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Movie watchers to AMC: Let's keep the ban on cellphones in movies

Adam Aron, head of AMC Entertainment, has reversed course on a previous statement expressing interest in allowing texting in AMC movie theaters.

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When you go to the movies, you're usually greeted with a warning to turn off your cellphone before the opening credits. For a few moments this week, AMC toyed with the idea of letting moviegoers keep a second screen experience.

"When you tell a 22-year-old to turn off the phone, don't ruin the movie, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow. You can't tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That's not how they live their life," Adam Aron, the head of AMC Entertainment, told Variety in an interview this week.

But ignoring the glowing screens and constant buzzes of an iPhone isn't how most movie-goers want to live their lives, either, it turns out – at least not those on Twitter. By Friday afternoon, just two days after the interview was published, AMC was assuring angry webizens that the text-through-your-movie plan was dead, after a barrage of social media disapproval.  

"Unlike the many AMC advancements that you have applauded, we have heard loud and clear that this is a concept our audience does not want.... Accordingly, just as instantaneously, this is an idea that we have relegated to the cutting room floor," he wrote in a statement, promising phone-free theaters: "Not today, not tomorrow and not in the forseeable future." 

Mr. Aron, who came to AMC after decades in the tourism industry, is looking to lure moviegoers back to the multiplex. It's a tall order: ticket sales have been on the decline for years, reaching a two-decade low in 2014. Many moviegoers would rather stay in and watch Netflix than go to the cinema.

In order to combat that trend, Aron originally told Variety that AMC is considering giving people the option to watch a movie without having to put their phone away. This would include special screening rooms so that people who want to keep texting or looking at their Instagram feeds could do so without interrupting other patrons.

The idea was still met with a backlash from others in the entertainment industry, who responded with criticism that AMC's notion only portends the end of classy moviegoing as we know it.

"[O]ne of the chief advantages of the theatrical experience is being removed from such distractions, and in a time when cinema chains are being threatened by expanded home-viewing options, they should try to promote that distinction, rather than abandon it," David Sims wrote in The Atlantic.

But as Aron noted in the Variety interview, AMC, like other movie theater chains, faces the need to both attract and retain a younger audience, and one of the ways to do that is by reaching Millennials where they are.

"We need to reshape our product in some concrete ways so that millennials go to movie theaters with the same degree of intensity as baby boomers went to movie theaters throughout their lives," he said, while also noting that the tricky balance between a texting-friendly moviegoing experience and one without distractions.

In the future, however, the movie industry may have a tougher time fending off multitasking viewers. The technology dependence and multitasking that seem distracting to many older Americans are second nature to their children: 92 percent of teenagers go online daily, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study. Of those, 24 percent enter the online world "almost constantly," thanks primarily to smartphones. 

Two thirds say they can multitask, using social media while they do their homework, for example – although studies suggest that's not as effective as they think. Some researchers, like Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle in Cambridge, have cautioned that the habit of always having a phone present, even if unused, is harming not just concentration, but empathy. 

But whether at school, the movies, or the dinner table, phones are unlikely to disappear. The question becomes how to manage them. 

"In the long run, the genie is out of the bottle," James Steyer, the founder of nonprofit Common Sense Media, told NPR last year. "This world's here to stay, so we have to set new rules for our kids and for ourselves."

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