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How to Oscar at Movie Theaters: Futuring Behaviors in Progress

The many ways the future could play out are happening now.


The Academy Awards presentation is a television show. Movie theaters that open a screen to the annual live television show benefit from the opportunity to sell their usual concessions for the duration of the show, which can run for 4+ hours. Hosting a television event might encourage repeat traffic for paid movie showings. Plus, the theater need not pay to show for the content as they do for movies.


Movie theaters could show television all the time. But customers can stay home and drink their own drinks, pause when it suits them, to watch content by subscription. Movie theaters, by definition, sell a different experience that calls for well-understood (though often violated) public behavior.


Theaters are darkened during showings to signal an established behavioral protocol. For practical purposes, a darkened theater optimizes screen resolution. But that action also signals to the audience to reduce socializing amongst themselves. An extension of this protocol is the stated etiquette to turn off one’s phone and put it away. This is mostly to eliminate the annoying bright light in a darkened space from the use of phones.

An interior photo of an empty movie theater taken from the back to show brown leather seats, perhaps for an audience of 230. The walls are draped in teal green curtains. The lighting is warm. Nothing is showing on the screen.
AMC Century theater in Daly City, California, USA. Photo by the author.

Lights are up when the screen is blank. People are seated safely, and it looks something like an inviting room at home.


The conceptual difference between a film and a TV show shown in a movie theater can be telegraphed visually to attendees. This alteration then signals expected and acceptable etiquette.


Keep the Lights Up

Television consumed at home is usually not done in complete darkness. Television watched in bars and airports is done with lights on. And so it should be in movie theaters.


I propose that lights be kept up during broadcasts of the Academy Awards in movie theaters. Just turn off the lights on the screen. This way, audience members can feel more free to stumble over knees to go to the bathroom or stretch their legs or make a phone call or get another beer or soda or candy or popcorn.


Here’s one problem with this conceptual muddle.


Some of us look up stuff and watch live-social commentary, usually by comedians, during these broadcasts at home or in movie theaters. To be admonished by a self-righteous fellow audience member for using our phones for an augmented theater experience while watching a TV show is a conflict of conceptual understanding.


Continually Remind the Movie Theater Audience that they are Watching a TV Show

Another suggestion for clarifying that this is not a movie but in fact a television show: show the ads.

I dislike ads as much as the next person. But reference to this being a TV broadcast helps sell the audience of the conceptual variance. Inject a little character if you will: cut away to short Rogers and Astair dance or Steamboat Willie clips and then cut back to the network ID and the show.


What do people do when TV ads come on? They walk away to get food/drink ($$!), go to the bathroom, talk to each other, scroll social media, and text on their phones. Movie theaters should want this different vibe in their home-away-from-home atmospheres.


A thoughtful overall presentation expresses that this protocol is acceptable for an Academy Award TV broadcast, and that a different protocol is expected for movie viewing. That's futuring acceptable behaviors.


Futuring Signals of Morphing Media Consumption

Futurists scan many horizons looking for evidence of evolving behaviors in action. Owners of theater chains and indie theaters, a cousin of the last Third Places we have, brainstormed new revenue streams to counter flagging attendance in the age of streaming and cable on huge home TV screens.


So now we also go to movie theaters for television broadcasts, streamed cultural and sports events, or hosted events. We see more instances of full menu food services and adult beverages. Among all of these variations of the media theater experience, theater owners need to maintain the original movie-going behavioral protocols because that experience, watching feature films in a public theater, is still primary and it has a distinct and socialized set of etiquette rules.


Attendees/audiences may not have caught onto these new variations of experiences in this space with customary behaviors. Without altering the environmental design for each kind of movie theater experience, owners will learn how to express behavioral and experiential expectations for different kinds of audiences in their facilities.


Thank you and enjoy the show!


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