The Wrongs of Protocol: Movie Screenings and the Right to Complain

complain Last Action HeroI talk at the movies.

I also grumble, murmur, whisper, chuckle, snort, roll my eyes and shake my head. Muttering under my breath isn’t out of the question, either, nor is sighing so loudly that anyone within three rows of me can hear it.

The good news is a flick’s got to be bad enough for me to do these things. Quality pictures keep me quiet.

The bad news is I’m not quiet in the theatres or, for that matter, in front of the TV screen often, which says a lot about the kinds of films I see.

A lot of people find this frustrating. I don’t blame them. Sitting next to a squirming, kvetching filmgoer such as me must be awful … and few people can stand it, though continual exposure to such behaviour can help build immunity to its effects, as my wife would attest.

There is one type of showing, however, that you can go to if you’re seeking to escape such practices, and that’s the screening, where filmgoers are regarded as guests and, as such, must be polite, quiet and discreet when watching the picture.

I wish that weren’t the case.

Years ago, I attended a screening of Last Action Hero (1993), a sloppy, tedious mess about a boy and his action-movie star that had to be one of the worst pictures of the year, if not the worst. At the time, I was interning for a film critic writing a book about the silver screen, and it was conveyed to me that I had to maintain a certain kind of politesse in the theatre no matter how bad the film was. Guests do not complain.

complain conan the barbarianBut they should.

Just how hard was it to keep myself from twitching convulsively at the poor dialogue and tiresome “action” onscreen? Well, it took every bit of my then-sagging willpower to do so. After leaving the theatre, I was as relieved as a man rescued from a desert island filled with Jerry Lewis movies and a remoteless DVD player. I wondered: does it have to be like this? Why can’t we moan and groan while watching the picture? We may be guests, but guests should be treated well — not abused. There’s no reason why people attending screenings should be quieter than anyone else at the theatre for a regular show time.

Complaining or making any other kind of critical vocalisations can certainly affect people’s perceptions of a film, and that’s definitely an issue to consider. Yet the studios and distributors should be obligated to turn out a quality product, and very often they don’t. Is the onus then on the screening attendee to keep still when it’s foisted on him or her? No one’s breaking exclusive news that should be kept silent when grumbling at a movie. Oftentimes, word will get out soon enough about troubled or terrible productions, and you can always get an idea of how bad a movie is by the mere mention of its name (for example, I predicted that the recent iteration of Conan the Barbarian [2011] would be junky before I saw it … no exceptional bit of foresight, that). Unless you’re sequestered without exposure to the media for years upon years, you can’t help but be buffeted by the public information available, including advertising, that’s connected to a film.

Given such phenomena, a little groaning in the theatre isn’t such a bad thing.

So I say it should be copacetic. If a movie warrants such treatment, bring it on. Boos and hisses shouldn’t be relegated to the everyday filmgoing experience. If we can warn other folks of the problems with a picture, why not give it the OK? After all, we laugh out loud at screenings when the flicks are funny, cry when they’re sad. Isn’t that an indication of quality, too?

This, of course, isn’t the type of protocol that’s liable to make it to the cinemas sometime soon. But it seems to me a double standard. There’s an unwritten rule frowning on negativity when attending screenings, and that, to me, is just a bad idea. What are people afraid of? If the picture’s good, folks will emote with it. They should be able to emote against it, too.

Freedom of reacting. It’s a right we all need to have as long as there are movies. Or screenings, for that matter. And in this case, right should trump rules.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse ( that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

13 thoughts on “The Wrongs of Protocol: Movie Screenings and the Right to Complain

  1. Pingback: Movie Trailers: Bad Previews and the Misrepresentation of Films - CURNBLOG

  2. I read this twice Simon, and it left me feeling very ‘English’. That tradition you mention of sarcasm during performances at the theatre is long past, I am happy to say. Audiences here tend to me more formal anyway, and mobile phones going off, and chatter from the audience is (only just) still frowned upon. I would consider booing or catcalls in a cinema to be the height of bad manners. If something was as bad as ‘The Last Action Hero’ (and it was very bad), I would just leave.

    However, I am not invited to screenings, and one of the reasons that I no longer go to the cinema, is the growing tolerance of muttering, food-munching, and constant texting that seems to have slowly become acceptable behaviour here too.
    An amusing article, but I will have to revert to (English) type on this one, and agree to disagree.
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

      • No worries, Pete–I definitely understand your reservations about this … and as I’ve indicated, I’m definitely an acquired taste as a filmgoing companion. Sadly, with Last Action Hero, leaving was not an option, so it was two hours of my life that I’ll never get back! It’s definitely interesting for me to hear about audiences in England though–audiences can be quite vocal on this side of the pond (at least in NYC) during everyday film showings.

  3. When I go to see a movie in a theater, I expect to see a movie in a theater. If I wanted to hear somebody’s humorous remarks, I would have spent my money on a ticket to see a stand-up comic instead. Quite frankly, the quality of the the film is irrelevant.

    I realize that this is a quaint and old-fashioned notion, which is why I generally try to see films at early morning showings, when only the quaint and old-fashioned are awake.

    There is also such a thing as subjective taste. Just because I think a film is terrible and worthy of ridicule does not mean that everyone else in the theater shares my opinion.

    • Thanks for your comment, Misha. Though I agree that movies are meant to be watched, I also think they’re meant to be questioned, and the theater shouldn’t be a sacred space … as it seems to be considered during screenings. It’s interesting: a long time ago, the wits in England made humorous remarks about plays as they were going on; that was part of the experience. As for the quality of the film being irrelevant, that’s definitely not a consideration for me; I believe every film we see should be good, and if it’s not during a screening, we should have the right to, well, complain about it. It’s different during regular movie showings, when it does seem like everyone can be vocal freely.

  4. It’s a provocative thought, Simon. Film has been a mostly communal experience, though that is changing some now, and communal experiences require reactions. But who gets to determine the standards? I know of one very astute film critic who considered 2013’s Prisoners to be a dreadful, and in his words, “dangerous” film. I thought Prisoners was the best movie I saw in 2013. Had we been at a screening together, I certainly would have taken issue with him interrupting the movie with overtly negative reactions. When the credits role in Cannes, it is not uncommon to hear cheers and hisses. (Every so often, they have not been able to hold out until the credits.) They booed Taxi Driver. They booed Dreyer. They booed Bresson. I’m all for that. But I’d prefer they wait ’til the end.

    • Interesting point, Jon. I had a friend in college who believed that music should be interactive–that we should clap and sing along and sway to music as part of the listening experience, as opposed to just sitting in an audience and hearing the performance. At the time, that seemed very alien to me, but perhaps audience reaction is as integral a part of performance as what’s appearing on the stage and screen. And, to play a bit of the devil’s advocate, would you be averse to the critic cheering or lauding Prisoners in the theater had you been there? Vocal reactions such as laughing and crying are commonplace in everyday viewings and screenings, so I wonder if criticism of it has a lot to do with potential disagreement. Perhaps such commentary could be reserved for universally bad films, such as Last Action Hero, though I definitely felt like booing movies that more people like than I do, such as Julie & Julia, Nixon and Frances Ha. Yet I do believe that interactivity has a place in cinema, and definitely in screenings, where vocalizations are often warranted.

      • When I saw Sink The Bismark (1960), a British war action movie about the German warship, there was so much noise in a Brooklyn movie theater on a Saturday afternoon, and popcorn boxes flying through the air and some possibly hitting the screen, I could barely hear the soundtrack. Also, a female attendant known as “the matron” wearing a white uniform, was scurrying about fretting about the unruly audience of early pubescent boys. In the mid 1990s Pulp Ficton in a San Francisco movie theater was characterized by loud and expressive comments by a psyched up hip audience of arty, cutting edge Californians (could you blame them?)

        • Those are definitely wild stories, Ferris … and I’ll tell ya: throwing popcorn boxes around is definitely not what I’m advocating. What I’m seeking is the right during movie screenings (not regular showings) to be negative if a film warrants it. But I do think something like Pulp Fiction suggests the need of viewers to interact with the screen if they feel “hip” enough. If a film is good, I like when I hear people laugh or express their positive feelings about it in the theater. Likewise, if a film is bad, I like hearing their negative reactions. We can have gradations of subjectivity in taste and overall objectivity in quality, I believe–they’re not mutually exclusive. (In other words, we’d be hard-pressed to find someone who finds Last Action Hero a masterpiece, but we could differ on just how good we feel The Third Man is.)

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