Instead of encouraging the audience to put away their mobile device when watching a film, several theaters within multiple Chinese cities are experimenting with the concept of encouraging the audience to send text messages to the theater during a film. Calling the concept “bullet screens,” people in the audience can spend about 10 cents to send a message that will be displayed on a section of the movie screen. Detailed by the Hollywood Reporter, the concept allows anyone to make comments about what’s happening on the screen and could potentially turn the movie screen into a grammar-deficient, unfunny ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ experience.
Of course, special precautions are in place to filter out forbidden words or phrases. Otherwise, the screen could be filled with curse words during a showing of an animated children’s film. Conceptually, this style of watching a movie is very similar to the design of Chinese movie websites. These sites allow movie watchers to make comments, via SMS, that are shared with anyone else watching the same movie on the service. At this time, the movie theater adaptation of this system is being tested within cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou.
When asked about the popularity of the new system, a theater manager in the Shandong province said “People like it right now, as it’s a new thing. In the long term, it might affect people’s concentration. We are trying to continue with some bullet screen activities and play some films that young people like. Time will tell.” However, some reactions of the people that viewed a film with bullet screens were less than favorable. Most complaints were directed at the level of distraction caused by the stream of text messages.
The probability of this system moving overseas into U.S. theaters is likely quite slim based on the emphasis American theaters place on shutting down mobile devices prior to the start of a film. Hypothetically, theaters could experiment with a system that’s isolates message sharing to mobile devices rather than the big screen. Of course, the application would likely have to require the movie watcher to check into a specific theater in order to connect up with other patrons in the same theater.
Some theaters in the U.S. have a no tolerance policy when it comes to using a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet. During October 2013, popular pop artist Madonna was called out by the owner of the Alamo Drafthouse theaters when she was spotted texting during a showing of ’12 Years a Slave.’ Joking about a lifetime ban until Madonna apologized, the owner was attempting to shed light on the persistent annoyance that are mobile devices when used in theaters.
Much more serious, a 43-year-old Florida man named Chad Olsen was shot and killed in a theater earlier this year allegedly for sending a text message during the previews of a showing of ‘Lone Survivor.’ The man that shot Olsen, 71-year-old Curtis Reeves, is currently charged with a count of second-degree murder and a count of aggravated assault. Pleading not guilty and claiming that his actions were self-defense, Reeves was recently released on $150,000 bail while awaiting trial. A constant stream of updates related to that trial can be found here.