9 Rules for the Movie Theater

Ken Jones 

  • Chief Film Critic

By my estimation, I have gone to the movies over 650 times in my life so far. It’s a number I’ve nearly doubled since I first got MoviePass in May of 2013, seeing around 300 movies in the theater over the last five years alone. I make no claims to be an expert, merely a film enthusiast who probably writes about movies to compensate for the fact that I watch so many movies. While it seems like fewer people are attending the cineplex today than in the past, I love going to the movie theater and immersing myself in a movie’s world. But in those 650 movie theater trips, invariably there are going to be those viewing experiences where other people disrupt the experience.

Frankly, there is nothing worse than going to the movie theater and having distractions in the audience. I’d rather sit through a bad movie than have someone distracting me from a good movie. As such, I’ve decided to provide a few tips and pointers on movie theater etiquette to maximize the movie theater experience for you and everyone else.

1. Silence/Dim/Turn Off Your Phone.

This should be simple, but it is apparently not. The movie theater is not the place for you to be texting or scrolling through Facebook during the movie. If you can’t go 2 hours or so without being on your phone, then you need to wait for the movie to come out for home viewing. And whatever you do, absolutely no talking on the phone in the movie theater.

In an ideal world, everyone would put their phone in airplane mode and keep it in their pocket once the movie starts until the credits roll. Of course, I’m not a monster and realize that some people might need to keep their phones on, like parents with young children at home. If a babysitter is calling or your significant other has to contact you, then by all means, check in and sort stuff out, family first. But even then there are things you can do. Turn down the brightness of your phone’s screen to the lowest setting. In fact, because the theater is so dark, even turning it down to the lowest setting possible still provides more than enough light to see what you’re doing. But please do it as discreetly as possible. And you absolutely must have the ringer volume turned all the way down. Vibrate only, Vasili.

If you have to make a phone call or someone is calling you, get up out of your seat and walk out of the theater and don’t answer the phone in your seat. Worst case scenario? You can call them right back in 10 seconds. At the very least, if you’re really into the movie, and don’t want to miss anything but need to use your phone, get up and head to the entrance of the theater. Most movie theaters have an aisle leading into the theater. Hang out in there if you need to send a text or something.

The darkness of the movie theater is sacrosanct and should not be infringed upon. There is a reason that the lights are darkened. A movie theater is designed for a maximum viewing experience. The slightest amount of light from a phone, even when the screen is dimmed, can be incredibly distracting and take someone out of the movie. Which leads me to…

2. Turn Off Your Smart Watch!

Closely tied to the issue of smartphones in movie theaters are the peripherals that some people are wearing now. Look, I think it’s great that technology is bringing us closer to a world where the stuff we saw in Star Trek is becoming more and more a reality, but that smartwatch has got to go in the movie theater, buddy. That thing lighting up on your wrist is just as distracting as the phone in your pocket that you’re not looking at. Just take it off or turn it off for the sake of the people sitting around you.

3. No Talking.

I shouldn’t have to explain this one, but clearly, I do. I can deal with the occasional whisper to a friend during a movie. I do that myself. But I actually whisper. I’ve discovered that there are two types of people in this world: people who can whisper and those who think they’re whispering. Some people just can’t whisper. If there was a spectrum of speaking that went from whispering to shouting, talking would be in the middle, and some people’s “whisper” only gets to the low end of the talking range of the spectrum. You know the people I’m talking about. Know thyself. If you can whisper, be judicious with it in the theater. If you can’t whisper, zip it. But I digress.

My friend Ryan and I went to see Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny when it came out back in 2006. Sitting in front of us were two obnoxious teenage kids who were cracking jokes during the previews, loudly for the whole audience to hear. They elicited some chuckles once or twice from a handful of people, so these kids started to get a little emboldened. I leaned over to Ryan and told him that if this continued into the movie I was going to do something about it. About five minutes into the movie, a woman in a bikini is walking down the street by the beach, a woman that has clearly had some work done. The kid in front of me yells out, “THOSE AREN’T REAL!” At that, I went to cross my legs and promptly kicked the back of his chair as forcefully as I could in one swift motion. The kid turned around, looked at me, turned around to his buddy and said, “That guy behind me just kicked my chair.” I didn’t hear a peep out of them for the rest of the movie.

Talking is right out at the movie theater. If you want to talk during the previews, have at it. Once that movie starts, shut it. This is not your living room and you are not sitting on your couch. People did not buy a ticket to this movie to listen to you or your questions or your commentary. Just sit back and let the movie do the talking.

When I went to see The Last Jedi a second time this past December, a mother took her daughter to see it and was constantly commenting on the movie and I don’t recall the exact details, but the impression I got was that one of them hadn’t even seen The Force Awakens. Half an hour in I finally turned around and asked the mother to please stop talking. It’s the only time I’ve ever done that. It was my second viewing, but for others, it may have been their first, and this woman was a complete distraction.

4. Clean Up Your Trash.

Just this past Friday I walked into a movie theater to see Ocean’s 8 and discovered that people from the previous showtime had left their soda bottles and candy wrappers in the armrest holders in the aisle I was sitting in. Apparently the staff had not gone in between showtimes to clean up. But their job should just be to clean up the big messes, like soda or popcorn spills. There are trash cans just outside in the hallways. Some theaters have their staff bring in garbage cans that you can toss your trash into as you leave. Just take it with you. It’s not that hard.

5. Speaking Of Candy Wrappers…

Wrappers are loud. They’re crinkly and they make noise, people. Open that stuff before the movie starts even if you don’t start eating it right away. You’re never going to be able to completely avoid making noise with a wrapper, but do the best you can.

6. Keep The Bathroom Trips To A Minimum

This is less of a no-no and more of a helpful tip so that you don’t miss out on anything. Look, I get it, sometimes you just gotta go. Some people’s bladders are smaller than others. And some movies are longer than others. The trips to Middle Earth are not short. Be self-aware. If you know that you’re the kind of person that isn’t going to be able to hold it, sit closer to the aisles so you don’t have to step over half the row to get out. There are also helpful apps that can tell you when the best time is to make a bathroom run during the movie. Just check that before the movie starts, not while you’re watching it because, remember, keep your phone turned off.

Personally, I hate going to the bathroom during a movie, so I always try to hold it. I have also tried to make a conscious effort to hit the bathroom right before a movie starts to try to avoid what happened to me when I went to see Zero Dark Thirty. I try to drink a lot of water when I’m at work, and I decided to go see Zero Dark Thirty when I got out of work on a Friday afternoon. That day at work, I had probably had about 3 full Poland Spring “sport bottles” of water, the 24-oz ones with the flip tops. That’s 72-oz of water that I poured into my system before sitting down for a 2 hour 37-minute movie. Not even halfway into the movie, I knew I wouldn’t last to the end, caved, and ran for the restroom. By the end of the movie, I had to go again, and it was so bad that I practically recreated Tom Hanks’ bathroom scene in A League of Their Own. I still can’t believe it. Do yourself a favor and go before the movie. It’s for your own good.

7. Don’t Be Too Comfortable

This is a more general one, but it covers two things.

First, don’t feel so comfortable in a movie theater that you have outbursts that are distracting to others. When I went to see The Nice Guys a few years ago, a man in the very front row was loudly laughing at every joke in this action comedy. Now, it is an action comedy and I had plenty of laughs myself during this movie that I loved and would go on to own, but whether the joke called for a chuckle or a loud laugh, his reaction was always the same, a rip-roaring belly laugh that let everyone in the theater know that he found that funny. Be aware that not all moments in movies require the biggest responses from their audience. Modulation is our friend.

Second, don’t be so comfortable that you fall asleep and start snoring. At one movie I went to a few years ago, a woman walked in, late, to a movie and sat in the same row as me. Her husband arrived 5-10 minutes later, a big dude, and proceeded to break every rule of the social contract that we have of movie theaters. He talked to his wife. He was checking his phone. He took a phone call on his Bluetooth to say he was in a movie theater and couldn’t talk. And then he fell asleep and started snoring and his wife had to elbow him to wake him up. I was apoplectic but also completely dumbfounded by this man.

8. Do Not Bring Your Toddler At Night

The days are for the kiddos, not the nights. I go to see a lot of movies by myself, so I try to go later at night when I’m seeing a Disney movie or something geared for kids, because it would be weird to be catching a matinee as the only adult in the theater without a kid with me. On the flipside of that, kids should be in bed by a certain time of night, and if they can’t sit in their seat then you shouldn’t be taking them to regular showtimes of movies. Plenty of movie theaters offer showtimes in the mornings or during the day where parents can bring their kids for a “sensory and family friendly” showings.

The worst example of this is when my friend Jeremy and I went to see Toy Story 3 on a Tuesday night. We got tickets for the last showing of the night, probably around 9:30. In the theater with us? A couple of their toddler. NINE THIRTY PM! ON A TUESDAY NIGHT! WHAT KIND OF PARENTS ARE YOU? THAT KID SHOULD BE IN BED! THIS MOVIE WON’T GET OUT UNTIL 11PM! Making matters worse? The kid was constantly running around the theater, up and down the aisles, through the rows, directly behind us even, and the parents just sat there the whole time. I’m not one to publicly condemn people, or tell them how they should raise their children, but these were objectively bad parents.

9. Be Considerate

Ultimately, this is what it is all about. This sums up all the others. Be considerate of others. As I wrote earlier, the movie theater is not your living room. People did not buy a ticket to see and hear you. Movies are not video games, they’re not interactive. You are there as an observer of someone else’s work. And you’re usually not the only one there. Common courtesy is a valuable and precious resource that we need to make a habit of doing more frequently. Just be aware of others and try to keep anything that would interrupt their personal experience with a movie to a minimum. As a wise men once said, be excellent to each other.