Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker Magazine, American Cinematographer, and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the shrinking theatrical audience and how this has been a terrible summer for the box office. There are a lot of theories being tossed around as to why fewer people are going to the movies, none of which has ever applied to me, as I go around five times a week. In spite of the easy availability of films on VOD, Netflix and DVD, I still by far prefer the theatrical experience, partly because of the focus it instills in me as I’m forced to shut out the calls, texts and emails that can distract me while watching things at home.
Unfortunately, more and more I seem to be the only person at the theater who thinks of the experience in this way. In spite of the messages that flash on the big screen at my local multiplexes urging people to turn their cell phones off, most films I go to these days are awash in small, glowing screens from beginning to end. Sometimes I let it go, sadly acknowledging that the times have changed and left me behind, sometimes I complain to staff, who rarely do anything to enforce the theater’s policies, and sometimes I ask the offender to shut off their cell phone — which usually results in them informing me that I’m the asshole.
Nevertheless, I always vowed that I would never be one of those people who watched everything at home on my television set or, God forbid, my computer. It’s called cinema, damn it, and I wasn’t going to give up the fight to see movies the way they were meant to be seen: on big screens with great sound and a responsive audience. But I’m starting to believe the battle is lost, and that it’s because I love movies that I have to give up on theaters. I can’t speak to why everyone else has stopped going to the movies, but I can tell you why, at a morning show on Friday of No Good Deed, I decided to stop.
The No Good Deed press screening was canceled by the studio at the last minute, so instead I caught the first show on opening day. I headed over to the Arclight, a grossly overpriced but extremely convenient theater here in Los Angeles that is consistently named as one of the best theaters in town in spite of the fact that it has mediocre customer service and only one truly great screen, the famous Cinerama Dome. (The other screens are your standard multiplex shitholes where you can hear two movies for the price of one as the sound bleeds through the walls.) Anyway, I plopped down my 16 bucks and headed in for what I thought would be a fun way to kick off the weekend.
The presentation began the way all Arclight screenings do, with an employee coming out and asking everyone to put their cell phones away and refrain from talking. As the lights went down, the woman behind me took out her phone and started texting, her phone emitting a cacophony of beeps and whistles as she did so. The theater employee stood by at the side, staring into space, so after a few minutes I walked over to him and asked if he was going to do anything about the woman. He nodded but then waited a few more minutes until he actually said something to her. I didn’t hear what he said, but the woman kept texting as he walked away. When I went over to the guy to ask him what was going on, he looked at me like I was the problem and just said, “She’ll put it away.”
She didn’t, and by this time I was getting steamed — how dare this woman ruin a new Taraji P. Henson thriller for me?! It was clear the Arclight guy wasn’t going to do anything, so I went over to the woman and asked her (admittedly in a not very polite tone of voice) to put her phone away. This is when she went full Idris Elba on me, yelling at me for having the temerity to be annoyed by her texting and then threatening to call her boyfriend to come and “fuck me up.” She stormed out of the theater, presumably to call her boyfriend, then returned to her seat and kept more or less quiet for the rest of the movie. Nevertheless, it made for a somewhat tense 84 minutes as I wondered what kind of confrontation I would have with this woman (and maybe her six-foot-four boyfriend) when the movie was over.
Sure enough, the second the film finished she was on her cell phone screaming to her boyfriend about me, demanding that he get over to the theater and beat me up for disrespecting her. At this point, I wasn’t too nervous about the boyfriend (my guess is that if he really had nothing better to do than come to Hollywood and beat somebody up, he would have been with her at the movie to begin with), but I was starting to get seriously freaked out by this woman’s intensity. And I wasn’t the only one — about a half-dozen theater employees stood by in terror as she stormed up and down the corridor threatening me, the management, and everyone else within earshot. Now, I get that this is a kind of unusual situation — I’ve gone to thousands of movies in my life, and only rarely been chased after by some kind of human Tasmanian devil — why on earth did not one of the lingering employees call security, or a manager, rather than just letting the hallway turn into the scene of a potential WWE match?
Rather than try to find a manager (an endeavor I have previously found to be only marginally less difficult than finding Jimmy Hoffa), I took off with my texting friend’s screams trailing behind me. And I left with a heavy heart, because I knew that from now on I’d only see movies in the theater on special occasions, except at the few places that actually enforce the rules they post and don’t expect their patrons to do it for them. I know I sound like a grumpy old man, so don’t get me wrong — I’m a fun guy. I like to have fun at the movies. I like to have fun at the movies with people I don’t know. It saddens me that I’m losing that, and I know that watching films at home means forgoing the communal experience. But if exhibitors want to know why people aren’t going to the movies, here’s one reason: it’s because for a lot less money, they can watch movies at peace in their own homes and not deal with jerks.
So I’m done. I give up. You beat me, shitty multiplexes. From now on, I’ll be waiting for a lot more stuff to hit DVD, and I’ll be giving my Vudu and iTunes accounts real workouts as I watch day-and-date movies at home instead of in the theater. I realize that in the course of my rant I have neglected actually to review No Good Deed, which was my initial assignment. In a way, it isn’t really fair to comment on the film given the exasperating circumstances, though I did find it to be a fairly fun, stylish genre flick — nothing new or earth-shattering, but an entertaining piece of escapism that delivers everything that it promises. The kind of movie I would really enjoy in the comfort of my own home.