Chicago Tribune
Sounding off on cinema etiquette. Quiet, stillness golden rules in the theater.
By Kevin Williams, Tribune staff reporter, January 2, 2004

Come in, sit down, shut up.

That's right, shut your plot detail-revealing, popcorn-smacking, mindlessly jabbering, mannerless face.

Movie etiquette is a tough thing. It's also something about which an increasing number of people know absolutely nothing. But the rules are simple: Come in, sit down, shut up. Everything else is an annoyance. If a cell phone rings during the movie, that phone should be removed from its owner and smashed with a hammer. If you have a bladder the size of a thimble, sit on the aisle.

Some decades ago, my first job was as an usher at the Chicago Theater, when it was a Plitt-owned movie house. Complete with ill-fitting burgundy blazer and a license to overcook popcorn, my role consisted of patrolling the aisles during the film, a presence that, it was mistakenly assumed, would keep the manners-impaired in check. Ha!

Perhaps the scars from this early experience have much to do with my intolerant attitude toward cinematic boors. Once, during a showing of "Guilty By Suspicion," a bloke was explaining McCarthyism to his date and responded to my pleas for quiet with "It's my right." As in, "It's my right to talk." Upon hearing that it was considered my right to visit his seat and place a size 12 E shoe in a space that would seem to, in no way, be able to accommodate a shoe that large, silence reigned.

This was a faux pas, according to
Robin Thompson of The Etiquette - Network, a Pekin, Ill.-based manners school.

"Turn around, look at them, and smile, saying with your eyes, `I hear you,'" says Thompson. "If they continue, turn around again and ask, `Would you please be quiet, I'm trying to enjoy the movie.' Never lower yourself to being rude, and always say `please' and `thank you.'"

When you enter the theater and there is something on the screen, you are at the movies and should behave accordingly. Someone might like that trailer or advertisement, so be quiet. Quibblers will say that it's open season until the feature actually begins, so we asked someone who should know, Brian Andreotti, manager at Chicago's Music Box Theatre, about etiquette and when the film in fact begins.

"I prefer that people be quiet beginning with the trailers," says Andreotti. "But I am pretty tolerant and won't become upset until the film begins, beginning with the logo of the production company."

At the Music Box, if you are a bother and a customer complains to a manager, Music Box staff will request that you calm down. But if you don't, "we would ask them to leave," says Andreotti.

Hmmm . . . guess my idea of summary execution might be a bit harsh.

And then there's food. Were it my theater, none would be sold. If you can't survive two hours without eating, have dinner first. Because, trust me, the sound of your mouth-moistened mastication is disgusting. There is no silent way to eat popcorn, and that vile-smelling, faux butter topping is a slimy horror. And whoever decided to sell nachos at the cinema should be sentenced to listen to the amplified sound of chipmunks munching away at their winter's stash, in two-hour chunks, for a month.

"I never eat when I go to the movies, I go to enjoy the movie," says
Thompson. "I think of a movie as a live performance. Would you go to the symphony and eat nachos or hot dogs? No, you don't do those things. Eat before the show, and once the show starts, drink your drink, never slurp, and be quiet. And when you're in your seat, don't get up."

We like Thompson, who provided us with her rules of good cinematic behavior: Be quiet; don't applaud at the screen; don't kick the seat in front of you; don't throw things; turn your cell phone off and sit still. If it's a long movie, lay off the coffee and water, piddlekins. Thompson, by the way, sits in the back row of the theater, to keep the rude from planting themselves behind her.

The final issue is encroachment, those subtle negotiations that ensue when you're sitting beside a stranger and there's a common elbow rest. We like to share. But if the person is determined to be rude, you could shove away, beginning elbow wars, but we prefer flatulence. It usually makes people cringe, thus freeing up the elbow rest.

If you're sitting on the end of a row, you don't get a cup holder. You might take one, but you shouldn't have one. Look at the row--see how the cup holders are on the left of each seat? See how the two end seats don't have them? Figure it out. The convenience of being able to stretch your legs means you hold your drink in your hands, or put in on the floor.

The astute reader might have guessed that for me, the theater is essentially off-limits, a misanthropic purgatory furnished with rude, irresponsible, oh-so-detestable clods. They'd be right.

But every now and again, after everybody has seen a film and it's safe to go because the theater will be all but empty, I slip in (quietly), sit down (immediately), ignore the cup holder (to my left) and watch--in blissful silence.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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