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Policing the talkies

January 04, 2006

FACED WITH AN ALARMING SLIDE in attendance, the National Assn. of Theater Owners' executive board recently agreed to try to make cinemas a less hostile play environment. The board's goals include making the parade of pre-show advertisements more entertaining and reducing the amount of rude and

disruptive behavior during a film -- including the taking of cellphone calls.

Board members insist that the typical moviegoer is a model of civility and consideration. But when you drop $40 for two tickets, popcorn and sodas, you tend to be acutely sensitive to the handful of people who read right past the "no" in the "no talking" signs.

Hushing the chatterboxes takes more effort than running a pre-show cartoon ridiculing them. It's a labor-intensive job requiring theaters to deploy ushers who can silence or remove offenders. Cellphones, on the other hand, can be silenced remotely. The association's board was taken with technologies that can jam cellphone signals, eliminating the chance that dramatic silences will be interrupted by a "My Humps" ring tone.

Now, many a moviegoer would heartily endorse the idea of cellphone jamming if it meant shoving an offending phone deep into its owner's tub of popcorn. But others -- doctors on call, off-duty firefighters, parents with young children at home -- don't want to be cut off from the outside world when they enter a theater. They won't go to the movies if they can't be reached during an emergency.

The theater association is trying to find a middle ground. It is focusing on emerging technologies that block incoming calls but give callers the option to indicate that it's an emergency. Those calls would be put through. This sounds reasonable enough. It's a safe bet, however, that people who are self-important enough to use a cellphone in a theater would find a way around the restriction in no time. After all, the bypass isn't available only in real emergencies -- it could be used whenever the caller wanted to get through. That's why the best response is the same one used for chatterboxes and crying babies: more ushers to keep the peace.

As for the attendance problem, there's a simpler answer. Theater owners can't force Hollywood to make better movies, but they could take the same approach most other industries use when faced with a flagging market: They could cut their prices.

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