Postscript to “Engaging Distractions: Regulating Second-Screen Use in the Theater”
Indiana University, Bloomington
I started writing my article “Engaging Distractions: Regulating Second-Screen Use in the Theater” in 2013 in order to think through how media industries were approaching the presence of mobile phones inside U.S. movie theaters. As I noted in that piece, various distributors, theater owners, and advertisers strongly disagreed about the most appropriate spaces or times for audiences to use their phones, or even whether phones should be within the theater at all. Most exhibitors continued to enforce strict no-phone policies during showtimes, even while advertisers and producers experimented with initiatives that encouraged live phone interaction during preshow programs or, more rarely, the feature film itself. My conclusion argued that this push-and-pull echoed Raymond Williams’s portrait of culture as comprised of residual as well as emergent practices: contemporary industry discourses about phones do not have any one dominant feature, but are rather a messy confluence of actors, agendas, and historical lines in tension with one another.
Given the high-speed world of new media turnovers, it is perhaps telling that, three years removed from when I started writing my article, the American theater landscape has not changed all that much. If I were writing the piece today, my thesis would be the same, with only a few new case studies added or swapped around. Indeed, the discussion about in-theater second-screens has really become a neverending parade of case studies. Every few months sees some new second-screen experiment or announcement in the trade press—prompting commentators to repeat the same questions about the audience’s desire for new forms of “engagement” or their annoyance toward in-show “distractions.” This is especially the case among advertisers eager to add interactive technologies to preshow commercials: often the technologies touted as making theatergoing “more relevant and enjoyable” for the “social-media savvy set” are the same ones blamed for destroying the theater as a space for sustained, “captive attention.”[i]
A few of these case studies are worth mentioning. My article predicted that second-screens would remain marginal in the theater industry so long as they continued to be optional supplements to the main feature film—something to “add” to the theatrical experience but unnecessary for actually comprehending or enjoying the film.[ii] Case in point, in June 2015, Paramount teamed with Audience Entertainment to create live gaming events pitting audience teams against each other on their phones in select auditoriums showing Terminator: Genisys. The game only ran during the preshows, and audience members were encouraged to turn off their devices once the feature film began.[iii]
Examples of second-screen integration into the film proper are fewer and farther between, but do occasionally arise. In 2014, several theaters in China experimented with so-called “bullet screens” allowing audiences to live text comments that would be projected directly over the movie screen.[iv] In October 2013, special screenings of the evangelical Christian film SURGE directed its viewers across 400 theaters to post their thoughts throughout the show via a #SURGE tag on Twitter and Facebook. The film also included a prompt for audiences to raise and wave their illuminated screens in the auditorium as a sign of their commitment to Jesus Christ.[v] Tellingly, many of these examples (like SURGE, as well as Disney’s Second Screen Live re-release of The Little Mermaid in 2013) were limited engagements that heavily emphasized the liveness of the event. Most disappeared from industry reports almost as quickly as they had appeared.
One oversight in my Cinema Journal article involved the types of films that are often paired with phone apps. While I stand by my argument that second-screens do not have any strong correlation to broad trends in narrative filmmaking style,[vi] it is noteworthy how many of the films released theatrically with real-time companion apps have been in the horror genre. Examples include the Dutch App (2013), Japanese Sadako 3D 2 (2013), Spanish Panzer Chocolate (2013), and American i-Lived (2015). In my recent work (co-authored with Alexander Svensson), I have explored this connection between second-screens and horror in relation to both the gimmicky, corporeal tendencies of the genre and the premeditated control over interactivity that marks most apps.[vii]
I could certainly list off still more examples of theater- or cinema-phone integrations. Without exception, however, these cases continue to treat audience multitasking as a highly scripted, predetermined activity (and only condone it when it is guided and predictable). In nearly all accounts, the random, distracted moviegoer using their phone for mere diversion continues to be a source of industry, as well as popular, scorn. In this sense, the everyday banality of half-attentive movie viewing continues to contradict (if not necessarily “resist”) the more idealized dreams of “audience engagement” that fuel much of the industrial and academic interest in second-screens. No doubt this concern with standardized and measurable audience behavior will always underlie interest in where, when, and how moviegoers decide to pull their phones out of their pockets and purses.
[i] Claire Atkinson, “Movie Theaters Get Creative to Appeal to Modern Audiences,” New York Post, December 25, 2015, http://nypost.com/2015/12/25/movie-theaters-get-creative-to-appeal-to-modern-audiences.
[ii] Dan Hassoun, “Engaging Distractions: Regulating Second-Screen Use in the Theater,” Cinema Journal 55, no. 2 (2016), 107.
[iii] Gregory Wakeman, “Why Terminator: Genisys Is Encouraging Phone Use at the Movie Theater,” Cinema Blend, June 2015, http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Why-Terminator-Genisys-Encouraging-Cell-Phone-Use-During-Movie-72219.html.
[iv] Clifford Coonan, “Chinese Theaters Test System of Onscreen Text Messages During Movies,” Hollywood Reporter, August 19, 2014, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/chinese-theaters-test-system-onscreen-726204.
[v] “Teens Commit Their Lives to God in Movie Theaters Across the United States,” PR Web, October 14, 2013, http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/10/prweb11225226.htm.
[vi] Hassoun, “Engaging Distractions,” 110.
[vii] Alexander Svensson and Dan Hassoun, “‘Scream Into Your Phone’: Second Screen Horror and Controlled Interactivity,” Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, forthcoming.