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Close Encounters of the Multiplex Kind: In Defence of Big Screen Viewing

06/03/2013 14:05 GMT | Updated 05/05/2013 10:12 BST

Sit down. Shut up. Watch the film. Whittled to a more brand-friendly tagline by the copywriters at Orange Wednesdays, and looped into the internal monologues of every banter-adjacent punter in the cinema, this is a code by which one should always comport oneself at the movies. Hell, in life.

Nevertheless, all the Cineworld's a stage, and while public decorum and social anxiety are usually the remit of the more neurotically-inclined, with a surreptitious snoop at your screenfellows - best achieved in the dramatic downtime one usually identifies as a good point to nip to the John (opportune moments include when Ryan Gosling stares into the middle distance, or when Jason Segel says anything at all) - it is apparent that the sociological drama played out in the Coke-soaked aisles of the cinema can be as potent as much of the action you paid to see. You're ten quid down, but with a ringside seat to your own little Britain.

Movie theatre occupants come in the usual array of styles and vintages, but filtered by genre and time of day. Know your demographics. Take the matinée comedy: potentially a hotspot for quixotic lunch dates, but in all likelihood a seedy affair in which Jeremy Kyle is substituted for a bigger screen and less emotional voltage. These guys are pros, mostly keeping themselves to themselves, but the nagging feeling that the rest of the world is up to something more productive can engender solidarity from across the rows of vacant seats. Really though, you should be at work.

The evening biopic, on the other hand, is a regular Rick's Bar for the learned septuagenarian. This group can usually be relied upon for polite company, but prepare for audibly-whispered pre- and post-match analyses, à la that annoying guy in the queue in Annie Hall. And as for the teenage date-movie, well, you knew what you were getting into.

Anomalies of seating which leave you third-wheeling on other people's dates must be viewed as secondary comedic opportunities. The acquisition of a cinema-buddy is a minefield of subtextual intent which can prove a real treat for third party observation - an invite is laden with all the suggestiveness of a virtual "Poke" but without the pre-rejection escape lane of "actually, that was a Frape". As the proposer of the one-on-one movie date, shrewd picture selection is key, and a dead giveaway of intentions and appraisal of chances. Misjudgement in this area can lead to skin-crawling awkwardness (anything by Lars von Trier or featuring Stifler's mum is a definite no-no).

Consider, though, your own party. The people sat in your immediate vicinity can make or break your movie experience. Parents require a similar censorship process to that aforementioned for dates; Django Unchained being a recent personal misfire, eliciting only the response, "Christ darling, I can't understand why he needed to use the 'N-word' so much". Conversely, large groups are a risky but potentially profitable strategy - collective enthusiasm can quickly turn into wild rowdiness if the film incites mob rule. When it comes to projectile popcorn, there's safety in numbers.

It is with regret, therefore, that I report the dwindling of cinema attendance over the past decade. The causes are self-evident (flagrant profiteering; unfortunate 3D eyewear; a few too many X-Men instalments), but the loss is palpable. Huddling around a fifteen-inch screen bingeing on pizza and Breaking Bad is no substitute for a social and cultural institution which has proved such a bounty of fun on both sides of the fourth wall. Contrary to expectations, the serial cinemagoer is at heart a rather social animal. It's time he woke up and smelled the popcorn.