8 simple rules for not being a jerk at the movies

From cellphones to chatting, a definitive guide to moviegoing etiquette in the modern era

Movie theater do's and don'ts
(Image credit: (Courtesy Shutterstock))

Last week, FirstShowing.net critic Alex Billington threw down the latest gauntlet in the ongoing battle between people who use their cellphones in movie theaters and people who really, really want them to stop. During a press and industry screening of Ti West's The Sacrament, Billington became so incensed by a frequent cellphone user that he actually called 911 on the person — turning the subject of movie theater etiquette into an internationally reported incident.

Billington has since admitted that he overreacted to the situation, but it's clear: We all must agree on a new set of rules for movie theaters before this gets even more out of hand. As someone who's spent much of my professional career in movie theaters — first as a pimply usher at a local movie theater in high school, and, much later, as someone who writes about movies — I'd love to live in the magical dream utopia where everyone agrees to focus only on the movie they just dropped 12-plus dollars to see. Unfortunately, we don't live in that world — but fortunately, I have a few modest compromises that I think could end this war once and for all:

1. No cellphones during the movie

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No calling. No texting. No checking the time. No doing that thing where you cup your hand over the screen. Need to check your phone while the movie's still running? That's fine — as soon as you feel it vibrate (and it must be on vibrate), quietly leave the theater and do your calling or texting in the lobby.

2. Don't scream at someone who's still using their phone as soon as the lights go down

There's an important corollary to the aforementioned cellphone rule: All moviegoers deserve the courtesy of a 60-second window to finish using their cellphone as the movie begins. I've seen people get screamed at the second the lights go down in the theater because they're in the middle of turning off their phones.

3. If you have to talk, make it a single, whispered sentence

A few examples of things it is okay to whisper to someone in a movie theater: "I'm going to the bathroom," "Will you pass the Goobers?" "I need to text someone, so I'm going to the lobby instead of doing it from this seat." While you're in the theater, just sit back and watch — you'll have plenty of time to talk about the movie after the movie.

4. Don't put your feet on the back of the seat in front of you

Movie theaters aren't airplanes — there's enough legroom for everybody. Your feet should never touch the seat in front of you, even if it's empty — and especially if it's occupied.

5. Make sure the screening is kid-friendly for your kid

Yes, you should check a film's MPAA rating and watch a trailer before taking your 6-year-old to Insidious: Chapter 2 or Machete Kills. But I'm talking about something a little more amorphous. Something like Iron Man 3, for example, is a great movie for some kids — but not all of them. You know your kid better than I do — what makes her cry out in fear, what makes her want to jump up and down in her seat, etc. — so plan accordingly. (And if worse comes to worst, many theaters now explicitly offer kid-friendly screenings with discounted ticket and concession prices.)

6. Pick up your own garbage after the movie

Yes, there are underpaid teenagers who come in with brooms and rolling garbage cans at the end of each screening — but are you really that lazy? There's a garbage can immediately outside the entrance of each movie theater, so it really couldn't be easier to clean up after yourself.

7. If anyone violates any of these rules, ask them —politely! — to cut it out

Yes, it's irritating when someone's breaking movie theater etiquette, but you're only adding to the overall disruption if you yell at them about it. Stick with simple and polite: "Excuse me, will you stop using your phone?" is a good baseline, and being relatively nice about it decreases the chance of an argument.

If the person refuses, get up and complain to the first employee you can find. I hate doing this, because leaving the theater to lodge a complaint is much more damaging to my personal movie-watching experience than tolerating a rude moviegoer — but for the good of the rest of the theater, sometimes you have to fall on the sword.

8. If you don't want to follow these rules, stay home

Do these rules seem too strict to you? That's okay — this is a great time for home video. Movies are coming out faster on DVD, Blu-ray, and a wide variety of streaming services. TVs have never been bigger or better quality — and you can even get them in 3D, if that's still your thing. So stay home, pop some popcorn, and text your way through the movie of your choice. The rest of us will thank you.

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