Dabe Alan

WiFi in the movie theater?! Ben and Andrew discuss the achingly persistent march of civilization

WiFi in the movie theater?! Ben and Andrew discuss the achingly persistent march of civilization

The Internet has been buzzing about the guy who wrote an article about how movie theaters should offer free WiFi and outlets for your laptops and cell phones. You should be able to stay connected and/or work while watching a movie, they argued. This has invited a good amount of derision as people wrote rebuttals, reactions, and recriminations.

I was once flying to an event, and happened to be sitting next to a PR person who also worked in video games. The second we were above 10,000 feet we both reached under our seats, took out our laptops, bought the in-flight WiFi, and began tapping on the keyboards. We had been chatting, and he remarked at how wonderful it was to be able to connect in the air.

“It kind of sucks, actually,” I told him. “A few years ago we would both be either talking or reading our books.” We had both removed books from our bag, and stuck them in the seat pocket in front of us. They would remain there for the duration for the flight.

I think about that conversation all the time, because the places where we’re truly unplugged are shrinking. Soon there won’t be any left, and the phones, laptops, and portable gaming devices will have successfully taken over our lives.

Not that this is a terrible thing; the tool is only poor if you use it poorly, but the places where we’re given a little extra help to unplug are going away. Planes used to be a wonderful place to catch a movie, read a magazine or book, or have a quiet conversation with the interesting people around you. Now we just take out our laptops and get to work.

The movie theater has always felt sacred to me, to the point where I get physically uncomfortable when people talk or get rowdy. It’s rare for people to gather their bodies and attention in one place these days, and the movie theater joins concerts as some of the few places where this happens, and theaters are already filled with people who look away from the performance to instead watch the spectacle through their phones, recording buzzing videos of their favorite song and uploading them to various social networks instead of enjoying the music.

What theaters do is their own business, and I’m sure that some people would go to one with low lights, outlets, and a good Internet connection. But the loss of one more space where we’re encouraged, if not actively helped, to disconnect and share a moment with others instead of our phones and laptops is sad. These are the spaces that should be nurtured and respected, not killed.

Andrew, would this ruin movies for you? Is there a place for these policies?

Andrew's cold, nostalgia-less heart

This would absolutely ruin the movies for me, but then again I don't really go to the movies anymore. And I think that's the point. The movies can't really compete with the wide-range of other entertainment options available to people anymore so they need to start incorporating them into their business.

You've talked in the past about having trouble letting go of all of your different streams of entertainment and information, and I think that's going to become a much more common thing in the future. Younger people these days almost never go off the grid, so going dark in a movie theater for hours can be a lot to ask.

So I do think there is a place for these policies from a business standpoint, although it does sort of seem like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Obtaining the optimal movie-going experience is the whole reason why anybody goes to the theater anymore. They could be destroying that.

As for disconnecting from the grid, it's absolutely true that there are fewer and fewer ways to be forced into disconnecting, but I think that's always been a part of modernity. As things progress we have to work harder and harder to take care of ourselves as we gain easier and easier access to the things that are bad for us. Unplugging from the grid for a break is a good thing, and we're going to need to learn to force ourselves to do that on our own. It's much the same way our parents learned to avoid the junk food that was suddenly on every street corner.

The areas where we can disconnect are fewer and fewer every year, and that puts pressure on the movie business. These theaters were once hotspots of cultural engagement, but without internet access they're becoming cultural dead zones.

Ben's wrath

The real question is whether we think places like movie theaters need to adapt, or do we think they need to take greater care to preserve the experience of seeing a movie? The whole unplugging and sitting still for two hours is part of the reason I like going to a theater instead of seeing a movie at my house; there are too many distractions at home. When I go out to see a movie, I want to see a movie, not jump online to live-tweet that silly bullet train scene from Wolverine.

And you know that shit is going to happen. “Oh shit, Bruce Willis was DEAD?!” would be up on Facebook in minutes these days. I feel like the Star Trek into Darkness villain reveal held up pretty well, but most people weren't tweeting and posting from the theater. That helps!

I don't think theaters will actually do this, the backlash against the idea has been both strong and immediate, but the sad thing is that some people want it. They go to watch a movie, and they sit there thinking that they would be having a much better time if they could get online and check their stocks, or update their status, or whatever the hell people do.

Which is kind of the other issue; many of us aren't very mindful when we're online. We're not really doing much of anything except killing time. Putting the computer or phone away and being present for whatever is going on around us is a skill that it feels like we may be losing, and movie theaters are a place where that's all but required.

So I'd go the other way: Not only is this a bad idea, but I'd be willing to pay more for a theater that's darker, with bigger screens, and that throw you the hell out for talking or hanging out on your phone. I don't want a more permissive attitude, I want bouncers.

So Andrew, what WOULD get you out to the movies more often? I'm guessing yet another superhero movie and WiFi isn't going to do it.

Andrew's despair

There really isn't at this point. The movies just aren't a critical part of my life anymore, and I always find it hard to justify spending $10-15 to go see a movie when I have so many other things in my backlog. The movies have always been a place I go when I'm bored, and boredom is dead. Boredom was a virus that was cured by iPhones, Twitch streams, and a thousand other new sources of amusement. 

The only thing that would begin to make the idea of going to the pictures more compelling is if the prices were dropped pretty drastically. I'm sorry movie theaters, I love you, but if it's between $10 for 2 hours with you and $7 for 730 hours (one month) with Netflix… Netflix wins every time. I shudder to imagine myself as Ben Kuchera, taking a full family to the theater. 

To me, that's the heart of the issue. In relation to the cost of movies elsewhere, theaters charge absurd prices. Then they jack up the prices of snacks to recoup the costs they're somehow still losing. 

I think we're looking at an out-of-date business model that may just need to die off over time. Even the concept of a movie theater is starting to sound out of date. “Back in my day we'd pay money to go into a special building to sit in the dark with strangers and watch the film together.” It doesn't yet sound absurd, but it's getting closer every year.

The idea of a movie theater with WiFi is pretty silly, but don't they need to try something to stave off death? I sort of like your idea about doubling down on the movie-going experience, but I think that's intrinsically limiting. It's placing all your hopes on an aging audience that has less and less free time every year. 

Closing credits

I don't have anything to add. Now I'm just depressed.

Well, scratch that. I do think there is value in going to a special place to watch movies with others, but I also agree that my feelings are based on nostalgia and the past; they're not necessarily shared by my children and their friends.

On the other hand, my kids know that my time is more valuable than my money, and when we go to the movie theater they get a bunch of uninterrupted time sitting next to me and sharing something. That's hard to do when you work from home, there is always something to be done, and it's hard to tear away from the laptop.

So I'm glad theaters are still around, at least for now. I think they'll be around for a good long while. Once I'm in the ground? You assholes can do whatever you want.