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AMC Theatres may allow cellphone use during movies in order to court millennials (update)

Just one more reason to stay home

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

In an effort to bring in more customers, AMC Theatres is exploring options to allow moviegoers to use their phones during films, reports Variety.

Adam Aron, the CEO of AMC Theatres parent company AMC Entertainment, told Variety during a recent interview that one of the demographics his company is trying to target is millennials, since they don't go out to the movies as often as other age groups.

"You can't tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone"

"Yes," said Aron, 61, when asked by Variety if AMC's efforts to appeal to millennials could involve allowing texting in theaters. "When you tell a 22-year-old to turn off the phone, don't ruin the movie, they hear 'please cut off your left arm above the elbow.' You can't tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That's not how they live their life."

Aron did acknowledge that theaters run ads before movies asking customers to silence their phones, and noted, "We're going to have to figure out a way to do it that doesn't disturb today's audiences." He drew a distinction between younger audiences and "today's moviegoer," saying that the latter type of customer "doesn't want somebody sitting next to them texting or having their phone on."

Possible approaches include making certain theaters more texting-friendly, said Aron, or restricting texting to a certain section of the theater — perhaps like the way restaurants used to offer smoking and nonsmoking sections.

Aron became the CEO of AMC Entertainment in January, and although his statements don't confirm the company is definitely doing this, they shouldn't be taken lightly. In March, AMC announced a $1.1 billion acquisition of the regional theater chain Carmike Cinemas. If the deal goes through, AMC would leapfrog the Regal Entertainment Group to become the largest movie theater chain in the U.S., with over 600 locations in 45 states.

the number of frequent moviegoers dropped by 10 percent last year

AMC's potential experimentation with texting in theaters also comes at a time of concern for the film industry. Box office receipts hit record highs in 2015 both domestically ($11.1 billion, up 6.73 percent over 2014) and globally ($38.3 billion, up 5.22 percent), according to a report from the Motion Picture Association of America. However, the number of "frequent moviegoers" in the U.S. — defined as people who see movies in theaters at least once a month — dropped by 10 percent last year. In particular, the number of frequent moviegoers aged 18-24 fell for the fourth year in a row, suggesting that young people are less interested in the cinema experience these days.

Another possible threat to the moviegoing experience comes from Napster founder Sean Parker. His startup Screening Room is reportedly in discussions with theater chains, including AMC, about a plan to offer new films to people in their homes on the same day those movies hit theaters. Screening Room customers would pay $50 for a 48-hour window in which to watch a film, and the company would offer a cut of that price — as much as $20 — to theater owners, in order to entice them to join the program. The service would also require the purchase of a $150 set-top box for secure delivery of movies.

Aron told Variety that he is "not commenting publicly" on Screening Room, although he did express a belief that reducing the window between theatrical and home distribution poses a risk to theater owners and movie studios. He also noted that he is a "big fan of experimenting and testing on everything that we do to see if there aren't alternative ways of doing business."

Update: Tim League, co-founder and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, disagreed with Aron's comments in a statement provided to Polygon. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is a boutique chain of theaters around the U.S. that is renowned for its rigorous adherence to moviegoing etiquette — customers are strictly forbidden from talking or using their phones during movies.

"Innovation in this direction could seriously hurt our industry"

"Innovation in this direction could seriously hurt our industry," said League, laying out two specific objections to Aron's plans.

"My first objection stems from cinema's relationship with directors and producers, the content creators," said League. "Auteurs focus for years to complete their films. We as exhibitors rely completely on these creators for our content and have an unwritten obligation to present their films in the best possible way: on a big screen with big sound and a bright picture in a silent, dark room.

"You can only be immersed in a story if you are focused on it," League continued. "If while watching a film you are intermittently checking your email, posting on social media, chatting with friends, etc., there is no way you are fully engaged in the story on screen. I find that to be disrespectful to the creators, those who make the very existence of cinema possible."

League also took issue with Aron's "generalization of millennial behavior," noting that being addicted to one's smartphone is not an issue that's unique to 22-year-olds. League cited a Pew Research Center survey from 2015 that found that 68 percent of U.S. adults owned smartphones, a figure that is up from 35 percent in 2011.

"turning off your phone and focusing on a good movie is much-needed therapy"

"Regardless of your age, turning off your phone and focusing on a good movie is much-needed therapy," said League, characterizing smartphone addiction as a "global attention span epidemic" and admitting that he, too, spends a lot of time on his phone.

"This time of focus in a darkened room is core to the experience of cinema. Only with this focus can you lose yourself completely in the story and really fall into the magic spell of the movies."

League said that he is fine with "second screen" experiences for gaming and interactive exhibitions, but insisted that "there is absolutely no place for the distraction of a lit phone screen" in a theater where customers are seeing a film for the first time.

"At the Alamo Drafthouse we are actively engaged in trying to make sure cinema remains a compelling destination for young people, and I agree this should be a focus for the whole industry," said League. "I just don't believe that this line of experimentation is the right tactic. A firm policy against talking and texting in the cinema is about respect: for the filmmakers and fellow cinephiles of all ages."

League made sure to note that he is "very excited for Adam Aron to be taking the helm at AMC," and that he hopes Aron and AMC will introduce other "innovations and enhancements" to the cinema.

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