Hold Your Applause: The Case For and Against Clapping in a Cinema
I recently polled various groups of people, including a movie-centric forum, a Facebook group of people who are fans of a local theater that screen cult favorite movies every other Saturday at midnight, my own friends, Flickcharters, and the Twitterverse. I asked, “Do you applaud at the movies?” Reply options were:
- Never. Don’t be silly.
- Only at the end.
- Only if others go first.
- Absolutely! If there’s a great line or a badass moment, I clap!
I’ve received quite a lot of responses in all venues where I have posed the query, and I can say without question that the vast majority of respondents not only do not applaud at movies themselves, but they have an open hostility toward the stupidity of those who do. I’ve previously shared some of my favorite movie-going experiences, but conspicuously I only commented on laughing with audiences at comedies or watching them gasp and shriek at horror movies—both commonly expected and accepted reactions to movies in public by adults who have been to a theater more than a few times in their lives. Why, then, is applause a second-class reaction? One response reads, “I honestly view it as only people who never go to the actual theater applaud at movies. They just think it’s something they should do, without realizing why it’s ridiculous.” Another respondent said in part, “having people around me applaud the end (?) of Titanic cemented my belief that, yes, there are a lot of stupid people in the world.” A third simply denounced the entire thing by noting, “No. I’m an adult.”
Applause, then, is a faux pas committed by the immature and/or rubes too unsophisticated to realize how pathetic it is to applaud a recording. They’re the kind of people who don’t know which fork to use for their salad, or that you should actively keep swirling your glass of wine to bring it to life. If Pretty Woman had included a scene at a cinema, Richard Gere would have been exasperated to witness Julia Roberts applaud.
There are exceptions, though. For instance, there is a Harry Potter exemption, apparently, “in which case, everyone applauds whenever the impulse strikes.” I suspect our scornful adult respondents would simply dismiss this as merely another demonstration of the immaturity of Potter fans. Another respondent raised another loophole: “Clapping at the end of awesome midnight movies is expected.” Having attended several (though nowhere near as many as I would like), I can attest to that level of expectation. I have never left a midnight movie screening that did not end with audience applause.
Also, at film festivals where actors, directors, etc. are in attendance, it is considered reasonable to applaud. I’ve witnessed this myself; an actor’s first on-screen appearance is commonly sufficient for a quick reaction, as is his or her name appearing in the credits (opening and closing). This segment of respondents seems to be of the mind that applause is wasted unless someone who matters is there to hear it. So why would our midnight screenings—not attended by cast or crew—be an acceptable venue for applause?
The answer can be found in sociology. Rather than quote an actual sociologist, though, I’ll defer to one respondent who says, “It depends, if I enjoyed the movie and the crowd is having fun, then yes, I’ll clap. It’s the interaction with the people in the theater, the fun of the movie, being happy that I didn’t pay $10.50 for a piece of crap.” Applause, then, may not be intended for the ears of anyone responsible for the film, but rather for ourselves; we do not clap for them, we clap for us.
A 2003 study by Cornell University modeled applause. Their study was not specific to applause in movie theaters, but rather to events of a certain level of “impressiveness” in general. The research ought to be valid as applied to movies as to any other event, though, so I invoke it now to explore this subject. They determined that, “Applause starts quicker than it ends. If an applauder is not joined by others, they typically stop clapping.” Furthermore, “Events of low impressiveness predictably result in few individuals clapping for a short time. Beyond a certain ‘impressiveness threshold,’ virtually everyone starts applauding. Further increases in impressiveness yield longer applause times of the whole audience.”
The linchpin of the whole process is in the second of the five steps: “People with low embarrassment thresholds (those not easily embarrassed) begin to applaud and lower the embarrassment cost for others in the audience.” If the easily embarrassed feel secure, they are prone to join the applause but otherwise they refrain and those who initiated the applause quickly cease.
I can say with certainty that the audience at the Louisville Palace was not easily embarrassed on the night of 27 August 2011 as they attended a screening of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. During one scene in which Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) holds class, immigrant Nora Ericson (Jeanette Nolan) explains the nature of American government:
“The United States is a republic, and a republic is a state in which the people are the boss. That means us. And if the big shots in Washington don’t do like we vote, we don’t vote for them, by golly, no more.”
Outside of ballparks and concerts, I have rarely witnessed the kind of applause that moment earned. It spoke to our collective frustration as we have witnessed complete dysfunction in our political system throughout the year, and while I’m sure we would not have all agreed on the source of that dysfunction, we clearly relished the prospect of our next election day. The film, then, spoke to us as much as an audience as it spoke to us as individuals. Again, it is the communal element of seeing a movie in a theater that may invite applause.
Which are you: an unsophisticated, childish rube who commits the faux pas of applauding a movie that can’t hear you, or an easily embarrassed, anti-social curmudgeon?
I can tell you that I am an applauder. I rarely applaud during a movie but I nearly always applaud at the end unless my wife is holding my hand. I do not have a particularly low embarrassment threshold, though I will quickly quit if not joined by others. I applaud to express that I had a good time; perhaps I was amazed or merely amused, but I nearly always enjoy going to the theater. After all, that was the entire point of going, wasn’t it?
This post is part of our User Showcase series. You can find Travis as minlshaw on Flickchart. If you’re interested to submit your own story or article describing your thoughts about movies and Flickchart, read our original post for how to become a guest writer here on the Flickchart Blog.