Film Critic Who Called 911 on Cell Phone User: “I Realize My Mistake”

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Press and industry screenings (or “P&Is,” as they’re commonly dubbed) are standard practice at film festivals, and are fairly simple affairs: an opportunity for media and industry types to view festival films away from the hustle and crowds of packed public screenings. Trouble is, the two halves of the P&I equation are often at odds in those screening rooms: press people are there to view and (usually) write about the films, and are thus looking for a distraction-free movie-watching experience, while industry types are “working,” which can apparently translate to spending much of the movie staring into the light of a smartphone. Yesterday, at the Toronto International Film Festival, a film blogger decided he’d had enough, and did the only logical thing: he called the police. Wait, what?

The blogger’s name is Alex Billington, and he’s the founder of a very good news-and-reviews site called First Showing. In an email interview, he told me that, while at yesterday’s screening of Ti West’s new film The Sacrament, “a man took out his phone in the front row and pointed it up towards the screen. I left and complained to theater managers, who said that nothing could be done. I returned and 5 minutes later his phone was out, pointed towards the screen, being used constantly. I was concerned that he was pirating and left the theater to contact the authorities to report what I thought was a crime in progress.”

He has since deleted the Tweet announcing his action (“it was my mistake that I wrote that tweet,” he told me) — but not his retweet of another film blogger’s response:

Response among film writers on Twitter was swift and divided — some cheering Billington’s actions, others calling it out as irresponsible grandstanding. I assumed it was just a movie geek story, to be debated and (most likely) giggled about among ourselves, but now it’s gone national, with write-ups from ABC, BuzzFeed, and the AP, among others (many of them, to be fair, omitting the piracy claim). The slant is, to put it mildly, critical — and for good reason.

Look, no one’s more irritated by the proliferation of electronics at the movies, and if nowhere else, a press screening at a film festival should be a safe haven from the irritation of lit screens. (Here’s a very funny piece by Eric D. Snider, voicing that frustration.) TIFF’s policy of allowing phone use in P&Is (“TIFF staff later told me that the policy is anyone in Press & Industry have the right to use any device in any way they want,” Billington says) but not at public screenings is befuddling and nonsensical. And if an act of piracy against an unreleased film was in fact taking place at a major film festival, festival staff should have dealt with it.

These are all genuine concerns. But by picking up his phone and dialing the number designated for police emergencies, Billington pulled the focus away from all of them, to his own act of utter overreaction. You see, Billington wasn’t just stopping an act of piracy. He was taking a stand. “If it’s wrong to report potential piracy to authorities, then how will piracy ever be stopped,” he tweeted. “If it’s not taken seriously, it will remain.” Three hours later, he added: “I’m trying to make a difference for the better, if that’s so grating I’m sorry. Changes need to be made and drastic measures are called for.” When someone pointed out that calling 911 about cell phone use is dangerously irresponsible and a waste of police resources, Billington insisted, “No resources were used. You have no real evidence to claim otherwise… Piracy is dangerous, that’s what I was most concerned about.”

And then there was this:

As this whole thing unfolded, I couldn’t help but think of the Daily Kos. (Go with me on this.) My politics are unabashedly progressive, and have been for decades. I consider myself actively engaged, and easily worked up on issues that matter to me (income inequality, women’s health, LGBT rights, public schools, etc.). And though they line up in exactly the same way, I can’t fucking read the Daily Kos. The tone is so strident, the self-importance so overblown, the ideological purity so oppressive, they start making me question my own beliefs (i.e., Jesus Christ, do I come off like that?).

And that’s where I think a lot of critics and concerned moviegoers are on this issue. Cell phones in theaters — whether for piracy, texting, or Candy Crush — is out of control. Press screenings at film festivals should have a more stringent policy on them, not less. But you don’t go calling goddamn 911 about it, because that’s insane. In our interview today, he admitted, “I made a heat of the moment gaffe that lead to this news being reported… I realize my mistake in calling the wrong number to report piracy, but this isn’t the issue and I think this side is being blown way out of proportion. The much bigger issue is rampant cell phone use and the industry’s disregard for the cinematic experience at TIFF.”

But by making that “gaffe,” he’s insured that the “bigger issue” will go ignored. The story has gone beyond the film bloggerati — most of whom are taking to Twitter today, insisting that it’s time to “move on,” seemingly not realizing that a pickup by Gawker means the exact opposite is going to happen. “Cell phones at film festival screenings” isn’t the story now; “movie blogger calls 911 about cell phones” is, prompting the same jeers as the woman who called 911 because McDonald’s was out of McNuggets, or the woman who called 911 because there wasn’t enough shrimp in her shrimp fried rice, or the man who called 911 because he couldn’t get into a nightclub. People aren’t talking about the bigger issue. They’re laughing at the guy who’s so worked up about it — and there’s no quicker way to change a potentially worthwhile subject.