Writer Tara Judah spent several years working at The Astor Theatre giving her a front seat to maintaining and noting the etiquette of cinema patrons. Below is a reaction to when the Alamo Drafthouse enforced its' infamous 'no cell phone policy'. Just for the record, we at Neon Marquee think a special place in hell should be reserved for people that use cell phones in cinemas.

The good folk at the Alamo Drafthouse have a pretty strong zero tolerance stance on the issue. Recently, they kicked a customer out for texting in the theatre and she was so angry about it that she left a rather ranty voicemail on their answering service. Course, clever and funny as those folks at the Drafthouse are, they went ahead and made the following  youtube video

There are many interesting issues that come out of the Drafthouse event, so here’s a few to start the discussion:

1. Customer awareness and familiarity with the venue and its standards of conduct – or perhaps “rules” in this instance.

From the YouTube video in question, it seems to be that the customer who was asked to leave had not attended a screening at the Drafthouse before and was not at all familiar with the expected and enforced codes of conduct for their patronage. It also seems to be the case that the customer in question had difficulty finding a seat in the auditorium – perhaps again because she was unfamiliar with the theatre, or perhaps there was not an usher on duty to torch her in (we make no assumption that this was not the case, but raise the question based purely on the content of the YouTube clip). This of course is not us endorsing the subsequent use of a mobile phone in an auditorium and we are in no way suggesting the Drafthouse are to blame, but it does raise a strong case for clear signage and easily accessible information publicly displayed for newcomers unfamiliar with the individual rules of a theatre. Whilst many of our own customers are regulars and they know the venue by heart there are always newcomers and it is not surprising or unfair to consider that they might be confused by a cinema that operates independently and therefore differently to the multiplex theatres they likely most often attend. Which brings me to point 2.

2. Multiplex “standards” and the impact of home viewing on contemporary cinema-going conduct.

As Melbourne’s only truly independent film house* we are more than aware that many newcomers to the theatre will also be newcomers to the unique experience we offer and, of course, that the experience we do offer is therefore very “different” to what people might experience in a multiplex. Our staff are well versed in these differences and it is not the case that we don’t ever attend multiplexes ourselves, so we do know exactly what many of these differences are. Personally, on a recent visit to another Melbourne cinema I was struck by the difference in “cinema checks” carried out by FOH staff. We don’t wish to vilify other cinemas but certainly it is true that torching standards (the way in which the usher shows a latecomer to their seat) or even attitudes towards disruptive patrons (including the usage of mobile phones), and of course presentation standards including details such as when

house lights are turned on at the film’s conclusion (often during the closing credits at a multiplex but never until the film in its entirety has finished at The Astor*), are certainly specific to each cinema and its own established code of conduct or FOH procedures. As a result, there are of course a number of differences in appropriate and expected audience behaviour between multiplexes and independent cinemas, and as the venue presenting a specific experience it is ultimately our responsibility to ensure that all of our customers are aware of and understand and respect the specific codes of conduct we have put in place.

It is also true that due to the nature of home viewing – and it ought to be noted that this is a result of many factors but stems for the most part from the increasing immediacy with which films are now “available” for home viewing – approaches and attitudes towards viewing conduct have become largely fragmented. Certainly it is true that in the comfort of one’s own home you can cook, eat, talk, tweet, status update, etc to your heart’s content and the only people affected by these actions are you and the people you no doubt have chosen to share that specific viewing experience and environment with. This is of course at a great remove from what happens when you leave your home to watch a film in a cinematic environment. Like any event that occurs in a public place, you have then the responsibility of taking into account how your behaviour will impact upon others around you. And speaking of public events, this brings me to point 3.

3. Cinema-going as an event.

One of the other major changes concerns attitudes towards cinema-going – and indeed cinema – as something worthy of undivided attention. It is surely less likely that you would see audience members at the opera texting, talking, tweeting and so on. The reason it is more likely to occur in a cinema is because cinema is still considered in many ways to be a commercial activity and so too a commercial product, and is often relegated as such to the sad lonely corner of ephemera. Of course, film is also an art form and outside of the multiplex, in an environment such as the one provided at the Astor, we celebrate that art form by paying it due respect in every possible way including everything from carefully selected foyer music, atmospheric lighting, theatrical presentation standards and yes, not permitting the use of mobile phones inside the auditorium.

So then, I now find myself back to the beginning of the argument which begs the question, what of enforcing these strict codes of conduct? Well, here at the Astor* we feel that much like the experience, both parties – customer and theatre – are responsible for ensuring a safe, comfortable and enjoyable environment is established and maintained for everyone. With part of the onus on us to ensure patrons are aware of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate ways in which to behave during a theatrical screening, we realise that awareness and mutual understanding is the first step towards an enjoyable experience for everyone. We also don’t want anyone to feel “policed” at the Astor – although that’s far from an invitation to start status updating during your next visit; please remember Marzipan sees all and she’s an absolutely no nonsense kitty.

Finally, there are also some “rules” that will apply to specific screenings but not to others. For example, whilst we expect people to throw a little rice during screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, if you were to do so during The Bicycle Thieves one of our FOH staff would most certainly ask you to stop. Also, recently at the Astor Theatre we held an event called Astor Film Tweet where customers could live tweet about the movie during the screening. To ensure this wouldn’t in any way disrupt customers who wished to watch the film without mobile phones on around them we divided our audience into two separate viewing areas (very easy for us due to the already existing nature of our auditorium which has both a dress circle and a stalls area – which historically was quite literally used to separate the upper and lower classes so you can imagine even if you’ve not been to the theatre just how successful and clear the separation is!) But again, if you were tweeting during a screening of Taxi Driver you can guarantee one of our FOH staff would indeed ask you to stop*.

Every environment has its own standards to maintain and asking patrons to be respectful of others seems to us a very basic request, but like the experience itself, the responsibility for establishing and maintaining those standards really is something we ought to share. 

Written by Tara Judah

This article originally appeared on a previous version of The Astor Theatre's blog.

*= specific to the theatres' previous management at time of writing.