What’s the Deal With People Taking Photos During Movies?

Public behavior at the cinema is on a steep decline. We explain why.

“What’s the deal with people taking photos during movies?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself. It’s a question that’s recently been trending across the Internet. It’s a question I can hear Jerry Seinfeld asking. 

But, seriously, why are people taking photos in movies? I believe I have the answer. In two parts.

The Social Media Lottery

Social media is a slot machine that rewards people for posting content. Sometimes you win pennies, nickels, and dimes in the form of some likes, a follow or two, a few positive comments. Occasionally, you get the satisfaction of a fistful of dollars. Then, rarely, it’s the jackpot. And the insidious thing about social media is that it’s an endless stream of seeing other people hit the big one. They go viral. There’s attention. Reaction. Opportunity. A sense of power, of being special. The whole 15 minutes of fame dynamic. Chain enough of those viral moments together and suddenly you have a following. Or, at the very least, you become part of an online community. 

The kicker is that anything can go viral. There’s that scene in Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum explains chaos theory to Laura Dern by letting a water droplet fall onto her hand to watch where it goes and how it will never follow the exact same path because of tiny, imperceptible variables that demonstrate how there’s always unpredictability in complex systems. That’s social media. Someone could post the same picture of their cat every day for three years and one afternoon it will go viral and Good Morning America will fly them and their cat to New York for an interview after which Reebok gives them a sneaker deal. 

All you have to do is keep producing content. Any content. 

A pandemic of bad behavior

People who don’t care about theater etiquette have always existed. The person in the row behind you who puts their bare feet on the top of the seat next to you, next to your head. The couple who whisper loudly. Grandparents who text. Giggling teens. Parents who bring babies and don’t leave when the baby cries. Quiet individuals who sit right next to you when the theater is mostly empty. Unsilenced phones that blare like a fog horn for ships coming into harbor. These things happen. They are, thankfully, not common. But they happen. 

Recently, though, we have this new phenomenon of people taking their phones out. Holding them up, bright screen and all, then snapping a photo. Maybe two. Three. Even a video!

To me, this feels like one of the many bizarre social behaviors we’re seeing in the wake of COVID. Some segments of society isolated themselves so totally from the physical world that they had to seek comfort and connection through the digital one. We’ve had nearly two decades of becoming completely comfortable with sharing our lives via social media. Remember back in 2011 when people at restaurants first started using their phones to take pictures of food for Instagram? Today, that’s normal. Entire industries have spawned from it. You no longer roll your eyes at the person photographing their entree. You roll your eyes at the boomer who doesn’t get it. We share like we breathe—without thought. 

Before, it was the stuff of hobby, killing time, and escapism. But in recent years, it became a necessity. The primary means for a dopamine hit. Either you engaged online or withered on the vine. And a lot of people realized the rush of being a content creator, even in small, boutique ways, like progress photos of your garden every day, or making short videos of your dog, or a home inspector who shared random, interesting construction flaws on TikTok. Whether it was normal for you before COVID, it was much more normal after COVID. 

Then the bureaucrats gave whoever was still listening to them permission to go inside again. Awesome. Except we all forgot how that’s supposed to go. And how to drive, how to politely talk to waitstaff at restaurant, and how to work at restaurants. The physical distance resulted in a psychological distance that’s still present to this day. When in public, we no longer feel the same collective responsibility to be decent to one another. Instead, there’s that little voice telling you to stay away from everyone. To ignore them and go about your business. That these people aren’t the important ones. They’re more NPCs than anything. The actual important people are online. And your life, the things you do, the places you go—it’s all content for you to share. We’ve all been incepted. 

So what’s the deal with people taking photos in movies?

It’s the byproduct of a figurative Leonardo DiCaprio and his team of dream heisters infiltrating our brains to plant the seed of an idea: our physical lives have become fodder for digital content, content that is the gateway to life-changing opportunity. 

Before, it was enough to sit in the dark theater with other people, or just yourself, and experience something as part of the collective. And when the lights came on and you all trudged out, there was that sense of community and togetherness. Now, you go so you have something to say so you can be part of the online discourse. So you have a thing to share that proves to others that you exist, in the hopes that they’ll reward you for it. 

A glass half-empty kind of person sees this as a situation that will only continue to get worse. Especially as online fandoms continue to grow and continue to covet iconography related to their interest. A glass half-full person views this as only temporary, as people readjust and normalize and remember what it means to be present with one another that they’ll be more of a desire to put the phone away and keep it away and prioritize the moment. And then there are those who don’t care about the level of liquid in the glass, but the fact that it trembles and ripples from the shocking footfalls of something tremendously large approaching. 

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Chris Lambert

Chris Lambert is a novelist, poet, and narrative expert. Entropy named his second novel, Killer Unconquered, one of the best books of 2020/2021. He spent a spell as editor in chief of the monthly online literary journal Red Fez. His current project is Film Colossus, a site dedicated to helping people better understand and appreciate the movies they watch. Every week, he posts a new, in-depth explanation that breaks down themes, meaning, ending, title, motifs, and answers any questions. Having grown up in the sunless summers and bitter winters of Northeast Ohio, Chris now resides in the oven that is Austin, TX. He loves baseball and has a corgi.

3 thoughts on “What’s the Deal With People Taking Photos During Movies?

  • August 8, 2023 at 5:52 pm

    This is exactly right. “Before, it was enough to sit in the dark theater with other people, or just yourself, and experience something as part of the collective. … Now, you go so you have something to say … that proves to others that you exist, in the hopes that they’ll reward you for it.”

    I personally don’t really see the glass half full argument, but I’m so glad someone is making one.

  • August 15, 2023 at 5:08 pm

    This ruined everything for me.

    I do not even have energy anymore. Worst than people taking photos, are people filming themselves showing the screen with their backs to the screen.

    I can not. I have enough.


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