Speak Up, I Can Still Hear The Movie

In today’s news scrum, the staff debates Hunter Walk’s heretical post about the future of movie theaters.

Speak Up, I Can Still Hear The Movie

Today’s News Scrum Discussion: “You Literally Represent Everything Wrong With The World,” By Hunter Walk

This week former product manager for YouTube-turned-VC Hunter Walk got himself on the Hollywood shit-list by suggesting that theaters allow for second screens during the movie-watching experience. Today he posted a follow-up defending his position. An excerpt from his original post went like this:


Increasingly I wanted my media experiences plugged in and with the ability to multitask. Look up the cast list online, tweet out a comment, talk to others while watching or just work on something else while Superman played in the background… I’d love to watch Pacific Rim in a theater with a bit more light, wifi, electricity outlets and a second screen experience. Don’t tell me I’d miss major plot points while scrolling on my ipad – it’s a movie about robots vs monsters. I can follow along just fine.

We have all come to use phones and tablets while watching things at home, but I didn’t think Walk had a realistic use-case in mind here at first. Most of us are not tweeting about what we’re watching, I’d venture to bet–we’re killing time during a lull in the film or a commercial break on TV.

But actually, it’s perfect that he mentions “second-screening” two movies that are perfect for computerized distractions: The pablum that was the most recent Superman movie and Pacific Rim, two thoughtless kaleidoscopes of explosions and CGI.

But maybe I’m being too hard on Hollywood. In fact, maybe I’ve got it totally backwards–perhaps this is a characteristic of a new genre of film, a genre which is visually and aurally impressive but not mentally demanding. Perhaps this genre of film evolved with (and exists for) distracted audiences who still want something exciting on the big screen but are mostly engaged in what’s happening on the glass slabs in their laps.

If that’s the case then maybe movie studios don’t need to experiment with alternate endings after all. If I’m right about this new genre of brainless background-movie, Walk’s suggestion could save the movie industry. Both the films above bombed in the box office–but people might have been content to see them with a coffee, some snacks, and iPad and a reading light close at hand. Chris Dannen

Isn’t this the whole “making phone calls on airplanes” debate all over again? People are worried about being disturbed in places and ways they thought were immune to electronic distraction. The visceral reaction is to push back against drastically changing the movie-going experience because, at first glance, the trade-off is the tranquility of public places.

But endorsing mobile device activity in movies could mean publicity disasters, especially for films like the ones he mentions which were badly reviewed. After all, if Chris is right and Hollywood is going brainless, having people live-tweet about how awful the movie is would be no good for business. Tyler Hayes


Personally I enjoy my occasional visit to the cinema exactly because it’s such an immersive and at the same time communal experience. I love the way you can walk into a theatre on a baking summer day and become part of a world set in a snowy landscape. To quote Bobby Draper from Mad Men, “Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad.” Movies are about escaping the people in your networks, not interacting with them.

But Walk isn’t suggesting that we abolish that immersive experience, or even interfere with it, but rather allow some moviegoers to experiment with a different one. I don’t see what’s wrong with that, especially if your parallel activities can actually enhance your experience. Nobody objects to you eating popcorn, or in Europe enjoying a glass of wine, while you view. One cinema in Amsterdam, where I live, and several theaters in New York even serve full course meals whose menus are inspired by the movie you’re watching. Maybe movie makers can invent new ways of experiencing the cinema this way in the same way that they did with 3-D. Ciara Byrne

I’ve worked in both the technology and film industries and also consider myself a big fan of the movie theater experience (aka, a “cinema goer”), so perhaps that explains why when I read Walk’s piece it appealed to me–and scared the crap out of me at the same time.

Thinking with my cinemagoer hat on my immediate response was: “If anyone actually does this my sacred movie theater experience will be changed forever and it will be the downfall of cinemas!”

However, thinking with my tech and film industry hat on, I actually appreciate Walk’s idea, because like Walk, I’ve suggested other ways cinemas can use tech to their advantage to increase ticket sales. And make no mistake about it, cinemas are increasingly having difficulty getting people in the door. Home theater technology is getting better and better–if your home has a 60-inch flat screen, free food, a comfy couch, and a private bathroom, why leave? Walk’s idea is merely one way cinemas can use technology to get more attendees through the door.

But perhaps the most shocking thing about Walk’s idea is that he is a VC who’s looking for companies to invest in and he doesn’t realize he himself has a million-dollar idea. The cinema experience has been social for over 100 years, and though it still remains social on a limited basis when you watch a movie with your family at home, home viewing does lose a lot of that critical mass social experience. That could change if Walk puts his idea into a platform that allows viewers to watch movies at home and converse in real time with others who are watching the same timecode-synced film. You know how fun it is to watch a bad movie at your house with friends on a Friday night and make fun of it? Imagine doing that with a group of thousands all watching the same film and linked through a second screen app that allows you to create large social conversations about its merits from your couch. Now, that’s a movie theater experience I’d pay for. Michael Grothaus


It’s important to note that Walk is espousing new options, not a paradigm shift toward free-for-all theaters with ball pits and Starbucks furniture. Walk wants a cry room, essentially, where he can sequester himself with his devices (and a community of device-laden peers) without bothering or being bothered by the rigid expectations of traditional theatergoers. It’s silly for theater purists to think that Cineplexes would warp their policies so quickly (or at all) at Walk’s suggestion. The biggest innovations in movie theater UX in the last 100 years have been to add sound, ban smoking, and adopt stadium seating. These guys are slow to change.

The overwhelmingly negative response Walk received is proof positive that movie theater chains would court disaster by lifting device bans and light levels during movies without extensive pilot programs in specific cities. It also exhibits a weird false victimization of theater purists. What Walk’s critics really fear, as their ad hominem criticism suggests, is Walk’s ability to throw around financial weight as a venture capitalist. When will these tech people stop changing everything around me? But even a venture capitalist doesn’t have the funds to shift the policy of theater chains already frozen with panic at their sinking ticket sales. David Lumb

There’s nothing social about surfing the Internet while you watch movies.

I’m with Ciara that the charm of movies is escape into an alternate reality. I’m not against tech that enhances that experience: If mice can have memories zapped into their heads, humans may one day beam movies directly into our brains, and I’ll be the first to try.

But I don’t see how web surfing and chatter at the theater is analogous to serving wine, popcorn, or even meals, as they do at my hometown Cinebistro. Can’t we find more creative ways of extending the viewing experience?

In his book Flicker: Your Brain On Movies, Washington University memory psychologist Jeffrey Zacks argues that transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) may soon be used to make our brains rumble, flash, tingle, and boom in synch with action onscreen. The book is upcoming from Oxford University Press in Spring 2014. An excerpt:


I love the idea of things we could do to our brains purely for entertainment… But all movies are things we do to our brains for entertainment–we are just stimulating our brains in the old-fashioned way, by putting signals in through the eyes and ears.

Now, that’s value added! I don’t think Walk’s proposal is in the same league–it’s just an endorsement of multi-tasking, like the theater-as-coworking space. I get that Walk has no ill will toward filmmakers or viewers. I just think money for movies should go to films worth watching with your whole head. Taylor Beck

[Image: Flickr user Mark Sebastian]