- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2011

LOS ANGELES — It seems like such a quaint notion: Folks would go to the movie theater, buy their tickets at the box office, then sit down, shut up and pay attention for two hours to what was on the screen.

Now, the piercing glow of cellphones lights up the darkness like so many pesky fireflies, and people talk to each other in a packed auditorium as if they were sitting in the privacy of their own living rooms.

The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas, did something about this trend by kicking out a patron who refused to adhere to the theater’s rule against talking or texting, then turned the ranting, profane voice message she left into a hilarious public service announcement. It’s gotten more than 1.75 million hits on YouTube in just a couple of weeks.

What happened to our attention spans? Why must we talk, text and tweet in the middle of a movie? And what - if anything - can theaters do to stop this erosion of cinema civility?

Matt Atchity, editor-in-chief of the Rotten Tomatoes film review website, crafted “10 Commandments for Movie Audiences” including “Thou shalt not text.” But the ubiquity of cellphones makes these sensible suggestions hard to enforce.

“Even 10 years ago, not everyone had a phone, not everyone was text messaging. The younger generation grew up and the kids who were texting in class are now the kids who are texting in movies,” Mr. Atchity said.

He added Hollywood’s focus on the 18-to-24 demographic is also a factor.

“A big opening release is like going to Chuck E. Cheese,” he said.

While adults might believe what’s on the screen deserves their full attention, kids nowadays view the movie-going experience as interactive, said Bill Goodykoontz, film critic for the Arizona Republic and father of four.

“They can’t imagine seeing anything, including a movie, without immediately supplying their reactions,” said Mr. Goodykoontz, who’s also chief film critic for Gannett.

Producer Barry Mendel (“Bridesmaids”) said he believes the reliance on social media and 24-7 information has bled into every part of our lives - even places that are meant to provide an escape.

“It’s very rare in our society to sit and stare at something intensely and without distraction for two hours. People just don’t have that muscle anymore,” said Mr. Mendel, a two-time Oscar nominee for best picture for “The Sixth Sense” and “Munich.”

“It makes me worry for my profession, for making movies,” he continued. “In order for a movie to be good, someone needs to sit down and read a screenplay and help the writer make it better. Instead they start reading a script, then they stop reading it and pick it up later.”

Rachael Harris (“The Hangover,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”) said a guy recently walked in late to a private screening of the new independent film she stars in, “Natural Selection,” sat down next to her and immediately checked his BlackBerry.

“As an actor, you do have a sense of: ‘How dare I not be riveting enough that you have to check your email?’ You react personally but then you realize it’s not personal. It’s just bad manners,” she said.

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