Have DVDs changed the way people behave at the movies?

Do some people treat the movie theater like their own private DVD screening?
Do some people treat the movie theater like their own private DVD screening?
Hemera Technologies/

These days, conversation about going to the movies is likely to include complaints about ticket prices and distracting behavior. Maybe it's the guy behind you, idly kicking the back of your seat while chatting on his cell phone. Or the couple in front, with their running commentary on the film's historical accuracy.

Sometimes the distractions are internal. Like the longing to press the "pause" button so you can check your e-mail on your Blackberry -- and then "rewind" to catch that line of dialogue you just missed as your mind wandered.


Either way, it seems that cinematic rapture is getting harder to come by. It's led some to blame DVDs. Most people prefer these slim disks to traditional moviegoing -- and what's not to like? They promise the enjoyment of going to the movies without all the hassle -- and for a fraction of the cost.

You may have noticed that some moviegoers treat the theater like their living room, and that others treat a Hollywood blockbuster as just another title on Netflix. That's why they want to tailor their viewing with the convenience of the remote control.

But like a good thriller, the story is more complicated than it first appears. It involves how the mind works and how technology affects it. As you'll see, DVDs are just one player in a larger cast, and you can't consider one cause as the undisputed "bad guy." So, settle in with your popcorn and enjoy the show. And don't worry about anyone giving away the end -- there isn't one yet. Psychologists, theater owners and moviegoers are collaborating on the sequel.

First up: commerce, technology and the death of movie-theater magic.

Do you feel the need to pause that movie -- whether it's playing in your living room or on the big screen?
Do you feel the need to pause that movie -- whether it's playing in your living room or on the big screen?

Once upon a time, during cinema's Golden Age of the 1920s and '30s, movie theaters were palaces in both name and atmosphere. Theater designers exploited the psychological power of place. Elements of classical European and modern Art Deco architecture evoked an aura of sophistication. Walls with panoramic landscapes surrounded audiences, transporting them to a time and place far distant from ordinary existence. The garment shops of New York City gave way to ancient Egypt; the wheat fields of Topeka, Kan., to a tropical isle.

Escaping the trappings of everyday life, moviegoers surrendered themselves to the cinematic storyteller. Sharing this experience fostered a sense of community, of safety and belonging among audience members.

Fast-forward 50 years. Multiplex theater chains dominate the market. Theaters are located in strip malls and shopping centers next to restaurant chains and department stores. They're meticulously planned to enhance acoustic, visual and physical comfort, but some might argue that they lack in imagination. There's nothing to encourage flights of fancy here.

Add to that the growing list of options for at-home (or mobile) viewing, like DVDs and Internet streaming. They're cheap enough to pick up several flicks at a time, sometimes just days after the film's theater release. What's more, the technology puts you, the viewer, in charge of the experience. You decide when, where and how to watch. You can stop the show at will and dismiss it altogether for one that looks more interesting.

It's no surprise if the idea of movies as a vacation from everyday life is lost on 21st-century audiences. Movies aren't so much an escape as a diversion. You don't check the real world at the theater door -- you bring it with you, along with your smart phone. It's no different from the supermarket. Those people sitting next to you -- or, preferably, a few seats away from you -- are most likely strangers, like the ones waiting with you in the checkout lane.

At the same time, the digital wizardry that makes films more visually impressive also makes it harder to enjoy them. For details, plus the story on how some industry entrepreneurs are reclaiming audiences, read on.

When was the last time you went to the movies with friends?
When was the last time you went to the movies with friends?
Hemera Technologies/

Have you noticed that TV commercials are getting shorter? They've shrunk from one minute to 30 seconds and increasingly to 15 seconds. If you haven't noticed, it may be because you've been conditioned to "think fast" -- or sometimes, to not think -- by electronic media.

The trend is summed up, fittingly, in the business shorthand known as K.I.S.S.: "keep it short and simple." Rapid bursts of words and imagery are digested easily. In the case of the briefest TV ads, no critical thinking is required. That's good for selling potato chips, but not for conveying complex information that requires a longer attention span. Studies show that students who watch TV and play video games for more than two hours a day were significantly more likely to have trouble paying attention in school. That doesn't bode well for following a movie plot for more than 90 minutes.

Also, modern electronic entertainment largely discourages socialization. You can play a handheld video game in the privacy of your room while listening to your personalized playlist on your iPod. Shared experiences are often competitive, not communal. "Audience" members are gaming rivals.

But don't roll the closing credits on movie houses just yet. Traditional moviegoing may make a comeback, updated for modern demographics. For instance, art houses that feature classic, independent and international films have been a fixture on the scene for years. Now, fee-based film clubs catering to the same tastes have cropped in cities from Chicago to New Haven, Conn.

A few chains provide child care services for parents. Some have gone retro with movie-theme decor (like restrooms that conjure the shower scene from "Psycho"). A few chains have resurrected the dinner-and-a-movie date by offering both: Meals are surreptitiously served throughout a first-run film. Diners and waitstaff communicate in writing to minimize distractions.

One move that's hitting roadblocks: blocking cell phone reception. First, it's currently illegal, because it would jam emergency calls to audience members who provide essential services. But most theater chains make an effort to remind audiences about silencing cell phones and other electronic gadgets so everyone enjoy the film without distractions.

For lots more information on movies and technology, see the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Alamo Drafthouse. "Frequently Asked Questions." (Mar. 28, 2011)
  • Conneally, Tim. "FCC crackdown on Cellular/GPS Jammers starts today." Betanews, Feb. 9, 2011 (Mar. 28, 2011)
  • Gilbert, Anne. "Making Moviegoing Magic." In Focus, Aug/Sept 2006 (March 28, 2010)
  • Herald Tribune. "TV Commercials getting shorter." Oct. 27, 2010 (Mar. 25, 2011)
  • Holland, Norman. "Seeing Movies Now -- Alas!" Mar. 21, 2011 (Mar. 25, 2011)
  • Kim, James. "Future Movie Watching." LA Flash, Nov. 30, 2010 (Mar. 17, 2011)
  • Pew Research Center. "Increasingly, Americans Prefer Going to the Movies at Home." May 16, 2006 (Mar. 19, 2011)
  • Pickhardt, Carl. "Adolescents in the Age of Electronic Entertainment." Nov. 29, 2009 (Mar. 25, 2011)
  • Ruggless, Ron. "Growing theater-restaurant hybrids target dinner-and-a-movie dollars.'' Nation's Restaurant News, June 24, 2007 (Mar. 28, 2011)
  • ScienceDaily. "TV viewing, video game play contribute to kids' attention problems, study finds." July 7, 2010. (Mar. 25, 2011)
  • University of Virginia. "Some Enchanted Evenings: American Picture Palaces." (Mar. 25, 2011)