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Would you go to a Wi-Fi-connected, lights-on movie theater?
Venture capitalist Hunter Walk has created a firestorm by pitching a new kind of "social theater"
Phones allowed in movie theaters? It's a frightening thought.
Phones allowed in movie theaters? It's a frightening thought. Thinkstock
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unter Walk, a venture capitalist in San Francisco, recently took to his blog to reinvent the movie theater industry. In his 20s, Walk says, he used to go to the movies quite a bit. Now? Not so much. That's partly the result of having kids, he says, but it's "more of a lifestyle decision" than anything else:

Increasingly I wanted my media experiences plugged in and with the ability to multitask. Look up the cast list online, tweet out a comment, talk to others while watching or just work on something else while Superman played in the background.... Instead of driving people like me away from the theater, why not just segregate us into environments which meet our needs. I'd love to watch Pacific Rim in a theater with a bit more light, Wi-Fi, electricity outlets, and a second screen experience. Don't tell me I'd miss major plot points while scrolling on my iPad — it's a movie about robots vs monsters. I can follow along just fine. [Hunter Walk]

If theaters offered this option in the multiplex, Walk says, "I bet you'd sell tickets." They might even get more telecommuters into the theater during the day, "since I could bang out emails with a 50-foot screen in front of me."

Walk's suggestion wasn't exactly embraced with open arms.

"We like Walk, think he's normally pretty great," says Jay Yarow at Business Insider, but "this is a comically misguided idea." A lighted movie theater that encourages web surfing is essentially "a movie theater that lets you do work so you don't have to watch the movie." That might make sense for a busy, email-swamped venture capitalist like Walk, but normal people don't get "so much email that they can't carve out two hours to watch a movie on the big screen."

This is why we get tech bubbles, says Sam Biddle at Valleywag: Startup plans are "run through a series of prisms, mufflers, and tubes filled with iced coffee — and the people who invest the big money think something like this is a good idea." It isn't. It's not even a new idea: Walk is describing a living room. Maybe that's the ultimate tech dream, "to remake the world in the image of your own living room," Biddle says. But only in Silicon Valley do people think their "pet peeves are surely The Next Billion Dollar Idea."

To be fair, says Richard Lawson at The Atlantic Wire, "Walk isn't advocating this rather troll-y idea for the masses." He merely wants alternative theaters for "those like-minded people who are unable to leave their various devices and social streams for even two hours." And as bleak as that may sound, "I'd guess that for many Walk's suggestions will strike a chord." They're wrong. There are plenty of annoyances at the cineplex, but "people keep coming, in droves."

Why? Because going to the movies is fun, and communal in a way that dicking around on Twitter never will be.... To lay on the corny shtick that people who write about movies for a living (or, for that matter, make movies for a living) always lay on when they're trying to get people to care about entertainment, movies do have transformative, transporting powers. There is still, despite our cynicism, something awe-inspiring about watching a story unfold in a big dark room. A place you've paid to be, an experience you've worked to have.... Let's have a little respect for that. [Atlantic Wire]

It really makes no sense "to pay $15 to not watch a movie," but let Walk have his web-friendly theaters, says Matt Singer at The Dissolve. "I've no doubt that second screen-friendly auditoriums would attract young customers," and those of us "who'd rather eat a smartphone than sit behind someone using one during a movie" would be happy to be rid of such patrons. Still, "maybe there's another culprit here: Dumb movies," Singer says:

Walk seems convinced he could follow Pacific Rim while playing with his iPad because it's about robots fighting monsters. Whether he's right or not, the perception that movies have become such vapid, empty spectacles that they can be fully appreciated with the occasional sideways glance up from email is one of the harshest indictments of mainstream moviemaking I can imagine. Blockbusters are supposed to provide viewers an escape from their humdrum lives. What does it say about how well they're doing their job if people would rather not escape? [Dissolve]

Singer suggests that instead of listening to Walk, more theaters should adopt the model made famous by the Alamo Drafthouse (Warning: Some language is NSFW):

Let's give the final word to Walk, who was so surprised that "movie enthusiasts stormed my front door with pitchforks, demanding my head" that he wrote a follow-up post.

Watching a movie in your home theater is no "substitute for (a) first run movies that are (b) watched in a theater setting with a (c) critical mass of people," he says. "There's a social, communal event that I still desire, not just to bend the way the world works to my will."

And as for the complaint about self-absorbed techies and venture capitalists, Walk says, "I believe the tech community actually needs to often get its head out of its ass and realize there are some things we think are problems that aren't generally considered by others to be priorities." And the negative reaction to the original post has "caused me to pause and consider my words."

As for my idea about a separate, social, connected viewing experience — maybe something which feels like the modern day equivalent of the participatory midnight movie Rocky Horror showing — I still want to try it out. Maybe I'll hate it. Maybe enough people won't like it to make it commercially viable, but I'm really interested. So I'm looking for a place in San Francisco. Maybe sell tickets as a charitable donation to a film preservation society or digital divide organization like Ghetto Film School. Like most experiments, you don't know until you try.... [Hunter Walk]

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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