17 Aug 2023

Etiquette at the cinema

This summer two blockbuster movies, Barbie and Oppenheimer, have drawn large audiences back to the cinema. While cinemas have gradually been attracting more customers since the end of the pandemic, there is little doubt that cinema-going etiquette is in decline. Social media is awash with stories of noisy cinemagoers, disputes between audience members, stand-up fights. As with the theatre, there seems to be a sense that audiences have forgotten how to behave in a public space. We’ve all become used to streaming movies at home, where we can sprawl all over the furniture, eat noisily, chat throughout and keep an eye on our phones. Not surprisingly, when this behaviour is transposed to a cinema it can cause offence and there is a general feeling that we are not showing consideration to other movie fans.

The rules of cinema etiquette are based on straightforward common sense. If you come across someone who is transgressing them – chatting on their phone, talking loudly to their neighbour, shouting at the screen, kicking your seat back etc – you might attempt to politely remonstrate. But if the offender shows every sign of ignoring you, or even escalating their behaviour to provoke you, go straight to the management. They are trained to handle these situations and have the power to throw out the offenders, threaten them with ejection, or move you to another seat.

How to Behave at the Cinema

• Arrive on time

It is fine to come into the cinema during the trailers and adverts, where there is a general acceptance that people are still talking and settling in, but it is annoying if you start squeezing down the rows and blocking the screen after the film has started.

• Be discriminating about saving seats

Many cinemas now allocate seats, but where there is a free-for-all, it is acceptable to save a seat or two for a few minutes while your companions buy refreshments, or if you know that your friend is a few minutes late but will arrive shortly. But saving several seats when the cinema is packed, and seats are at a premium, is never going to be popular and you might find you are confronted by seatless, and irritated, cinemagoers. If you’re going to the cinema with a group of friends it is more considerate to arrive, and take your seats, together.

• Stick to your allotted space

Your ticket entitles you to a seat and, generally, an armrest (there’s no rule about which armrest is rightfully yours, so you might need to politely negotiate with your neighbour). It does not entitle you to dump all your belongings on the adjacent vacant seat or to drape your coat over the back of the seat in front of you, which means the person sitting there cannot lean back. Don’t sprawl and impinge on other people’s space and never kick or interfere with the seat in front.

• Choose your seat carefully

If you’re very tall, it might be helpful if you position yourself towards the rear of the cinema. If you prefer to sit closer to the screen, choose a seat in front of another tall person so you will not obstruct the view of someone who is smaller than you. Remove all headgear. If you fear that you will need to go to the loo during the film, try and secure an aisle seat so that you minimise disruption.

• Turn off your phone
While chatting on the phone, or using audible ringtones, is now considered an obvious offence (with cinemas screening reminders before the film begins), remember that silently scrolling on your phone during the movie is distracting because it will emit a bright light. Taking photos or short videos during movies is also frowned upon. If you don’t want to switch off completely, turn your phone to silent and put it away.

• Eat considerately
Most cinemas ply us with a range of refreshments and rely on these purchases to boost flagging income. Whether you’re delving into a giant bucket of popcorn, noisily sucking up the last dregs of a fizzy drink through a straw, or audibly rustling sweet wrappers, be aware that you might be disturbing near neighbours. Try and reserve your noisiest consumption for passages of the film where the soundtrack will obliterate your munching.

• Minimise talking

It is generally considered fine to whisper the odd comment to your companions, but you can very soon cross the line and become over-garrulous as well as annoyingly audible to people sitting around you. This will inevitably cause irritation, and a very British reaction is to turn around and glare at the offender. If you see someone deploying this technique, accept that you’ve transgressed and concentrate on the movie; do not react by upping the volume and volubility.

• Be child-aware

Most cinemas offer parent and baby showings, and if you have very young children this is the best option – taking a baby into an adult movie is a highly risky business. If your child starts crying you will be the object of disapproval, and you may well find yourself missing much of the movie because you feel forced to take your distressed child outside.

• Take your rubbish

Of course, cinemas employ staff to clear up at the end of each showing, but it is only polite to assist them by taking out empty cups, wrappers and popcorn buckets. Turn-arounds between showings are often very tight, so every little helps.

• No spoilers

It is very tempting, as you stand with your friends in the foyer after the show, to loudly discuss the film you have just seen. Audibly discussing clever plot twists and big reveals, or boisterously denigrating the movie might well put off the audience that is queuing for the next showing. Save your post-show discussions for your after-movie drink or meal.

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