This year, the 47th Chicago International Film Festival highlighted films from both veterans and new filmmakers alike from countries around the world, and in just about every genre one could imagine. However, it also highlighted a growing trend in the demographic of the casual moviegoer: being tardy. Of course, this is no fault of the film festival itself; Cinema Chicago can’t do much to change the habits of John and Jane Movielover. The Festival just happened to accentuate this particular violation of movie theater etiquette.
There used to be a time when people entered a movie theater and the screen was just dark. And it would stay off until the movie or the pre-movie trailers began. Sometimes a radio would pump music into the theater. This was a time back before ADHD was diagnosed for the first time and the civilized world found that they could sit still and be alone with their thoughts for at least ten minutes…or at least hold a conversation with their companions or family members until it was time for the show to start. Now, in our technologically-advanced future, we have pre-show entertainment: there is even material custom-made for kids, chock-full of cartoons and candy ads and the like. The adults get treated to previews of the next big show coming to a major network that will manage to be cancelled before a quarter of a season of episodes attaches to its belt(how many times did I have to watch and listen while the giant screen told me how great Charlie’s Angels was going to be? Well, that latest upgrade has already been cancelled; not that anyone might particularly care, because no one in particular was watching.) When that finally ends, the viewer is treated to a virtual rollercoaster ride or footage of teenagers arriving to the theater to sit in their cozy seats that magically blossom into a tree. I have seen stuff spilled on theater seats that looked like it was about to start sprouting fungus, but my seat has never taken a Jack and the Beanstalk-style turn for the better.
After all of that hubbub is over, there are at least four trailers to run through before the thing that the viewer paid to see actually begins. Sometimes there are more than four trailers, but if each trailer is near the two-minute mark, then that’s almost another ten minutes before the feature presentation. Of course, anybody that has gone to the movie theater within the last five years knows this, so why state all this? To prove a point: it’s understood why people don’t want to arrive to the theater early. Some people don’t care to watch any previews. Some might consider hitting the concession stand before sitting down before the big screen to be a matter of life and death, even if the line’s fifteen deep and the movie’s about to start. Some people would just prefer to not wait until the next screening when they get stuck in traffic. When I’m at the box office, I regularly overhear people asking if the movie has started yet or if the previews are still running. The box office clerk always seems to know, so I wonder: is the clerk just humoring the patrons, or do they actually have a time schedule to know when the actual film begins as opposed to when the trailers, etc. begin at the listed show time? Anybody who has had experience at the local multiplex please fill me in.
Next time you go to the movies, play a little game: keep an eye on just how many people come in while the trailers are running or within the first five minutes of the start of the film. Odds are it will probably be more than expected. Unless you are one of those people that doesn’t like to get to the theater early. In that case, you can’t play, but you’ll certainly be counted.
Now this may be a frequent occurrence at the local multiplex, making the idea of bringing it up rather mundane. Perhaps there is truth to that: if people are walking in while the coming attractions are rolling, no harm, no foul. If somebody happens to walk right in front of you, you can go home and watch the trailer again online(or perhaps on your smartphone as soon as you step out of the theater) to make up that shot or two you might have missed. But what happens when the same Johnny-Come-Lately’s stroll into a festival screening ten minutes after the listed showtime?
Trailers are not attached to films at film festivals. In the case of the Chicago International Film Festival, there is a brief recorded introduction that lasts around 30 seconds and the same one plays in front of all festival screenings. Therefore, when people show up ten minutes late to a festival screening, they are walking in when the film is fully underway. Secondly, film festival screenings have the tendency to always be packed. People line up for the films usually around an hour in advance, and depending on when the theater opens up from the previous screening, ticket holders are usually able to get in and choose a seat about 20-30 minutes before the start of the screening. Therefore, when stragglers wander in, it’s not a matter of them quickly finding a seat because there aren’t many seats left. They usually have to stand on the stairs, staring up at the stadium rows, trying to make out which seats are empty in the dark. And for the people that got in line early to get a good seat and are trying to enjoy the film, it’s distracting.
Just this week, there was a man(I hesitate to call him a gentleman) who wandered into a screening about ten minutes late. It was in one of the larger theaters at the AMC River East in downtown Chicago, so there was a lower tier of stadium seats and a higher tier with a walkway in between. I was at the very bottom of the higher tier. The guy paced around for a bit, looking for a seat. He then took the highest seat on the lower tier right in front of me. But once he was finally seated, he then had to stand up and take off his jacket, partially blocking my view and anyone else’s around me. He then sat back down and was rustling some plastic on whatever it was he was going to eat. Another couple entered a screening of a film that only ran 76 minutes(including the end credits) about fifteen minutes tardy. They already missed a fifth of the film, and after staring for awhile they went right to the very front row.
But did they stay seated? Thirty seconds later, they both jumped up, and moved back a couple of rows(because at that distance it would make so much difference, right?), and stood there asking people if seats were open in that row. They ended up having to sit separated, just a few rows from the massive screen, all because they couldn’t get there earlier? And of course, the whole display was a giant distraction to anyone trying to focus on the film.
And then there are the people that still have to pull out their cell phones and distract everyone with illuminated light while they silence it or turn it off. But I’m not going to dig into the cell phone issue here: that is an epidemic that surely deserves a column all its own. One thing that certainly had me shaking my head was how one woman complained about how crowded the theater was. Right, because the city of Chicago would continue to host a film festival for nearly fifty years if it wasn’t popular and successful? Would it have killed her to show up a half hour earlier if she wanted her pick of the best seat? Hey, it makes me sore when I’m seated 30 minutes before the screening begins only to have somebody plop down right next to me just while the plot’s getting good to distract me with their idle whispering and cell phone usage, but at least I got my pick of the seats in the house. Perhaps if people could only have ended that phone conversation a few minutes earlier or stopped for one less latte, perhaps they would have time to get a better seat at the festival. It’s called setting priorities(but don’t get me wrong, I love a good latte!).
At the end of the day, it’s anyone’s right to show up to a movie late. However, when it becomes an inconvenience to everyone else, their choice of arrival time becomes an issue. I had personally suggested to the Chicago International Film Festival via Twitter that perhaps people arriving longer than five minutes after the start of a festival screening should be refused admittance. If somebody shows up late to the latest blockbuster on an opening weekend, they know that their chance of getting a ticket or a good seat is going to be slim. Film festivals are the same way; every ticket could potentially sell like a blockbuster, depending on word-of-mouth, awards, etc. Besides, the Chicago International Film Festival only lasts two weeks out of an entire year. Would it kill somebody to get to the theater early for just a brief period of time? I say they can all go back to their bad habits after the Festival closes up shop. Because for me, it’s not going to hurt me so much if people are trying to find seats while the latest Katherine Heigl movie is being advertised, but if I’m paying a premium price to watch a unique, foreign, independent film that I might only get the opportunity to see once in my lifetime, I would prefer to not have to listen to people’s voices saying ‘are both of those seats taken?’
Look for another editorial on movie theater etiquette soon. Have a movie theater etiquette ‘horror story’ to share? Do it below and start the conversation!
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