No spoilers, phones, or phoniness: the new cinema etiquette

Is it just us, or is cinema etiquette getting crazier out here? Eliza Janssen goes into “old man yells at cloud” mode to lay down the law on proper cinema-going manners in 2023.

Back in February, New York Magazine published a polarising article on 140 “new rules” for avoiding social faux pas in a changing modern world. Some etiquette tips attempted to address shifts in social justice (i.e. don’t call a group of women “ladies”, or tell someone that their accent is “cute”) whilst other tips were shouted down as unrealistic—namely the ones about tipping itself, with a wallet-wringing and very New York recommendation of “at least 20%” at your local coffee shop.

It seems a tad patronising to announce to everyone that they’re doing public life wrong…and yet there’s one space the guide’s abrasive light of righteousness failed to illuminate. A place that really needs it. I’m talking about the dark, popcorn-littered chambers of cinema. Think back to your most irritating cinema experience: that asshole patron with their phone brightness at 200%, their mate who won’t shut the hell up, and their shoes bumping into the back of your scalp. Perhaps you’ve been that asshole.

Speaking anecdotally and very pessimistically, it definitely feels like our cinema-going standards have dropped of late: some combo of the streaming boom encouraging a more informal, private mode of viewing, and post-COVID consumer entitlement letting us think we’re all cool to treat private businesses like our living rooms. So here, as smugly as possible, are our suggestions for how to behave like an adult human at the cinema.

Phones are (mostly) not okay

Put that sucker on Do Not Disturb, first of all. And you’d better be in an especially raucous, special situation if you really feel the need to whip it out and film something. Your video of the cinema screen looks like crap and is technically illegal, so the only exception to be made here is if you’re in a particularly hyped-up screening where others in the audience are loudly losing their minds over that cool thing Spider-Man or the stars of RRR just did.

If you absolutely need to check your phone during the movie, hide it way down in your seat or jacket with the brightness dimmed super low. You’re all good to discreetly check the time, but anything longer can wait.

No talking…but some whispering is permissible

If I’ve ever been in a cinema and heard a lil squabble break out, it’s always because one person is too noisy, and another person has decided to be more noisy to solve the situation. It’s not okay to chat with your friends or commentate the movie as it plays: this is not Mystery Science Theatre 3000, go start a podcast nobody listens to. But by the same token, let’s not immediately flip out if we hear the family in row F murmur once or twice. Give your fellow patrons a few strikes—there’s no need to bring a tense vibe to a dark, quiet room full of strangers. This is a scaleable rule, with whispering much more okay in a sleepy, half-full Sunday morning screening than it would be in a packed festival premiere, or that Friday night blockbuster with barely a spare seat.

Your armrest is on your right

In an ideal world this would be a universally accepted rule, petty as it is. Sorry, lefties: the majority of folks are right-handed, so if we all leave the cupholder and armrest to our left free, then nobody gets left cradling an icy cup of Diet Coke between their jeans.

Don’t come in and out of the cinema every five minutes

Some of us are cursed with bladders that can hold about a teaspoon of concessions counter Sprite. If this is you, maybe try to buy a ticket seated at the end of the row, rather than facing Tyler Durden’s “ass or crotch” conundrum in the middle of the movie. Even better, the RunPee app can proactively tell nervous pissers the perfect time to duck out of a movie without missing any of the good bits. Their users have kindly logged four separate scenes that are ideal for a bathroom run in Avatar: The Way of Water, one of the most pee-inducing movies of all time by duration and subject matter.

If you have any other excuse for dashing in and out of your theatre, like desperately needing multiple smoke/vape breaks or wrangling a fidgety youngster (see below), I’m sorry to say that you might be better off waiting for the movie to hit a streaming service.

Your two-year-old is not going to appreciate the new A24 thriller

Becoming a parent shouldn’t mean that you need to lock yourself in a padded, stinky room with your kiddo and endless episodes of CocoMelon until they’re old enough to ask for things nicely. But, much like with air travel, you should have some idea of how your kid will react when confronted with a big strange room, chair-rattling surround sound, and a group of disgruntled randoms who paid good money to have a transporting artistic experience.

A good rule of thumb may be that if your bub is too young to be “shushed”, they’re probably not gonna behave themselves, let alone enjoy the cinema experience at all. Find a good babysitter and please don’t subject us to your (rightfully!!) upset offspring, who will have absolutely no memory of how good Mahershala Ali is in Moonlight. Heaps of cinema chains will even host kid-friendly screenings with the lights up and sound down, of titles that have far more talking dogs and bright colours than, say, Moonlight. Yes my screening of Moonlight was ruined by a grumpy baby.

Do not walk out of the cinema and exclaim, “I can’t believe it was all a dream/that the planet was Earth/that he was dead the whole time!”

The culture surrounding spoilers can get a bit precious sometimes: if you’re naively scrolling on social media the week after a huge episode of The Last Of Us, you can’t really complain too much about seeing punters eager to discuss it. The stakes are much more fragile in the nasty real world. Consider that as you leave the cinema, you may be walking right past people who’ve bought a ticket to the movie that just blew your mind. You and your friends can make it out of the lobby before ranting about whether or not that really just happened to John Wick.

You don’t have to laugh at everything

So this one is coming close to thought-policing, but it boils down to merely reading the room. I’ve had a few experiences of seeing a film with some heavy, upsetting scenes, of assault or intolerance or just human vulnerability, that elicit laughs from select audience members. Humour is deeply subjective and we have no way of knowing why certain moments tickle us. But whether it’s out of discomfort or sheer rudeness, you don’t need to break everyone else out of the narrative illusion by guffawing loudly at something that doesn’t work for you. If we want to see that you’re way more cool and edgy and callous than the rest of us, we can seek you out on Letterboxd—until then, can it.

Beyond being a tad disruptive to how everyone else is experiencing the film, you’re also not letting yourself surrender to the filmmaker’s vision! Movies are meant to make us react physically, even if it’s with an eye-roll or an uncomfortable (quiet) chortle. For your own sake, don’t be too dismissive right out of the gate: try a little tenderness.

Pick up your bloody popcorn

“But that’s why they hire the staff—to clean up my mess!” No. They’re plenty busy. I promise the cinema staff will appreciate having a few less kernels to scoop if we all bother to do a quick check of our seats, and try to gather up as much lost floor-corn with your empty bucket as possible before leaving the theatre. If you never chuck your own used cup and wrappers in the cinema’s bins, you don’t have much of a right to whinge about how sticky the floor is.