B-Movies Extended: Modern Movie Theater Etiquette

Bibbs and Witney present the updated movie theater etiquette for talking, texting, and even having sex at the multiplex.

Ed Wood

From the Desk of William Bibbiani:

How, exactly, are we expected to behave at a movie theater? What are the rules? It may seem like an easy question, but check yourself: they’ve been adjusted over and over again since the dawn of cinema, so we need to go over the rules of movie theater etiquette once in a while just to clarify what is expected of us in the hallowed halls of cinema. For many, myself included, movie theaters are our church. They’re where we go to be inspired, transported and subject ourselves to lessons in life, presented by showpersons of one stripe or another who deserve at least a modicum of respect while they ply their trade. We pay them for the privilege of letting them put on a show. We’ve already agreed to let them do it without our interference.

The topic for this week’s B-Movies Extended comes not from The B-Movies Podcast itself, as it normally does, but rather a response to my review of Dead Man Down, a film that came out last week, and one that I had rather a lot of trouble judging properly. From many traditional perspectives, Dead Man Down – about a pair of damaged souls, played by Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace, out for bloody revenge against those who wronged them – is a pretty bad movie. It breaks a lot of perfectly good laws applied to action movie storytelling, and takes itself so damned seriously that laughter is the only reasonable response. But it was so consistently strange, and so consistently entertaining, that I was forced to admit that it might be “good,” albeit in a way rarely seen on screen. At the end of the film, I noted in my print review (and I think I mentioned it on the podcast as well), I applauded, only to be told “don’t” by a fellow, and respected, critic.

They weren’t being mean to me, and they weren’t offended by the fact that I was applauding, only that I was applauding this particular movie (which they clearly didn’t enjoy). But the anecdote earned the following response from Twitter: “Only 1 issue: clapping at a movie is NEVER OK. The cast & crew are not waiting behind the screen for applause.”

The Artist

That got me thinking. I myself have often noted that clapping at a movie theater is a little ridiculous, or at least pointless, for that exact same reason. Applause, and its derivations “hooting” and “hollering,” are at a glance for the people on stage, to let them know when they’re doing a good job, and to imply that we the audience would like to see more of the same. That’s how it works in live theater. In movies, the odds are pretty good that no one involved in the movie is actually at the cinema with you, making applause seem pretty silly if you try it.

That doesn’t entirely work from my personal perspective, since as a Los Angeles-based film critic, many of the screenings I attend actually do have folks who made the film in attendance. Sometimes the stars, director and/or writers, but more often the behind scenes crew, visual effects artists and so forth. They deserve a smattering of applause if they do something right, don’t they? But I’m an exception to the rule. Most audience members don’t go to press screenings, nor do they even live in L.A. And yet still, after much thought, I have decided that clapping at a movie is okay. I’ll tell you why when I present my Rules for Movie Theater Etiquette. Professor Witney Seibold will contribute some of his own on the next page.


Finding Neverland

This isn’t the most important rule, but we’re going to start with it anyway, after all that build up. Clapping isn’t “just” for the filmmakers. Even if they’re not present to take a bow, applause is a part of the communal entertainment experience. Clapping is an instinctive response that shows how much you appreciate something. I’ve seen babies do it. I sometimes clap when I’m at home, all alone, watching a film like The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 and marveling at how insane it is. In a public venue, applause contributes to the overall vibe of the room. There’s a reason why sitcoms used to (and still sometimes do) have laugh tracks. Applause, laughter and even hooting and hollering lets you know that other people are getting off on what you’re watching, and that it’s okay for you to do it too.

Finding Neverland ended on this note: adults watching J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan didn’t know what to make of it. It was only when children were brought into the theater – audience members with no compunction against showing their enthusiasm – that adults were able to break free of their cynicism and express their joy publically. The filmmakers may not be there to hear it, but you are still allowed to express your love of the movie in public. That’s why we see a movie in a group to begin with. Have you ever shown someone a horror movie just to watch them jump at the good parts? Same principle. Go ahead and clap. Just don’t be obnoxious about it.