A Guide To Movie Theatre Etiquette

You don’t have to venture too far out into the world to encounter people who aren’t particularly self-aware. Whether that involves those with heads buried in their phones while walking into people or wandering into traffic, having difficulty dealing with lines and crowds, or simply not being in tune with their surroundings, it only takes a trip out in public or an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm to bear witness to the socially oblivious and excessively irritating.

Which is not to say that people are malicious or beyond saving (though there’s an argument for that too). No — they can be helped, hopefully, with a little guidance. One public arena of particular importance is the movie theatre, so let’s start there. It’s here where crowds go to enjoy the unique nature of cinema, but that unfortunately can mean different things to different people, and as a result, your own movie-going experience can be negatively affected by those around you. It’s sort of like buying fruit at a grocery store — once you commit, you can’t go back, and you’re not really sure what you’re going to get.

So here are some etiquette guidelines, and by guidelines we mean strict rules that under no circumstances are to be broken lest you are banned forever from cinemas and publically shamed in the city square by Septa Unella from Game of Thrones. Just kidding. But seriously, ‘Shame!’

No Phone, Ever

It’s almost self-evident—almost—but absolutely under no circumstances are you to use your phone in any way whatsoever. Oh, your screen has a dimmer? You’re waiting for a really important call? You’re in the middle of an argument over text with someone and you can’t just go silent? If something is happening that involves your phone, don’t go to the movies.

Yes, you may think you’ve discovered some ingenious loophole by lowering the brightness, putting it down by your side, or turning it on while in your purse, but it’s still a distraction. Somewhere, someone is distracted, and you’re now the worst.

Instead, turn off your phone, wear a watch to see the time, bring a piece of paper to write down any funny things you want to text your friends later, and summon the strength to be disconnected from the world for two consecutive hours and trust that Snapchat will still be there when the credits roll.

No Smelly Food

Really, no food at all, though I’m willing to compromise if you’re willing to forgo burritos, Chinese take-out, and whatever is actually in the Popeye’s meal you ordered. Inexplicably, we’ve all been conned by the cineplex into thinking that we can’t go a couple hours without scarfing down something that barely passes as an edible meal.

Movie time has become dinner time for reasons unknown. Popcorn I get. It’s still annoying because so many can’t chew with their mouths closed, but I get it. However, it’s really gotten out of hand. So please, no smelly food that will bother a neighbor and turn rank what was otherwise a tolerably smelling theatre.

Sounds are problematic too, and to be fair, the theatre is to blame as well. Stop giving people straws! At the same time, however, I know you’re trying as you might to be as quiet as possible when you’re unwrapping your candy, but it’s just not working. To borrow from Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David again, just treat it like a band aid — one motion, right off!

Sit Smartly

We are all buoyed by each individual thinking about others in the theatre — that’s what this is about. We’re trying to enhance the shared experience. We did this wonderfully with Star Wars; for the most part, no one spoiled anything as everyone knew how important the film was.

Be aware of the the film’s potential popularity, and sit properly and effectively. That is to say, if you’re going on opening weekend to see a massively anticipated blockbuster, then get ready to scooch in and get comfortable around other people. Be mindful that most people see movies in pairs, so it’s pretty silly to leave a single seat in between you and someone else.

Conversely, if you’re seeing a film at a time when it’s not going to be crowded, then spread out and let people have a bit more privacy.

No First Dates

This is more a suggestion than anything else, but aside from the fact that you can be far more creative with a first date than going to a movie, going to films doesn’t allow for you to actually get to know someone. In the very beginning of courting someone, a movie is probably the last place you want to go. You have to sit and experience something in silence when you should be talking and getting to know each other.

Now, a movie is decent a few dates in, because it can offer you something to talk about and serve as an insight into another’s tastes. But just because you’re sitting together in a dark room does not a make a movie a good first date idea. Moreover, it breaks up the flow of an evening, forcing you to stay in one spot as opposed to being spontaneous, and allows for others—moviegoers and filmmakers—to sour your evening.

Go Alone

A corollary to the last guideline is a tip: try going to a movie alone. It seems there are plenty out there who may be hesitant to head to the cinema without accompaniment, but this too is sort of a societal pressure or a cineplex con that has gotten out of hand.

Seeing a movie in and of itself isn’t a social experience. While you can chat afterwards, most of the time you’ll sit in silence with only the occasional comment or look at the person on either side of you. There is something special and rewarding about watching a movie on the big screen in a bit of isolation. It’s you and the film, and you can presumably give your full attention and embrace the experience, letting it wash over you without worrying what others are thinking.

Festival Q&A Bonus: Be Really Sure You Have a Good Question

If you’re at a festival or special screening, you may be afforded the opportunity to hear from some filmmakers or talent in person following the screening. This happens frequently at TIFF, Hot Docs, and other fests, and while a moderator may lead the beginning of the conversation, the opportunity often arises for the public to ask questions. This can get a little problematic, so here are some quick tips: keep it short, keep it about the content and talent, and not about you or how you felt or how you think the movie could be better. If you really have something to say and want to make it about yourself, do what others have done: become a film critic.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.