't tolerate talkers and texters in his theaters.Today

"During a $1 Pabst Blue Ribbon night for a midnight screening of 'Blue Velvet,' the audience got out of hand and started yelling at the screen," League said. "I felt sick to my stomach. This wasn't the theater I wanted to build. That night, my wife and I came up with the zero-tolerance policy, and it has been in effect ever since. When texting became an issue about 5 years later, we extended the policy to cover the distraction of bright screens in the theater."

Most texters or talkers aren't like the angered voice-mail leaver, League says. "Ninety-nine percent of the people stop, are apologetic, and then are quiet for the rest of the film," he said. "We kick out the one percent, the rudest people in America."

Vic Holtreman, founder of movie website ScreenRant.com, says the increasing phones-in-films trend is just a natural, if annoying, evolution of bad cinema habits moviegoers already had.

"It's just the next generation or version of people talking during a movie," Holtreman told TODAY. "They either just don't care, or are oblivious to the fact that what they are doing impacts other moviegoers."

League says that the majority of moviegoers are thrilled when Alamo removes phone users from the theater. "Real movie fans want to get lost in the movie experience and don't want to be distracted by talking and texting," he said. 

Alamo employees have had to call police several times for aid in removing angry violators, League says.

Cell phones are OK with some theaters
Not all theaters take such a strong anti-phone stand. The subject came up at 2012's CinemaCon, a convention of theater owners, and Deadline.com reported at the time that some theater chains discussed allowing cell phone use, noting that it might help draw in younger patrons who'd grown up with the devices.

That argument doesn't convince League. "Lots of people worry that the younger generation won't go to movies without having a 'second screen' experience," he said. " I think that is condescending towards young movie fans. ... When you go to the movies, you should lose yourself in the story, the action, the visuals, the performances, not check Twitter or make snarky comments about what you are experiencing in real time."

And Holtreman, at least, sees some light on the horizon. "It seems to me that the (phone use in theaters) has actually diminished somewhat from what it was, say, a year or two ago," he said. "I think that when Twitter and Facebook were more of a new, shiny thing on smartphones, people found reasons to use (their phones) just because. Now that they're more of a standard app for people to use for communication, I see phones out less frequently in movie theaters."