Popcorn & pacifiers

Cinemas across the US launch special screenings for new parents. Crybabies welcome!

It's a rainy morning at the matinee "Gigli," and Ben Affleck is making up rhymes about how to pronounce his name. The audience seems a little distracted, but not just because his jokes fall flat. That's because half of this crowd is more interested in milk than in Milk Duds and in learning to say "piggy" rather than "Gigli."

Jennifer Lopez pops up on screen, and a baby starts to wail. (It's unclear whether he's a budding movie critic or needs a diaper change.) A few others chime in, breaking a sacred cinema code that might, under any other circumstance, attract angry glares or get the whole family ousted. But these 25 babies and their moms are part of a new film group where crying is part of the deal - and no one's complaining.

Loews Cineplex and Urbanbaby.com have been rolling out ReelMoms (dads are welcome, too) over the summer in 15 cities, including Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington. Several smaller cinemas also have launched such screenings, including "Rattle at the Brattle" Theater in Cambridge, Mass.

Their aim is to give parents a few hours of air-conditioned pop culture each week, not to mention the chance to connect with other new moms. In return, cinemas hope film fans will stay in the habit of moviegoing after babies are born, say marketing experts, and that parents will bring their children back to see kids' fare.

Amid a season of sinking sequels that's forced Hollywood to reexamine its business model, the mom matinees have filled seats during theaters' downtime on weekdays. And the number of parents pushing strollers into the cineplex increases almost every week, says John McCauley, vice president of marketing at Loews Cineplex Entertainment.

"Some 250 moms and dads have been showing up [in New York] each week, and 80 moms showed up in Boston a few weeks ago when 'Seabiscuit' was shown," he says. (Parents pay matinee prices for first-run films and babies are free).

Mothers say they're quite comfortable with the arrangement.

"I don't have to worry about whether he makes noise," says Lisa Stump, standing with 4-month-old Eddie in the lobby of the Boston Common Theater. At a different movie for moms she says, "I fed him, burped him. He spit up all over the floor, and it wasn't a big deal. I would have felt comfortable changing him."

Most of the women who've come to see "Gigli" are first-time moms with babies under a year old. (Bringing two kids or a toddler might lead to an exhausting game of hide-and-seek rather than a relaxing morning.) Many admit this is their first trip to the movies since Affleck last filled the big screen clad in a red leather suit and horns in "Daredevil." Given "Gigli's" career-ending box-office performance, these shut-in moms may be about the only ones in America willing to see it.

Social hour for mom

"We haven't been to the movies in six months," says a beaming Bianca Ramirez, who traveled from Woonsocket, R.I., to Boston, with her 6-month-old daughter, Celeste, to see "Gigli."

The moms say they crave the adult interaction as much as the movie and the buttery popcorn. "It can feel lonely having a child. This gets you out doing something normal," says Sharon Lessard of Boston, bouncing her baby daughter, Nia, on her hip. Up until now, she's mostly rented movies. "Your whole life changes after a baby is born.... You have to make an effort to meet people."

Another mom, Meredith Meeks, toting 5-month-old Jonathan, admits her only reason for being here is to gab. "I'm just here for the social hour," she says with a laugh, adding that she heard "Gigli" wasn't worth $6.25, even if it buys her a longer respite from home. "This is a great break to come and see other new moms."

Theaters encourage parents to show up early to chat and get settled, says Mr. McCauley. At other showings, he says, there have been activities in the lobby before showtime, such as puppet shows and baby-food promotions.

New moms are a smart audience to target, says Gary Edgerton, chair of communications at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. They feel cut off from pop culture and stranded at home, he says, adding that women who worked before starting a family may feel an even stronger urge to get out than previous generations did. "It has a support-group kind of feel to it."

Edgerton points out that many first-time moms are in their late 20s or early 30s, or what Hollywood considers a still-desirable audience. "When children come along ... they're losing their audience," he says. "Cinemas are trying to recoup."

Given that the number of children's films has skyrocketed in recent years, theaters also want moms to bring kids back when they're old enough to enjoy movies like "Finding Nemo."

Edgerton compares the strategy to when theaters built drive-ins to reach out to families in the 1950s baby boom. "From 1946 to '52, the movie-theater audience dropped 25 percent," he says. Drive-ins became cheaper options and "movable living rooms," he says. As America experiences a "baby-boomlet" today, drive-ins have made a small comeback for the same family-friendly reasons.

Good for moms, but babies?

Back in the cinema, the lights are dimmed to a level that lets moms keep an eye on the little ones, and the volume is turned down slightly as not to overwhelm the infants. "Gigli" starts, without previews (yes, you read that right).

One child makes a break for it and bops down the stairs toward the big screen, his mother in hot pursuit. Another shouts "Da-da!" at the actor onscreen. Despite the stirring, the moms appear unfazed, munching on popcorn and comforting infants with an eye on the screen.

The program helps moms relieve stress and feel less isolated, but what about the smaller members of the audience?

Babies' exposure to adult films like this doesn't appear to have a long-term impact, says Donna Mumme, a psychology professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. But she says the moms ought to use good judgment and maybe skip a film if it's excessively loud or violent.

"If it's mostly complicated adult dialogue, that's not going to affect babies," she says. "But if there's an argument or action scene ... their mood might be affected. But it would likely be fleeting."

Ms. Mumme studied how much emotional information 10-month and 1-year-old babies picked up from TV images. She found that 1-year-olds were less likely to play with an object after an actress reacted negatively to it and were more likely to frown. But the images had a short-term impact, she says, and 10-month-olds weren't affected.

As a mother, Mumme cautions that once a child is over a year, she would "think twice" about taking a baby to an adult film.

McCauley of Loews came up with the idea for ReelMoms after his baby daughter was born and he and his wife stopped going to movies. "We try to pick whatever the best current films are," McCauley says. "We've shown 'Charlie's Angels' and 'Legally Blonde.' But we're trying not to be too chick-flick-centric."

Independent theaters, including The Brattle and Arlington Capital theaters in the Boston area, are attracting parents who'd rather see arthouse and independent films.

'Wait, come back!'

"Rattle at the Brattle," has shown indies and pictures not yet on video, such as "Chicago," for the past year and a half. Anywhere from a dozen to 50 people show up, babies in tow, says Hannah Richards, associate director.

She's found that the movie "code of silence" has been so ingrained in moms that, even at special screenings, they're likely to flee at their baby's first gurgle. (Cineplex PSAs depicting angry mobs throwing popcorn at violators may not help.)

"There are a lot of moms who head out when their children cry - but we're more apt to push them back into the theater," Ms. Richards says. " 'That's why you're here,' we tell them. This is a nice treat for them."

For more information, go to enjoytheshow.com.

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