The National Association of Theater Operators are about to petition the FCC to exempt movie theaters from the Communications Act of 1934, section 333, which makes it illegal to interfere with radio communications. In order to "block rude behavior," cell phone signals should be actively blocked. This is a step up from handing out fines to cell users in inappropriate venues, and the signal blocking is already a reality in France, so NATO president (no, the other NATO) John Fithian figures the nation is primed for another step down this slippery slope. Predictably, Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association spokesman Joseph Farren does not agree:
Mr. Farren has a good point—in fact, a lot of people (me included) carry a cell for emergency use only. Sure, having a call from the babysitter pull you out of Return of the King right before the Battle of the Pelennor Fields sucks, but you gotta do what you gotta do. On the other hand, there's no need for my cell to play Layla for the entire audience when that happens. The real issue isn't the phones, it's the users who forget or just don't want to turn it to "vibrate." If NATO wants to change FCC regulations and then install jamming devices in their theaters anyway, why not push for a subtler change instead, like blanketing the AMC 24s and Regal 30s with a signal that turns cell phones to vibrate and have the FCC make it mandatory that phones listen for that signal? Perhaps that could be taken another step, also disabling voice calls and only allowing the phone to buzz when there's a text message.
But the theater operators are not pushing for changes that improve anybody's life. As usual, it's all about showing them the money and getting people back into the theater again. The cell signal blocking petition is only part of a wider program, where some owners are considering a hard age limit after matinée hours, and others are hiring more ushers and instructing them to take action when patrons get disruptive. NATO plans to roll out a marketing campaign to encourage people to go to the movies, and their research shows that there are too many crappy ads running before the movies. But prices are fine the way they are, apparently:
You can have my ten bucks when the movie is worth it, Mr. Fithian. Going to the movies used to be something special. There were fewer theaters twenty years ago, but the screens were bigger and everything about the cinema was grandiose and huge and different. You'd step into the lobby, get your popcorn and go get whisked away in an experience unlike anything else you could have done that night. Fewer screens meant each theater could support fewer movies, which in turn meant Hollywood had less incentive to crank out enough junk to fill a multiplex. I'm not saying every screen should be an IMAX, but the rise of the multiplex and the culture change that followed is what is killing cinema these days, not the occasional cell phone ring. Maybe it's time for the movie industry to step back and take a long, hard look at how times have changed and how to get with the program.