The smartwatch: the new enemy of cinema?

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Mobile phones in cinemas? Well, most of us are good at switching those off. But what about the increasing influx of light-up smartwatches?

A confession.

I am a diligent cinemagoer. When I go and watch a movie, I make sure that by the time the film is about to start, my phone is either switched off entirely, or on silent. No light comes from it, and certainly not the slightest hint of a beep or novelty ringtone. If I’m with anyone, I’m the irritating person who checks that they’re turned theirs off too. Sure, I give at best a British tut if someone pulls a phone out mid-film, but I do my best not to spoil a movie for others in the cinema. Basic manners, right?

In tandem with that, I wear one of those fitness watches. A cheap Fitbit in my case. I don’t treat the thing as gospel, but undoubtedly I’ve made sure I walk around a lot more when I’m wearing it, so it’s done me more harm than good. And it’s become my day to day watch as well.

You know where this is going.

During a recent cinema visit, at my multiplex of choice, I became aware of a strange light that kept coming on during the movie. I was outraged, and was all too ready to prepare a quality Paddington-style hard stare in the direction of the perpetrator. And then it turned out it was my sodding watch going off. Not the massive beacon of light you sometimes get from a phone, but undoubtedly an welcome little beam in an otherwise dark room.

That’s because the particular model of watch I wear lights up to show me the time whenever my wrist moves suddenly (behave). Somewhere in the manual that I’ve long not read – they don’t even give you a printed copy these days, in my weak defence – there is presumably an option to switch this off. Yet as someone who happily programmed ZX Spectrums in my youth, I’m buggered if I can find the option to switch the thing off.

Bottom line: I’ve become the problem in the cinema, and I was mortified.


Next time I went to the local multiplex, I tried a few options. I put the watch in my top bottom, but it was like a mini Christmas tree next to my moobs. I put it in my trouser pocket, which worked, but wasn’t a fat lot of use when I wanted to check how much time was left, and if I could hold out without a toilet trip. In the end, I just buried it under my coat. Seemed the courteous thing to do.

But the bigger problem was when I looked around. I realised that I was in a relatively well behaved screening, a delight in itself, but that one in three people – to my estimate – was sporting some flavour of smartwatch. More to the point, some flavour of smartwatch that was offering some form of illumination. Turned out I didn’t need my own watch to tell me the time, I was in a row full of alternate options.

Now the light from these gadgets is nothing close to the beam emitted by the everyday smartphone, but it’s still a distraction. And appreciating I’m a reformed sinner here, I pay for a cinema ticket so I can watch the film in the best possible environment. I actually love watching a film with other people too, in an audience, where we’re communally enjoying (hopefully) the movie itself.

Read more: Might it be time to bring back the interval at the cinema?

But for that to work, there can’t be distractions. I choose my screenings carefully to do so, trying to pick the showtimes where I gamble that people are most likely to actually be engaged with the film itself. Then, it turned out, I brought a distraction in with me.

Given that it’s getting to the point where more of us than not have some kind of light-emitting gadget on our wrists, and given just how lit up the last film I saw in a multiplex turned out to be, I do wonder if – added to that warning that everyone ignores about switching off your mobile phone – that cinema companies should be adding another warning for everybody to ignore about dimming the lights on your smartwatch too.

For me, I make sure that – in lieu of a manual or some form of user interact that makes actual sense – I now put my rusty Fitbit somewhere where both the light won’t shine and I won’t do myself personal damage (again, behave). It feels like a small courtesy at worst, but – should rows of people be shining these things more and more as time goes on – a chance to nip in the bud a potential new enemy of cinema relatively early.

Now I’ve done that, I can go back to complaining about stinky nachos…

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