Movie Theatre Etiquette: A Rough Guide

— by H.G. WATSON —

Put yourself in a movie theatre.

The lights have dimmed, you’ve already forgotten what the trailers were, and the 20th Century Fox logo has tricked you into thinking you’re watching “Star Wars” for the millionth time. At this time, the person two seats away from you does one or all of the following:

    a) Pulls out their cell phone and starts sending text messages

    b) Starts chomping on a slice of pizza

    c) Takes their shoes off and rests their feet up on the seat in front of them

    d) Loudly starts talking to their friends

We have all encountered any combination of movie theatre bad behaviour. Or engaged in it ourselves. Would you really blame a 16-year-old for dumping a extra large bag of popcorn over her friends during a pivotal scene of “The Ring”? Or quoting “Star Wars” during “Lord of the Rings”? Of course you would. Point being, even film critics-to-be aren’t always the best behaved.

As an older and better-traveled film-nut today, I’ve run the gauntlet of theatre etiquette. I’ve sat through screenings of “Harry Potter” filled with bored and probably drunk suburban teenagers, sold out film festivals that more resembled a rock concert — if you actually got to heckle at a concert — and a bizarre screening of “The King’s Speech” where I was seated beside an old Italian woman who enjoyed laughing loudly at inappropriate parts of the movie.

In France, you don’t eat anything while watching the movie; in Texas, you eat everything. In England, you can get sugar on your popcorn, and in Toronto, you can get beer with it as long as you’re lucky enough to be at an Edgar Wright screening.

It’s hard to say what goes in a movie theatre. I live by a few tried and true rules, however, that in the long run make the film experience better.

Cellphones: No

Ask yourselves a few questions before considering leaving your phone on. Are you a doctor? Or do you belong to a profession that would require you to be available by phone 24/7? Do you have a family member who is terminally ill? Or is facing an immediate emergency? No? Ok. Then the phone goes off. Not silent. Not vibrate. OFF. Because when you decide to check your messages in the middle of the film, that little glowy screen is just as distracting, if not more so, than talking on the phone — especially in varsity seating style theatres. The only bright thing in a theatre should be the giant screen, not the little one you carry around in your pocket or purse.

The next one is a no-brainer to anyone who sees movies with any regularity and enjoys them on a critical level. But for everyone else, it seems to be a hard one to shake. I’ve never understood that personally. Going to a film should be at least two hours in which no one can bother you. And really, emergencies aside, is there anything that can’t wait for you to be finished in a movie theatre?


Eating is one that always seemed like a no-brainer to me. Popcorn and movies are as intrinsically tied together in my mind as pancakes and maple syrup or rye and ginger ale. But not everyone feels this way. There are some who think eating at all is something to distract from the film. This was something I encountered first-hand in France where many of the older revue cinemas don’t have a concession stand at all; just one sad little vending machine filled with odd French candy bars.

And there is some logic behind this. Of all the snack foods in the world, popcorn may be the worst one to bring into a movie theatre. It is very crunchy. We don’t realize it because we’ve become so acclimatized to the sound of it in theatres. The next time you find yourself in a movie theatre, take a second and listen to people eating, and you’ll realize just how loud it is. You’ll feel like Tippi Hedren making her way through a room of tiny, popcorn-munching birds.

Then there’s the opposite camp that believes food and libations can create a better film-going experience. Take the Alamo Drafthouse chain of theatres in Texas. The Drafthouse, in addition to the normal theatre grub, serves a full menu of restaurant food (including pizza, tacos and burgers) and has a booze list that rivals most top establishments. I don’t know how to feel about this one. I love the idea of eating a great meal while watching a fantastic film, but I also don’t find the idea of smelling other people’s food very appetizing in a cinema setting.

Beyond etiquette, there’s also a health issue. A large popcorn with butter and a pop is the fat equivalent of 12 hamburgers (and we wonder why some film geeks are so unhealthy looking).

All things considered, I come down on the side of food in the movies, with a few limitations. First off, I try to eat healthy(ish). No butter on my popcorn, and I go for the smaller sizes. And if I know I’m seeing several films over the course of a few days, I eschew the treats all together and stick to the odd coffee. The smell of popcorn gets pretty rank after being in a theatre for several days. After that, you just need to avoid the obvious stuff; nothing crunchy, nothing that reeks to high heaven. Oh, and if you’re going to get plastered, just make sure it’s not so badly you can’t remember the film.

But where do we sit?

My dad, cinemaphile and film school grad, insists we sit dead centre, no more than six or seven rows away from the screen. My friends prefer to sit higher back and slightly off centre. Some will always try to sit where an empty seat is in front of them so they can stick their feet up on the chair. I personally prefer aisle seats for two simple reasons: I like to make a quick exit, and I have a bladder the size of a pea, thus inevitably need to go often in the middle of the film. Whatever your preference, its clear there’s a certain strategy to choosing a seat at the movie theatre.

I don’t really think there’s a “right” answer to where to sit in the theatre. But there are places to avoid sitting. The first three rows in front of the screen, especially in stadium-style theatres, are absolutely brutal unless you enjoy craning your neck at an impossible angle. Sitting near teenagers assures you of having to listen to an endless stream of talking and use of the hated cell phone. In fact, it’s best to avoid any suburban theatre on Friday and Saturday nights because of this. The same goes for woman in groups of four. Just four mind you; usually this number represents a “Sex and the City” night out, and they are equally prone to chatting. If you’re going to a film by yourself, try to avoid other single people since they will take your loneliness as an invitation to hit on you. Unless you are single; then by all means go hit on other single people.

This totally reminds me about this one scene from a Spanish movie I saw once …

Talking in the movies. Some people will strenuously advocate against this. I’m not against it per say, which I know is surprising given my stance on cell phones. But it’s just a fact that sometimes you’ll need to ask your friend to pass the popcorn, or to explain what just happened, or even point out how similar a certain scene in “Return of the King” is to a scene in “Star Wars.”

It’s all in how you do it. SPEAKING REALLY LOUDLY SUCKS, K? But a little whisper? That’s all right. And keep it snappy. You can dissect the film after the credits have rolled.

There is of course a notable exception to the “minimal talking” rule. I think you could get away with what talking about whatever the heck you want at “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “The Room.” If you want to yell at the screen, more power to you. Sometimes a more jovial atmosphere only adds to the proceedings.

So those are the basic rules. Simple really. That and make sure to drink your pop with a pinky raised. It’s classier that way.

. . .

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4 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Ernie #

    Eventually, I just solved this problem by buying a huge TV. Now I only go for the big action movies, Mostly, I just wait for blu-ray anymore because of the people you have to see movies with.

  2. 2

    My sentiments exactly! I did a post about the same thing a few weeks ago. People are so frustrating sometimes!!

  3. 3

    I always seem to have the most problems when there are two middle-aged women sitting together. More often than not, they will proceed to discuss things in their normal speaking voices for the entirety of the movie. I once went to a movie where two women like this spent the ENTIRE movie discussing where they should go after the movie.

  4. amt8393 #

    LOL. Etiquette is hard to come by. In my home town there is an employee in each film stationed near the fire exit to “police” behavior. Before you purchase a ticket you are informed that any cell phone use, long conversations, loud antics that are deemed disruptive will result in you and your party being escorted out of the building. They do it too. My sister tried to argue it once when her phone went off. You agree to this when you purchase the ticket. It makes the experience pleasant.

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