​Texting at the movies? Critics slam cinema chain's proposal

Last Updated Apr 15, 2016 10:59 AM EDT

For years now, movie theater operators have been trying to dissuade their customers from chatting on cell phones or texting during shows. Some issue stern pre-show warnings that anyone caught texting or talking will be shown the door.

It's not surprising then that the new chief executive and president of AMC Theaters, Adam M. Aron, caused a stir by suggesting that nation's second-largest movie theater company would consider the idea of making certain auditoriums "more texting friendly" in a bid to get millennials to go to the movies more often.

"When you tell a 22-year-old to turn off the phone, don't ruin the movie, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow," said Aron in an interview with Variety published online Wednesday.

"You can't tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That's not how they live," said Aron, who hailed from outside the movie business before taking the reins of parent company AMC Entertainment Holdings (AMC) in January.

His suggestion that the company might revisit its stance on texting during shows didn't sit well with many movie buffs, who flooded AMC's social media accounts with objections. Some threatened to take their business elsewhere if AMC followed through with the idea.

The company quickly responded to the backlash with the following post: "Press reports we are considering test allowing texts in a very few screens. We know vast majority of audience wants no texting. If ever, we only would pursue this in a way that we can be totally confident ALL our guests will fully enjoy the movie-going experience at AMC."

That still wasn't enough to quell critics on Twitter and Facebook. By Friday, AMC retreated with a company statement that included the following tweet:

Aron, former CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts (HOT), is no doubt mulling new ways for AMC to woo an increasingly distracted and demanding audience. Rather than turn off their smartphones, many millennials would rather skip the theater altogether, or kick back at home and stream movies on their flat-screen TVs or mobile devices, via Netflix (NFLX) and other services.

In 2015, America's 18- to 24-year olds represented 10 percent of the U.S. population and bought 14 percent of all movie tickets sold here, down from 16 percent in 2014, according to Stan Meyers, a Piper Jaffray & Co. analyst who covers media and entertainment companies.

Teens, somewhat surprisingly, are going to the movies more often these days, as are those in the 60-plus set, as measured by their percentage contributions to overall ticket sales between 2014 and 2015, said Meyers.

"One of the things keeping millennials away from the movies is that they need to be on their phones all the time. What [Adam Aron] wants to do is segregate different groups so that people don't want to be on their phones, i.e., older demographic groups, and those who do could be in different [auditoriums]," said Meyers.

In his first few months as CEO, Aron has taken other steps to ensure that AMC, known as an innovator in the movie business, stays competitive in the face of demographic shifts and rapid technological change. In March, AMC announced that it has struck a deal to acquire Carmike Cinemas (CKEC), a merger that would create the world's largest chain of movie theaters.

AMC, a subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, is also reportedly close to a deal with the Screening Room, a startup that will offer new releases in the home, via a set-top box that transmits movies, for $50 per view, according to Variety.

The venture is controversial within the movie business, but Variety reports that the Screening Room, backed by Sean Parker of Facebook (FB) and Napster fame, is seeking to pave its way by sharing its proceeds with distributors and providing customers with two free movie tickets per view, which would help boost concession sales for theater operators.

But it's the texting controversy that has put AMC in the hot seat in the eyes of some moviegoers. That is perhaps not surprising given that some people feel so strongly about the etiquette surrounding cell phone use in theaters that the issue has sparked violence. In early 2014 an argument between two men in a theater in Wesley Chapel, Florida, over texting ended in a fatal shooting. Before the argument erupted, the man who was eventually shot was sending text messages to his daughter during the previews to the movie.