Tuesday, December 27, 2005

REV: Cellphones and Movies

Making Movies Quieter
Movie Theater Owners Consider Technology to Silence Cell Phone Chatter

Dec. 27, 2005 — - One of the great things about cell phones is their ability to allow us to be in constant contact with friends, colleagues and loved ones. But it's also one of their drawbacks -- especially in movie theaters.

Cell phone gabbers who don't stop or don't hesitate to start when the lights go down in a crowded movie theater can be frustrating for moviegoers and for theater owners who often walk a tightrope between respecting the individual and pleasing the crowd.

"We don't want to be Draconian or mess up people's personal decisions about communications," said G. Kendrick Macdowell, general counsel for the National Association of Theatre Owners. "But we do want to try proactively to enforce better behavior so that all of our patrons can have a good moviegoing experience."

One idea that's been floated around is installing cell phone jammers to keep calls out or filters to make sure only the most important calls disrupt patrons.

But is such an elaborate scheme necessary? Or is it simply the responsibility of the theater owners to police the crowd for cell phone junkies?

It Costs More And the Audience Is Rude
When Christopher Steenbock goes to the movies these days, the 31-year-old New York City headhunter says he not only sees a marked difference in film quality and ticket prices, but in rude behavior as well.

"I'd say on average your multiplex theater typically attracts the worst sorts of crowds," he said. "You know, more cell phone users are in there either answering their phones or letting their phones ring throughout the performance."

Anyone who's paid for a movie ticket and had to endure the constant chatter of someone on their cell phone knows what Steenbock is talking about.

As annoying as he said the behavior is, he doesn't want to make matters worse, so he usually stays seated -- though maybe a little steamed.

"Usually I don't say anything," he said. "I think about throwing my soda or popcorn and lobbing it in that general direction, but typically I just sort of tolerate it."

But like a growing number of moviegoers, Steenbock thinks something has to be done about the rule breakers and he doesn't think it should be his responsibility to do it.

"At one point, theaters had ushers you might see perusing the aisles looking for underage kids in R-rated movies or something," he said. "I don't know if it's feasible, but in the past they used to have people that kind of intervened on the audience's behalf."

An increase in ushers to police movie theaters is one approach some in the industry are trying, according to Macdowell.

In fact, he said, people have suggested much more dramatic action.

"A lot of people think we ought to have bouncers -- big, burly guys who literally bodily drag people out who are rude," he said. "A lot of people feel very strong about that."

This dilemma may not require more employees but newer technology like cell phone jammers and filters to keep patrons' attention on the screen where it belongs.

Cell Phone Jamming a Safety Risk?
"Nearly everybody gets annoyed when someone's cell phone rings and somebody actually takes it and has a conversation," Macdowell said. "That's just ridiculous."

He said that a categorical cell phone jamming system was unlikely to be implemented, but that as the technology advanced, it was possible movie theaters could be outfitted with some kind of filter to keep all but the most important calls out.

"Technology that lets you filter through emergency calls or automatically send a message to a caller saying: 'Hi, I'm inside a movie theater. If it's an emergency, press 9,'" he explained. "Those are the kinds of things I think we would be looking at very closely, because some people feel very fondly about having that communication link with them."

But Joe Farren, director of public affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, said any technology that could threaten the ability for someone to make or receive an emergency call, was bad for the public.

"There are more than 220,000 calls made to 911 from wireless phones every day in America," Farren said. "To put irreversible technology in place that prevents those calls from being made in the tens of thousands of movie theaters across America makes no sense at all."

CTIA calls itself "the voice of the wireless industry." The nonprofit group represents "service providers, manufacturers, wireless data and Internet companies, and other contributors to the wireless universe," according to its Web site.

Farren said he and CTIA were not unsympathetic to the industry's dilemma, but, perhaps not surprisingly, were opposed to installing any technology that could keep someone from using his cell phone.

"We understand what they're trying to accomplish and we're not opposed to a policy where you turn off your phone and if it goes off you get kicked out," he said. "But don't take away the power of this incredible lifesaving tool."

Accommodating the Masses
Steenbock admitted that he had forgotten to turn off his cell phone on occasion, so he's somewhat understanding of the absentminded.

"I actually try to muffle the phone and turn it off," he said. "I know people screw up and accept that it's just part of the moviegoing experience."

But he doesn't see the need to have cell phone access at all inside a theater and has no problem with theater owners using jammers for that purpose.

"You know there was a time before cell phones," he pointed out. "So if you have a baby sitter or you have a loved one who is under medical care, you likely have a social network that can help out."

Macdowell said that while theater owners would continue to work on ways to limit rude behavior like cell phone chatter in theaters, there was a limit to what they could do.

"We have got to adopt an accommodating posture to the extent that it's practical," he explained. "We can't accommodate every idiosyncratic personality out there who wants to watch a movie in the particular way in which they want to watch a movie."