“Second Screens” at Movie Theaters Isn’t Just a Terrible Idea — It’s a Nonsensical One

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Well, here we go again. Over the weekend, a piece in the Kansas City Star (picked up and syndicated across the country) floated the specter that sends a chill down any true movie lover’s spine: movies as a “second screen” experience. “The movie industry is working on ways to make smartphones, tablets and even built-in screens in seats a key part of the experience,” writes the Star’s Molly Duffy, “both before the movie and, more disturbing to some patrons, during the movie.” We’ve been down this road before, as recently as last summer, when venture capitalist Hunter Walk suggested “reinventing the movie theater” to accommodate terrible people who can’t go two hours without peering into their iPhone, and commentator Anil Dash insisted that anyone who had a problem with this behavior was an “oppressive asshole.” But last summer, this was all abstract. Duffy tracked down the clowns who want to make it concrete.

In the year or so since we last had this conversation, the “second screen experience” has become far more prevalent in the culture. Everyone, it seems, is watching SNL or the World Cup or Scandal or wrestling (seriously, I had no idea how many people are watching wrestling) with their phone in hand, checking email and Facebook-ing and live-tweeting up a storm. It’s become part of how we think about television — hell, it’s even become part of how we measure the success of television. So, needless to say, some buzzword-spouting asshole sees dollar signs, and wants to screw up going to the movies.

“We believe that movies, by definition, are a social experience,” said Cliff Marks, president of sales and marketing for National CineMedia, which is launching pre-movie second screen content. He sees that as bringing “social media to the next level.”

Now look, it’s important to stress that Mr. Marks, who I’m sure has many fine qualities as a human being, is not advocating second screen content during the film proper… yet. (“Marks stressed that National CineMedia will encourage second screens only during FirstLook. The audience will be instructed to disengage from the app and their phones once a film starts.”) But the idea of supplementing the full feature with behind-the-scenes content, subtitles, games, polls, and other bullshit — often made available for home viewing via Blu-ray second-screen applications — isn’t much of a stretch:

Eric Wold, a senior analyst at the firm B. Riley & Co., said adding new experiences for patrons was essential to keeping a theater afloat. “Everything from 3-D to reclining seats to dine-in theaters … is crucial,” Wold said, to lure audiences with services they can’t get at home.

Let’s set aside, for just a moment, the one thing that could potentially get people to leave their comfortable wide-screen HD TVs and reasonably priced snacks to brave the inflated ticket prices, eight-dollar popcorns, and an auditorium full of talkers, texters, Tweeters, and asshats: making better goddamn movies. Because I can only speak for myself here, but all the 3-D, comfy chairs, and waitstaff in the world can’t make sitting through 160 minutes of Trans4mers into an attractive proposition.

Yet even while tabling that seemingly unreachable goal, there’s an bizarre contradiction happening here. Box office revenues are flatlining or even declining, their downward trajectory barely hidden by vanishing tricks like 3-D surcharges. This kind of thing happens all the time; this time (as we’ve discussed), it’s a combination of competition for entertainment dollars, people being generally broke, and really good television. When television first posed a serious threat, back in the 1950s, Hollywood responded with copious bells and whistles: CinemaScope, Cinerama, Technicolor, 3-D (the first time!), even such one-and-done innovations as “Smell-O-Vision.”

In other words, to borrow the current parlance, getting people away from their televisions and into movie theaters would require luring audiences “with services they can’t get at home.” So why on earth would theaters want to borrow second screen viewing, which is, at its core, exactly how we watch things at home? I’m as guilty as anyone of watching movies and shows on my couch with the phone out, but it’s always something I do with a fair amount of guilt, because I know I’m reducing the work on the screen in front of me to background. Why would theaters voluntarily do the same?

The goal should not be to make going to the movies more like watching a movie in your living room; it should be to make it less so. Going to the cinema is a distinct, singular experience. If you’re going to encourage us all to fuck around on our phones for two hours and pay half-attention to the movie, you might as well let us watch the movie in our underwear, too. Just out of curiosity, what would the surcharge for that be?