Critics no longer matter and the screening experience is proving that out.
In the last few weeks, I've come across a disconcerting situation. It's one that plagues the rest of the movie-going public on a frequent basis but is usually scarce in the supposedly sacred "press screening" setting. Ever since Pacific Rim, where a "fellow critic" (and I use both terms very, very loosely) decided to keep time on his reporter's pad with every rock song Guillermo Del Toro added to the epic's soundtrack, I have noticed a pattern: A pattern of disrespect; A pattern of inconsiderate behavior; A pattern of reacting both entitled and yet completely clueless within the situation you find yourself. Granted, audiences all across this great land of ours have been prime examples of the great unwashed, at least when it comes to public etiquette. Yes, it's a boring old argument, but since I am privy to more elite cinematic experience, I find it hard to believe it is happening here as well.
You see, when I started reviewing theatrical films nearly eight years ago (have been an actual critic for 12), I paid to see the movies I wrote about. I would brave an early morning matinee on opening day, pile in with a similarly bleary eyed group of patrons, and wade through the ads, previews, trailers and other industry come-ons before the feature finally started. Usually, there would be limited audience irritation. Few cell phones on or even out, just a random person unable to keep their opinions (or bodily noises) to themselves. No real outbursts unless you consider laughter, applause, screams, or yawns in that regard. Sure, as time went by, I noticed more and more obnoxious behavior, but I could tolerate it. I even sat through The Descent as a row of teenagers talked, texted, and fondled each other for the entire running time.
The press screening became an oasis, a place where discipline was enforced because of several, studio-oriented reasons. Cell phone were and are a no-no because Hollywood is like McGruff when it comes to piracy. In fact, some even require working critics to "bag and tag" their devices before entering the theater. Since I am not physically addicted to or in desperate need of the connection to the world provided by my Apple iPhone, I never have to worry about this (my 4S is always safely secured away in my car) but I know a few in my occupation who bristle, knowing they can't play Words with Friends or watch the latest installment of Orange is the New Black on Netflix before the movie starts. Go figure. More so, the representatives handling the event warn against excessive noise, no talking, crying babies, antsy children, kicking the backs of chairs, feet up on the seats, etc. - in essence, movie-going the way it used to be.
Then something happened at You're Next which stunned me. Granted, the theater screening the horror film is notorious for horrible audiences, individuals who ignore clear cut instructions (security is always running up and down the aisles giving deviant individuals the "no phones" speech) and treat each press screening like just another night at home in their living room. But in this case, a combination of title and attitude turned the experience into something almost unfathomable. It all began with the seating situation. The Press Row is usually marked off (and this was) and is typically the bottom row of the top half of a two tier stadium setup. Sometimes, more than one is marked off, but because this is a fright flick (which most critics avoid like an interview with Vincent Gallo), there was just the one.
Now, behind the press was two groups of slightly hyper horror fans. On the one side was a guy and his three male friends. All had come from work. All had sampled a few adult beverages before heading to the film. All were anxious to get their shiver on. To their right was a fivesome - four gals pals and one long suffering boyfriend. As he got up and down several times to provide snacks and other refreshment for the girls, the ladies yakked it up like it was $2 well shots night at the local tavern. By the time the movie started all nine of these people were primed to enjoy themselves - by whatever means necessary, indicating that as the press person seated directly in front of them, I was in for a long, long night.
At first, they were relatively quiet. Then they started to play the not-home version of the "don't go in there" talk back to the screen conceit. Just as they were getting into it, chatting up each other over how "scary" everything was and how "stupid" everyone was, the film stopped. Actually, a better way to say it is that the digital code for the satellite was defective. It only allowed for about 20 minutes of the movie to be accessible from the theater's hard drive before it quit. A rep's phone call to the studio said it would be about 10 minutes before things would go back to normal. As the crowd got more and more frustrated, the group behind me hit upon what, they thought, was the funniest joke in the history of going to the movies. Initially, only one started mumbling it. Then his friends caught on. Soon, all nine were chiming in:
"Gee. I think I'll demand a refund for this free screening."
Yep - that was it. That was the witty bon mot that had them all in stitches for the 15 minute it took to restart the movie. Over and over again, the same line said in the same exact manner. Incessantly. And they were the only one's laughing. Once things stated back up, the joke provided a kind of free reign to continue on cutting up. Soon, every actor was under their cloying, unfunny critique. As things got more and more intense, one of the women even took to drum/thumping the back of the seats in front of her - the seats where I was sitting - to show her approval of the bloodletting/scares/suspense. I turned around several time during her "performance" and got the same Travis Bickle "You looking at me?" smugness in response. Eventually, said lady put her dirty, skanky feet up on said seat backs, making sure her bunion and corn encrusted piggies were in plain view of me and anyone else who was interested.
You're Next was a mess, even beyond my row. Random shout outs to the screen, the occasional private joke that made an entire group laugh out loud in the back of the theater, other, inappropriate giggles, and a general disrespect for everyone else. After leaving a comment with the representatives and heading home, I realized that I had never been in a situation like that before - not when the Asian woman behind me translated EVERY LINE of dialogue for Rush Hour 3 to her non-English speaking friend, not the time when parents let their kids come down into the aisles and dance along with the songs on the Madagascar 2 soundtrack because, well, "they're just kids having fun." I've put up with all manners of odors, offensive behaviors, and outright disrespect (like the man who threatened my life, and the lives of the other critics, present, because he couldn't sit in the row we were using for a preview of Rob Zombie's Halloween), but this was a whole new level or unruliness.
And now, it's getting worse. You're Next was just the beginning. During Insidious: Chapter 2, a portion of the audience decided that their displeasure with James Wan's follow-up to his fine old fashioned spook show required their condescending snark and snickering, more or less undermining every scare the filmmaker had in mind. At Prisoners, the Pacific Rim guy was back, and since he wasn't buying anything the movie or its narrative was selling, he spent the 153 minute running time muttering quite audible criticisms to himself in a constant stream. Behind me, an older couple, clearly confused by the film's mixed moral messages and scattershot plotting, reworked every scene over and over in their head, and then discussed their conclusions between them.
During Metallica: Through the Never, some ardent fans nitpicked song selection and staging, believing that their easily heard conversations would be drowned out by the loud, IMAX mix (they weren't). One clearly drunk comedian type (the theater screening the concert film sells alcohol - I know, I know...) decided to make his displeasure with the film's ending known to the rest of the crowd, and when his humorless bits met with boos and calls for "quiet," this just egged him on. Finally, during Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, an audience overrun with children more or less chirped, chittered, and chortled their way through the otherwise entertaining experience, ignoring the studio reps repeated warnings for "silence" and running up and down the stadium seat aisles that there was an unscheduled race in the process.
Remember, these were at "PRESS" screenings, only open to the public via ticket promotions and other media marketing designs. Your average person on the street can't just walk in and take a seat. The studios demand strict counts, rely on the reps to keep order, and most importantly, hope to give the journalists present an opportunity to do their job with as little interference as possible. None of that matters now. Instead, as pundits and participants battle over the place of technology in the modern movie theater experience, those of us getting paid by the word (or assignment) are stuck struggling through what amounts to be a backlash from those who, before, seemed to abide by the rules with praise-worthy consideration. Critics no longer matter and the screening experience is proving that out.
True, now that it is Awards Season, I will spend far less time in such social settings and, instead, will experience most of the Oscar candidates in a private presentation where only a few invited members of specific critics groups are allowed. Still, I don't look forward to seeing Gravity under the same circumstances as I have recently endured, nor do I believe that the next three months will be incident free. Understand, I can tolerate almost everything (stinky feet aside), and I am not getting up on a soapbox stridently admonishing those who use the theatrical experience as an excuse for boorish behavior, but just a few short years ago, my profession was more or less protected from this kind of thing. Now, sadly, it looks like the "real world" has finally caught up with us as well.