The 16 Unwritten Rules of Movie Theaters You're Probably Breaking

Annoying people at the movie theater
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

People have been going to the movies for more than 100 years, but in a world increasingly dominated by the streaming pleasures of Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and more, a trek to the local multiplex has become both more sacred (if you're going to spend the big bucks, you want the experience to be perfect) and less important. With all the conveniences of streaming, it's easy to forget that when you're in a theater watching a movie, you're in a theater watching a movie. With other people. Not in your house. In. Public.

Temporarily forgetting the real world is fine and all... until you realize you're sitting dead center in the middle of a movie theater surrounded by 99 people who each laid down $50 -- popcorn and soda ain't cheap! -- to take in the evening's entertainment. You can do better. You can avoid a fistfight over the end credits. How? The Thrillist Entertainment writers have taken it upon themselves to provide you a handy list of rules, regulations, and provisos that will help ensure you don't wind up being the jackass who ruins a movie for everyone else. 

Dimension Films

Just turn off your phone. Seriously. Not on silent. Off.

Are you a doctor on call? Are you eagerly awaiting news about your grandfather's estate? Do you carry the nuclear "football" and need to maintain constant connection in case of disastrous all-out global war? Then why the hell are you at the movies?

Yes, of course something important might happen during the two or so hours you're sitting in theoretical rapt silence, but if you really can't handle the thought of going without your texts for that long, you either shouldn't be at the movies, or you could probably stand disconnecting for a couple hours. The only reason you think you need to log on to Twitter or look up the actors on IMDb mid-scene is because you're afraid. You can do this. You can turn off your phone at the movies. 

Oh, the light is distracting, too. 

Don't bring your entire dinner into the theater

We understand there's an illicit thrill to sneaking outside food into a movie theater. It's practical too: Sometimes you misjudge how long the line at Subway is going to be and simply must smuggle an entire cold-cut combo into a sparsely attended Transformers 5 matinee. The occasional left-field snack is fine. Hauling a multi-course feast into the theater and turning the place into your personal Benihana is not OK. If you're hiding dipping sauce in your pockets, fumbling with utensils, or loading zip-lock bags with cold spaghetti, then just do everyone a favor and stay home, where only your roommates have to listen to you chomp your way through Law & Order reruns.

Don't pound booze out of a soda cup and get plastered

Only a highly inebriated person believes the opening-night screening of the new Star Wars movie deserves his or her Mystery Science Theater 3000 commentary. Avoid being that person. While many theaters are introducing beer, wine, and cocktails to their menus, it's really the tradition of smuggling in an incognito drink that ruins a night out at a big, dumb movie. Either stick to the menu items or take a break from the hard stuff. Mountain Dew works!


Try to consume your food and drinks as quietly as possible

There's a way to chew popcorn and sip an overpriced soft drink without alienating the people sitting next to you. We recommend three tactics: (1) Don't scoop enormous mounds of popcorn into your mouth. (2) Chew with your mouth closed. (3) Don't suck every drop of liquid from the container and shake all the damn ice in the process. Also, as with most of these rules, it helps to read the room. If you're seated for a super-loud blockbuster at the multiplex, feel free to gobble a little louder, under the cover of explosions. If you're taking in the new Terrence Malick movie at the local arthouse, prep well and unwrap your 13 cough drops during the trailers.

Don't hog the armrests

If you find yourself in a theater with shared armrests and you don't know the person sitting next to you, be courteous about arm distribution. This is always more of an edge-of-the-elbow situation than a full-on forearm plop. Think of it like a roller coaster: Keep your hands and arms inside the ride at all times, and no spilling over the edge of the imaginary car that separates you from your unknown neighbor. If you're sitting on one of the aisles, or next to an empty seat, airplane rules definitely apply: Armrests to the poor soul who doesn't have as much breathing room as you. Don't be a psycho space vacuum.

Don't pre-react to the "good parts" of a movie you've seen before

Sometimes a movie is so good you have to see it twice and bring along a few friends for the second viewing. The onus is on you to pretend like you've never seen the movie before. Saying, "Oh shit, watch this, watch this!" to your companion or everyone in the row next to you is not a commendable act of public service. They are watching it. Instead of drawing attention to the story on screen, you're creating another distraction, sucking the air out of the funny or dramatic or twist ending "THAT YOU'LL NEVER SEE COMING OMG."

seinfeld movie theater the pool guy

Don't explain the movie while in the actual movie, no matter how confusing it is

"See, Matthew McConaughey used to be a test pilot, but now he's a farmer because the environment can only sustain corn crops, but now he's going to go into a black hole to save humanity, but by doing that he also jumps ahead in time, and now he's on another planet... " OK, NO, STOP. Movies aren't football games and you're not Joe Buck. Even if your company at the latest Christopher Nolan movie feels lost in the vastness of plot-twisty movie space, you're not there to hold hands and annotate the journey. For the sake of everyone else focusing on the picture so that they can understand what's going on, save the theory-laden lecture for when the lights come up.

Never spoil parts of the movie while waiting in line or in the lobby

On a similar note, if you're an indulgent internet kid who reads all about spoilers and rumors and the latest reactions to a movie's big twist ending, be aware of your surroundings both in and around the multiplex. Be aware of the fact that the person standing behind you in the concessions line might not have seen mother! yet, and therefore might not want to hear what you think any of it meant. In other words: What would a moviegoing Jesus do? Answer: Not spoil for others, as He would not want to be spoiled.

key and peele movie theater sketch
Comedy Central

Never shush

In moviegoing world, and in so many others, two wrongs don't make a right. Yes, it's annoying if you hear other people jabbering away, but when you take on the role of vigilante shusher, there's a chance you'll only exacerbate the problem, and a certainty that you'll come off as a self-righteous prick. Calmly ask loud talkers to quit it. If they don't, move seats or go ask a manager -- this isn't fifth grade and no one will call you a tattletale. Do NOT dump 10 tons of toxic noise pollution on your neighbor in the form of an extended shush. It's bad for the environment.

Don't treat movie theaters like hands-off day care

Taking care of kids is a Herculean physical and emotional challenge and we applaud everyone who attempts it. Many movie theaters understand the struggle, and attempt to alleviate the stress by offering free morning screenings of kids' movies to give parents and camp counselors a breather. But taking your kids to a movie theater is not carte blanche to let them do whatever they want. Just because you once saw an X-Men cartoon doesn't mean the R-rated Logan is the perfect place for a kid to play iPad games on a Saturday afternoon. You're an adult, so make the adult decision here.

confessions of a dangerous mind movie theater

Don't hook up

OK, if you're 15 and dying inside, fine, take the back corner of the latest Underworld sequel and go to town. But everyone else in literally every other moviegoing situation? Suppress the hormones and forego the tonsil hockey until you're back in the privacy of your own home. Dark conditions and modestly erotic content (e.g., Michael Fassbender in anything) make the movie theater an ideal place for an impromptu run around the bases. The movies themselves have convinced us this is something that people do and is totally acceptable. But if you're someone who can separate reality from fiction, don't snog at the theater. 

Don't groom yourself

Like so many other routine movie theater violations, this one could be avoided by going the extra mile -- hell, 300 feet -- to the bathroom. Sudden urges to primp hair, excavate the inner-workings of your ear, freshen up makeup, or cut your fingernails and make that snip snip snip sound that lives on its own dog-whistle-like wavelength (UUUUGH, MAKE IT STOP) should be resolved outside the confines of the theater. We know you don't want to miss any of the movie -- maybe cut yourself off from any self-management after the hour mark? -- but we also know you're a beautiful person who will 100% look fine when the lights come up.

And for the love of our nasal passages, please do not remove your shoes under any circumstance. We don't care if Steven Spielberg's new movie has the runtime of a transcontinental flight, you don't need to be that comfortable.

mr. bean at the cinema sketch

Never "save" a seat for someone who may or may not be coming

Wow, is your friend running late? So late they might not actually show up? Or wait, are you just "saving" a seat so someone doesn't sit right next to you? Don't save a seat that might need to be saved. You have until the trailers pop up to hold a seat with your coat. Then it's up for grabs. And if there's an empty seat on either side of you and a couple is clearly trying to find a place where they can sit together, please be human and move over.

Clean up after yourself

If you've ever worked at a large movie theater chain, you have witnessed the unthinkable. Imagine a child leaving a massive puddle of urine in a booster seat during a screening of the Kurt Russell superhero kids movie Sky High, which just lingered there untouched because apparently someone thought that urine cleanup is just part of the deal when you get a coveted job taking tickets for minimum wage. We say this not to gross you out, but just to establish what you probably already guessed: Most moviegoers are slobs, and they make life hell for the underpaid movie theater staff. On high-volume weekends, these workers have to rush through massive cleanings to turn over the theater for the next packed screening. It's a tough job. Don't be one of the people who makes it even harder by leaving a trail of garbage everywhere you go. (And if you're reading this and you're the parent of the kid who pissed himself during Sky High back in 2005, show yourself, coward.)

burn after reading movie theater
Focus Featuers

Don't go absolutely nuts laughing

Will Ferrell! Amy Poehler! Sacha Baron Cohen! Funny! Funny people who make movies! They want you to laugh it up! But if you find yourself laughing at the volume of the dialogue, you're drowning out the dialogue. Those people looking at you are not admiring your new haircut, they're wondering if man and walrus are really that different after all. Don't get us wrong: Laughing is great. We love laughing. But if you go capital-C crazy with your laughs, you're like the overserved guy at the football game who cheers so hard he throws up: You make something great very hard to enjoy. Rein it in so everyone can have fun.

Don't clap for moments of cinematic justice

As Jeb Bush's doppelgänger might say, "Please, don't clap." This falls under the same general idea of don't go nuts laughing (see above). While some movies demand audible reactions -- see any Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle in which the muscle man kills a goon then drops a pun -- and a little applause during the credits is a warranted expression of relief on the audience's part (finally, we paid to see a great film!), there's no need to draw attention to yourself by going rogue mid-movie and clapping up an enthusiasm storm. Keep the spotlight where it belongs: onscreen. The moving pictures can't hear you.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Follow the Thrillist Entertainment editors on Twitter: @ThrillistEnt.