Earlier this week, word began to circulate that the next update of the iPhone’s operating system, iOS 10.3, would include a feature called “theater mode,” which was promptly followed by speculation that it would be some combination of settings designed to minimize the distraction to others when using your phone during a movie screening. Not surprisingly, the response from die-hard cinephiles was instantly negative: The Alamo Drafthouse theater chain, which has become famous for its campaign against in-theater texting, tweeted that iPhones “already have a theater mode” with a screenshot of the “off” button, and Alamo CEO Tim League followed up with a statement that if the rumors were true, “I may have to book a ticket to Cupertino and pack my can of whoop-ass.” Empire magazine’s Nev Pierce posted a picture of the “new device to adjust screens of phones used in cinemas”: a hammer.
Let us stipulate that using your phone during a movie is a bad thing. It is nonetheless something people do and will continue to do, whether Apple’s software adjustments abet it or not. The concern is that adding an official theater mode—one that, according to some reports, will be triggered with a popcorn-bucket icon—legitimizes the bad behavior and even encourages it. If you’ve got theater mode, you might as well take advantage of it, right? But at the moment, movie theaters, especially commercial multiplexes, are like the Wild West, with no ushers to appeal to when the when the system breaks down. If theater owners won’t enforce the rules, maybe cellphone manufacturers need to write some new ones.
Maybe adding a theater mode would normalize bad behavior, but it could also institutionalize good, which is to say more thoughtful, behavior as well. If iPhones have a theater mode, people will use it, but at least some of them will be the ones who sit down in the third row and blithely hold their phones up to their faces at full brightness so the entire theater can see them as they do. If adding a dedicated feature pushes them toward the idea that cellphones should be used differently in a darkened movie theater than in broad daylight, that’s a win.
Seeing a movie with a crowd means giving up a certain degree of control over your environment: People may laugh at something you find sad or loudly sneeze over a key line of dialogue, and they may want to check if that text they just got is from the babysitter or the friend they’re meeting after the show. (Note that this cuts both ways: If you’re using a phone in a movie and someone asks you to put it away, you don’t get to respond as if they’ve requested you tear out your own spleen.) Cinephiles like to evoke the idea of theaters as “movie church,” a sacred space where viewers commune with the screen in rapt collective silence, but it’s all right if some movies are more like a raucous Baptist service than a gloomy Episcopalian slog.
It’s already possible to put an iPhone into something resembling “theater mode”: Switch it to vibrate, dim the brightness, and, in the phone’s accessibility settings, set it to invert the screen’s colors when you triple-tap the home button, which changes black to white and greatly reduces ambient light. It’s not perfect, but it’s the equivalent of whispering to the person next to you rather than belting out “What did he just say?” as if you’re asking someone in the next room. A reasonably proficient iPhone user can do all three steps in about five seconds, less time than it takes to ignore a multiplex’s “Please silence your phones” announcement, but many people don’t—at least in some cases because it doesn’t occur to them. If theater mode gets them to think long enough to press the relevant button, that’s a step in the right direction.