Parents, and the curse of mobile phones in cinemas

We blame children often for noise and disruption in cinemas. Perhaps we should be blaming parents, argues Simon...

After a year that’s been a bit hit and miss where family films are concerned, this half term there’s a trio of treats playing in British multiplexes. The Boxtrolls, heart-warmingly, is still going strong. And there are two new releases, in the form of Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day and The Book Of Life.

I hadn’t seen the latter two, so duly packed up my children for a trip to our local multiplex. It’s quite a good local multiplex, that I frequent regularly, but crikey: it would be fair to say we caught the brunt of some less considerate patrons this time around.

Before I get going, two things. Firstly, I know it’s hardly unfamiliar territory for a film-related website to complain about inconsiderate patrons at their local cinema. Bear with me on it though, as I do want to suggest something at the end.

Secondly, I’m sympathetic to parents too. The idealistic world sees parents as constantly full of energy, always able to keep up with their kids, and sharing absolutely everything with them. Meanwhile, back on Earth, sometimes you’re just exhausted. Sometimes, the idea of getting a two hour breather by taking your offspring to the cinema to watch a mesh of colour and noise for a bit is irresistible. It’s why we have Shrek sequels.

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That said, there’s still a line of basic human courtesy, and I’m increasingly finding that it’s parents, rather than kids, that are crossing it.

Let’s take my trip to Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day first. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the screen in question was about half full. We were perched up in the top corner, and one of my youngsters was making a little noise. I get a bit panicked in cinemas when this sometimes happens, and I try and do something about it, rather than letting the noise continue.

In this instance, said youngster was quietened down, and I turned to the person next to us, a few seats away, to mouth an apology.

I needn’t have bothered. They were too busy answering a phone call.

Yep: not checking their messages. Not browsing the internet. They were mid-phone call, whilst their child was watching the film, armed with the now traditional vat of drink. The conversation went on, despite requisite glaring and request for shushing. But I fear it’s taken as a given that a screening of a family film at a matinee time comes with the understanding that children will pay attention, yet parents won’t.

Fast forward to Tuesday then, and we braved The Book Of Life. This one was near-full (as was the cinema – the queue for a ticket was 15 minutes alone), and given the explosion of colour and creativity that followed, just what the film deserved. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s got a solid story, and is often just wonderful to look at.

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This time, though, the mobile phone brigade was out in force. I knew we were in trouble when someone took a selfie as the title card popped up on the screen. As the film progressed, it became clear that this was the tip of the proverbial mobile phone mast. At one stage, I counted nine mobile phones on the go. At once. The one behind me had a big light attached to it, so the owner of it could presumably see their already luminous screen better.

Other highlights? A man five or six rows forward, sat next to his child, who browsed the BBC Sport website for a good hour or so of the film. The woman, again in near vicinity, who had an ongoing text chat for the duration of the movie. And then a series of other lights in the dark, all distracting from the only piece of electronics – emergency lighting aside – that should have been drenched in brightness for the duration of the film.

Part of me thinks how can you possibly get to enjoy the chat about a film with your child if you’ve basically not paid attention to it yourself. But I do think there’s an escape clause in there with the whole parental exhaustion thing. I don’t like the idea of screens as surrogate babysitters, but neither do I know the circumstances of everyone who has bought a ticket to see the film at that showing.

What I do know, though, is that using a mobile phone in the middle of a film should get you escorted out. It’s flat out selfish, and hugely unfair to everyone else who wants to watch the film. When nine people are using their phones at once, that’s an infection impinging on what should be the pleasure of watching the film in the first place. It’s an infection caused by not stamping out the first person who did it, so by the time you get 30 minutes into the film, it’s a free for all. It certainly was on Tuesday afternoon. What few staff the cinema had on duty were last seen shovelling popcorn into buckets as quickly as theu could.

Of course, the argument runs that you should tell someone to switch their phone off, or to shut up, or to show a bit of courtesy. I’ve done that. Let’s just say it doesn’t always go well. On one occasion, the person I asked told me that he was intending to meet me outside the cinema afterwards. He didn’t quite phrase it like that.

But also, not wishing to pass the buck: it’s not my responsibility, is it? Ultimately, if I take my family to the cinema, it’s because we all want to watch a film, not take on policing duties for a multiplex that can’t or won’t police itself. The irony wasn’t lost on me that I was sat in a cinema where I’d been questioned before for writing a note or two at the start of a film (it was an anti-piracy precaution, I was told), whilst mobile phone users in the same screening were ignored.

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I think most of us, at a child-filled matinee, go in expecting a bit of rustle, the odd chat, the need for the aisles to be filled with children running to the toilet. But surely it’s not too much to expect that the grown-ups can go 82 minutes and 96 minutes respectively without the need to check their Facebook status/email/texts? If they can’t, then surely the cinema is one of the last places they should be.

I don’t want to end this on a miserable note, however, even though I’ve been left wondering how I can let my kids enjoy cinema, without having it spoiled by people who really should know better.

So a request: if you’ve had an experience where a cinema has gone out of its way to ensure an audience can enjoy a film, interruption-free, can you let us know in the comments? We’re happy to give free publicity to any individual cinemas that have done so, and if you can start letting us know, we’ll start to put our list together.

In the meantime, sadly, go and watch a film this half term during the day at your peril. It’s not the kids you need to watch out for. It’s the selfish parents…

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