NEW YORK – The next time you talk on your cellphone in a movie theater, beware: Your neighbors are listening.
Regal Entertainment Group (RGC), the largest U.S. movie theater chain, is arming moviegoers with a new gadget that allows them to call in the ushers and remove unruly audience members with the press of a button.
"Cell phones drive us crazy," Regal Chief Executive Michael Campbell told the Reuters Media Summit in New York on Wednesday.
"We had gotten to the point ... where we have had people getting into physical battles in theaters. One customer will say to another 'Shut off your cell phone' or 'Shut up' ... We've had people assaulted with bats, knives, guns."
Regal is testing devices at 25 of its theater locations, handing them out to frequent customers and may roll it out nationwide in the next year if it proves successful, Campbell said.
Regal operates 6,400 screens nationwide.
About the size of a pager, the gadget has four buttons. One alerts theater managers about a disruption in the audience, such as a fight over a cell phone.
A second button gives notice of faulty movie projection, a third button can be pressed if the room temperature is off and a fourth button, marked "Other," covers any other problem.
The device is part of Regal's efforts to keep fans coming back to the box office by making sure they still enjoy the experience, even as the movie industry faces greater competition from other media such as the Internet or video games.
"The biggest problem we have is we don't know when this [cell phone disruption] is occurring in your theaters until it's too late," Campbell said. "A lot of customers won't say anything, they just will complain on their way out or in the worst case scenario, they don't come back."
Movie goers offered the tracking device tend to be more "mature" audience members and are given a free popcorn for their efforts, he said.
But the bigger problem seems to lie with a whole generation of youngsters who cannot disconnect from their cell phones, instant messaging and other devices even as they sit down in a public theater.
"Back when I was a teenager there was still a reverence ... for the movie-going experience," Campbell said. "You knew when you went in that you weren't supposed to talk, you weren't supposed to disturb anybody."
Today's teenagers believe its fine to "multi-task" and use multiple devices at the same time as they sit in a packed auditorium.
"They think they can do everything at the same time and everybody else is going to be OK with that and it's just not," he added.