Why are cinemas so full of noisy people?

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1981: Cinema-themed fashion shoot at the Screen on the Hill, Belsize Park. A model wears clothing and accessories made out of confectionery. Photo: Philip Grey
A cinema-themed fashion shoot at the Screen on the Hill, Belsize Park, 1981. Photo: Philip Grey
It’s an age-old problem, for sure, but it doesn’t make it any less annoying: punters crunching, schlurping, wandering around and generally chattering through a film you’ve paid a hefty whack to see.

Phone-checking is now standard audience procedure, but hasn’t the general anti-social cinema problem been exacerbated by upmarket chains like Everyman and their posh food and drink revolutions?

Sure, fizzy drinks and popcorn were always part of the movies, but fishbowls of Sauvignon, bottles of red, clinking gin and tonics, fizzy beers, smelly plates of cheese-topped nachos and stringy pizzas add a whole new level of annoyance. Am I right?

We asked Everyman’s press office what they made of the subject. Their response? A discussion “was not something we wish to partake in”.

Which, of course, speaks volumes. After all, their profitable snacks and drinks are whisked out deep into the film by harassed staff. In fact, the teams at both the Belsize Park and Hampstead branches can never quite get the orders out before the movie begins, no matter how busy (or even quiet) it is.

This might be no-one’s fault, but it’s a problem that always recurs. No wonder then that – combined with a zeitgeisty inability to concentrate – people’s natural bodily functions kick in, from alcohol loosening tongues to a child-like need to use the facilities repeatedly.

Everyman in Hampstead: packed with munchers and talkers. Photo: Everyman
Everyman in Hampstead: packed with munchers and talkers. Photo: Everyman
Up and down, up and down they go, a steady stream to the toilet. During the documentary Amy, one man even stood up to wobble out and take a slash at the point where the star died. I mean, really? At nearly £20 a ticket?

Cinema-going in London is such an expensive pursuit that surely punters would shut it and focus. But they don’t. Watching Carol at our local Odeon, three women behind were busy having a catch-up over a never-ending bottle of white, not to mention giggling at some of the same-sex scenes. And at The Force Awakens – its soundtrack so noisy it would drown out even the loudest post-prandial wind – a couple sat behind rabbiting consistently through the quiet bits.

But I held back from ticking them off, unlike a scene witnessed by my colleague Tom in Leicester Square, where a middle-aged man, so riled by a crying baby, screamed: “Why did you bring him in, it’s a 12 rating for goodness’ sake?” The family scuttled out, frightened off.

Odeon, Camden Town. Photo: SE
Odeon, Camden Town. Photo: SE
And then there’s the small issue of Instagramming. “At the IMAX, someone did it seven or eight times during the first 20 mins,” says reader Antony Hamer-Hodges, “before I had to lean forward and say ‘sorry, but that’s really distracting’. He huffed and puffed in incredulity, but fortunately stopped.”

We asked others on social media what their worst experiences have been. “A mobile phone rang very loudly during the Bergman classic the Seventh Seal – and they actually answered it,” says Greg Thorpe. And Simon Koppel tells of “some teenagers behind us in the Woman In Black. One had forgotten her glasses: two others had to keep telling her what was happening. It was like watching telly with your elderly nan. “Who’s that? What’s going on? What just happened?”

Most amusing, though? Absolute Radio’s Claire Sturgess, who says her partner was “in a packed Prince Charles cinema last week. A couple brought in a full Chinese takeaway!” Yuck. But not everyone is outraged: “I’m the one who eats and I don’t care who knows it,” tweeted Mike Kelly. “I’m not deliberately loud – but it’s all part of the experience.”

This is box title

Advice from a professional: Philip Grey, former cinema manager

Back in the day: the neon sign at Screen On The Hill. Photo: Philip Grey
Back in the day: the neon sign at Screen On The Hill. Photo: Philip Grey
It is rather a long time since I ceased managing Belsize Park’s Screen on the Hill (now Everyman), but I’m still a regular cinema-goer. I make a point of going to establishments that eschew inflight service and the provision of hot food for consumption in the auditorium.

Call me old-fashioned but I go to the movies to watch a film, not fill my stomach: that’s what restaurants are for, and mobile phones shouldn’t be visible (much less audible) in either place.

The complexity of cinema etiquette could form the basis for a doctoral thesis. Cinema has traditionally been a shared cultural experience where films are consumed in a dark environment that feels private but is in fact public. The same medium is used to produce mass appeal films like Star Wars and rarefied work such as The Colour of Pomegranates – and the whole spectrum in between.

The attitude of audiences to the cinema experience tends to vary according to where on the spectrum the type of film being watched falls. It’s quite acceptable to cheer the reappearance of Harrison Ford, while the expectation is that Parajanov’s film will be watched in hushed reverence. Problems tend to occur in the middle ground where there is a greater mix of audience type.

Backyard cinema in Camden Market: not a traditional model. Photo:PR
Backyard cinema in Camden Market: with participation encouraged, it’s not a traditional model. Photo:PR
As more films are watched at home, or places other than cinemas, the behavioural mores of those spaces have become associated with the movie experience and some people aren’t very good at recognising boundaries.

Cinema operators are under increased financial pressure as rents on premium sites rise, non-blockbuster markets flounder and alternative platforms flourish. The answer, as always, has been to focus on food and beverages to bolster the bottom line. To maximise this some operators are branding their cinemas as ‘luxury/premium/premier’ experiences in order to encourage the maximum possible ‘spend per head’.

It is ironic that I spent years asking customers to take outside their rancid, oniony kebabs or vinegary-smelling chips they had smuggled into the auditorium, confiscating them if they refused, and now the main focus of many cinemas seems to be on the provision of food-and-drink ancillaries rather than quality films. I believe that the type of customer this attracts is one whose primary motive is ‘the experience’, rather than the movie and consequently their behaviour is shaped by a different set of priorities.

Remember this? The foyer at the old Screen on the Hill. Photo: Philip Grey
Remember this? The foyer at the old Screen on the Hill. Photo: Philip Grey
As a self-proclaimed grumpy old cinema goer I generally find that a polite request to someone within earshot to stop talking or using their mobile phone generally does the trick. There are the times when this backfires, like the occasion at the old Renoir where one of a couple of women who had been chatting increasingly volubly through the first 20 minutes of Midnight in Paris, despite repeated suggestions to take the conversation outside, got up and thrust her face in mine and told me to “fuck off out of her business!”

I don’t recall ever encountering this level of rudeness in my days of managing the Screen on the Hill. A quiet word to an habitual whisperer usually did the trick. However I do think behaviour is getting worse, and mobile phones are perhaps the most significant distraction and indication of a pernicious addiction.

My advice to uninterrupted film enjoyment? If possible go to the cinema in the afternoon when there are fewer people and they’re more likely to be similarly respectful. Patronise cinemas that prioritise the film, rather than the nachos and beer. Don’t be afraid to object to bad behaviour, but do so politely. Philip Grey

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