Reinventing The Movie Theater Experience (And Shushing)

A few weeks ago, Hunter Walk posted a short blog post about reinventing the movie theater by allowing wifi, outlets, low lights, and second screen experience:
Some people dislike going to the movies because of price or crowds, but for me it was more of a lifestyle decision. Increasingly I wanted my media experiences plugged in and with the ability to multitask. Look up the cast list online, tweet out a comment, talk to others while watching or just work on something else while Superman played in the background. Of course these activities are discouraged and/or impossible in a movie theater.

But why? Instead of driving people like me away from the theater, why not just segregate us into environments which meet our needs. ... If you took a theater or two in a multiplex and showed the types of films which lend themselves to this experience I bet you'd sell tickets. Maybe even improve attendance during the day since I could bang out emails with a 50 foot screen in front of me.
Personally, this experience holds little to no interest to me (I can do that at home pretty easily), but I can see why it would be attractive to the Hunter Walk's of the world (he's a venture capitalist with kids and very little free time) and the notion of creating separate theaters for this sort of experience is fine for me (so long as the regular experience remains available). I mean, I probably wouldn't partake in this sort of thing, but if there's a market for this, more power to the theaters that can capture that extra revenue.

Of course, that's not the reaction that Walk got from this post, which went much further and wider than I think he was expecting. It looks to me like a typical personal blog post and thought experiment(probably jotted out quickly on a second screen, heh), but it got picked up by several media outlets and the internet lost its collective shit over the suggestion. Some responses were tame, but many went for hyperbole and straw-manned Walk's idea. He wrote a followup post responding to many comments, and again, I find Walk's perspective perfectly reasonable. But then things exploded.

As cuckoo-nutso as this debate already was, Anil Dash came along and lobbed a grenade into the discussion.
Interestingly, the response from many creative people, who usually otherwise see themselves as progressive and liberal, has been a textbook case of cultural conservatism. The debate has been dominated by shushers, and these people aren't just wrong about the way movies are watched in theaters, they're wrong about the way the world works.
This is a bit extreme, but maybe I can follow this. People do refer to texters and the like as "heathens" and joke about the "downfall of society" as represented by rude people at theaters. Then he goes here:
This list of responses pops up all the time, whether it's for arguing why women should not wear pants, or defending slavery, or trying to preserve a single meaning for the word "ironic", or fighting marriage equality, or claiming rap isn't "real" music, or in any other time when social conservatives want to be oppressive assholes to other people.
Zuh? What the hell is he talking about? Is he really equating people who shush other people in movie theaters with people who defend slavery? I suppose he's trying to show a range of attitudes here, but this is absolutely ridiculous, and the entire thing is premised on a straw man of epic proportions. Dash goes on:
People who have fun at the movies can make almost any movie better. When the first Transformers movie came out, one of the key moments in the film is the first time the leader of the Autobots transforms in grand fashion from tractor trailer to giant robot, and pronounces "I am Optimus Prime". At that precise moment, the guy next to me, a grown man in his early 30s, rose to his feet and shouted "YEAH!" while punching his fist in the air. I could see from his sheer emotion that he’d been waiting for this day, to hear this voice say those words, since the moment his stepdad walked out on his mother. This was catharsis. This was truly cinematic.
Dash is absolutely correct here, but, um, that's not the sort of thing people are complaining about. He's positioning shushers as people who disapprove of emotional responses to movies, as if people get shushed for laughing at a comedy or pumping their fist and shouting "Yeah!" during rousing action sequences. Of course, no one is complaining about that. Even at the most venerated theaters that treat the moviegoing experience with reverence and awe, like the Alamo Drafthouse, actively encourage such behavior! More:
The shushers claim that not giving a film on the screen one's undivided attention is apparently unspeakably offensive to the many hardworking scriptwriters and carpenters and visual effects supervisors who made the film. Yet these very same Hollywood artists are somehow able to screw up their courage, grimly set their jaws with determination, and bravely carry on with their lives even when faced with the horrible knowledge that some people will see their films in a pan-and-scan version on an ancient CRT screen of an airplane that has an actual jet engine running in the background behind their careful sound mix. Profiles in courage.
This is, at best, a secondary concern. The complaint isn't about the filmmakers, it's about the other people in the theater. If you take your phone out in a dark theater and start talking (or texting), it's taking away from the experience for everyone surrounding that person in the theater. Someone who laughs during a comedy or shouts "Yeah!" during an action movie? They're contributing to the fun experience. Someone who's talking to their spouse on the phone (at full volume) about tomorrow's dinner party is seriously fucking with the people around them. You think I'm joking? That very experience happened to me last night during a screening of You're Next (i.e. a horror film that is constantly building and releasing tension, often through silence).
It'd be easier for you to have exactly the hermetically sealed, human-free, psychopathic isolation chamber of cinematic perfection that you seek at home, but if you want to try to achieve this in a public space, please enjoy the Alamo Drafthouse or other excellent theaters designed to accommodate this impulse.
Again, no one is asking for hermetically sealed isolation chambers. At the aforementioned You're Next screening, there were plenty of other people who were clearly into the movie that would occasionally blurt out "No, don't split up!" or groan in empathetic horror when something violent happened - and those things added to the experience. The asshole talking about his rump roast with his spouse, was NOT. Incidentally, no one "shushed" that fucker, which leads me to wonder who the hell Dash is referring to when he talks about these mythical "shushers".

Incidentally, the theater chain that Dash mentions as if it promotes this isolation is Alamo Drafthouse, which is indeed very intolerant of texting and rude behavior in theaters. But it isn't hermetically sealed at all. For crying out loud, it's got a full service restaurant thing going on, with people constantly walking in and out of the theater, eating food, and drinking beer. People are getting drunk at these theaters, and having a great time. I have no idea where Dash is getting this isolation thing from. Also, he mentions the Alamo Drafthouse as if there's one in every neighborhood. I'd happily go to one if it existed within a hundred miles of my house, but there's only 24 theaters in the country (16 of which are in Texas). And again, the only difference between the Alamo Drafthouse and every other theater in the country is that they have the manpower to actually enforce their rules (since waiters are in and out of the theater, they can see troublemakers and do something about it, etc...)
The intellectual bankruptcy of this desire is made plain, however, when the persons of shush encounter those who treat a theater like any other public space. Here are valid ways to process this inconsistency of expectation:
  • "Oh, this person has a different preference than I do about this. Perhaps we should have two different places to enjoy this activity, so we can both go about our business!"
  • "It seems that group of people differs in their standard of how to behave. Since we all encounter varying social norms from time to time, I'll just do my thing while they do theirs."
  • "I'm finding the inconsistency between our expectations about this experience to be unresolvable or stressful; Next time we'll communicate our expectations in advance so everyone can do what she or he enjoys most."
But shushers don't respond in any of these ways. They say, "We have two different expectations over this public behavior, and mine is the only valid way. First, I will deny that anyone has other norms. Then, when incontrovertibly faced with the reality that these people exist, I will vilify them and denigrate them. Once this tactic proves unpersuasive, I will attempt to marginalize them and shame them into compliance. At no point will I consider finding ways for each of us to accommodate our respective preferences, for mine is the only valid opinion." This is typically followed by systematically demonstrating all of the most common logical fallacies in the process of denying that others could, in good conscience, arrive at conclusions other than their own.
If steam wasn't already shooting out of your ears in frustration at Dash's post, this is where the post goes completely off the rails. The hypocrisy is almost palpable. Let's start with the fact that most movie theaters are not, in fact, public spaces. They are privately owned buildings, and wonder among wonders, the owners have defined general guidelines for behavior. When was the last time you went to a movie theater and DIDN'T see a plea to turn off your fucking phone at the beginning of the movie. In other words, theaters "communicate our expectations in advance" of every movie they show. It's the Dash's of the world who are ignorant here. This is precisely why I wasn't that upset with Hunter Walk's original suggestion: If a theater wants to allow texting and talking and second screen experience, more power to them. Every theater I've ever been to has pleaded with me to consider the other people in the theater and, you know, try not to ruin other people's experience.

Dash's stance here is incomprehensible and hypocritical. What makes rude people's differing standards more relevant than the "shushers"? He calls shushers "bullies" in this post, but they're simply trying to uphold the standards of the theater. Why are rude people entitled to ruin the experience for everyone else in the theater? I honestly have no idea how someone like Anil Dash, who I know for a fact is a smart, erudite man (from his other writings), could possibly think this is an acceptable argument.
Amusingly, American shushers are a rare breed overall. The most popular film industry in the world by viewers is Bollywood, with twice as many tickets sold in a given year there as in the United States. And the thing is, my people do not give a damn about what's on the screen.

Indian folks get up, talk to each other, answer phone calls, see what snacks there are to eat, arrange marriages for their children, spontaneously break out in song and fall asleep. And that's during weddings! If Indian food had an equivalent to smores, people would be toasting that shit up on top of the pyre at funerals. So you better believe they're doing some texting during movies. And not just Bollywood flicks, but honest-to-gosh Mom-and-apple-pie American Hollywood films.
He's right, American shushers are a rare breed - I think I may have seen people get shushed 2 or 3 times in my life. And I see a TON of movies, to the point where examples of people doing rude things like talking about other subjects, answering their phone, etc... are countless. Usually, people just grin and bear it. And then give up going to the theater. Why spend $30-$40 to see a movie with a friend when you'll just get frustrated by assholes doing rude shit during the entire movie?

India sounds like a horrible place to see a movie, but whatever. I imagine these theaters are pretty clear about what this experience is going to be like, so fine. Is anyone shushing Indians in those theaters? I find that hard to believe. But we're not talking about India, are we? They clearly have different cultural norms than we do in America, and that's awesome!
So, what can shushers do about it? First, recognize that cultural prescriptivism always fails. Trying to inflict your norms on those whose actions arise from a sincere difference in background or experience is a fool's errand.
Someone is attempting to force their culture on someone else here, and it's not the shushers. Dash clearly likes the way things work in India, and is arguing that we should adopt that here. If he's talking about creating separate theaters for his preferred experience, then go for it! We'll let the market sort out what people like. I'll even concede that Dash could be right and his partial attention theaters will swallow up traditional American theaters whole. Of course, in that situation, I'll probably never go to a theater again, but such is life.
Then, recognize your own privilege or entitlement which makes you feel as if you should be able to decide what’s right for others. There's literally no one who's ever texted in a movie theater who has said "Every other person in here must text someone, right now!" Because that would be insane. No one who would like to have wifi at a theater has ever said "Those who don't want to connect should just stay at home!" Because they're not trying to force others to comply with their own standards.
They're not forcing me to text to talk on the phone, but they ARE forcing me to listen to them talk or see them text. Perhaps if we were talking about a true public space, this would be the case, but we're not. The private owners of these theaters are asking you not to do this, therefore the entitlement is on the texters and talkers.

Dash has since written a followup that is much more reasonable (it makes me wonder if his initial post was just link-bait or some other cynical exercise), and again, I agree with the idea of producing new theaters around this concept. They may even experience some success. I just won't be going to any of them.