TIFF 2013: Blogger’s 911 call ignites cellphone use debate


Cellphone use at movie theaters is a modern etiquette dilemma that inspires heated debates and occasional popcorn throwing.

But a blogger’s call to 911 during a Toronto International Film Festival screening Monday has kicked the issue up a level.

Alex Billington, president and owner of the movie website, said he called 911 during a press and industry screening of Ti West’s horror movie “The Sacrament” to object to an audience member using his cellphone in one of the front rows.


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“I literally just called 911 & reported piracy to the police,” Billington tweeted. “I cannot believe that TIFF is allowing this disregard for the integrity of cinema and letting disgusting industry ruin experiences.”

Although screenings can feel like life or death events to those within the bubble-like environment of a film festival, the 911 operator apparently did not agree -- he laughed, according to Billington, and did not dispatch authorities to the theater.

Nevertheless, Billington’s call and subsequent irate tweets from the screening stirred up a discussion about cellphone use at the festival, which is the North American launching pad for many movies and an unofficial kickoff to Oscar season.

Billington said he first spoke to TIFF staff at the theater about the cellphone user, who he believed was recording the movie in order to pirate it. He said theater staff informed him that cellphone use was permitted at the screening, which is intended for an audience of studio executives, agents, managers, publicists and journalists who are conducting business at the festival.

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In general, TIFF is a more relaxed environment than the strict Cannes International Film Festival in May, where cinephile audience members will often verbally shame cellphone users into turning off their devices.

While cellphone use is discouraged at Toronto screenings, it is not strictly policed. A spokeswoman for TIFF said that though the festival does have an official policy about piracy, it does not have one on cellphone use in press and industry screenings.

“Unauthorized recording of a film is a criminal offence and security measures, including night vision goggles, may be used at screenings,” TIFF’s vice president of communications and content management, Jennifer Bell, said in an email statement. “The Festival does not have a policy on cellphone use in press and industry screenings but we do ask all audiences to turn off and store phones and smart phones.... We have taken the journalist’s feedback under consideration but the Festival does not have plans to change policy for the 2013 Festival.”

Reached by phone on his way into another screening on Tuesday, Billington said that his reaction was out of proportion, but that he thinks the festival’s cellphone policy should be evaluated.

“Calling 911 is something I realize was a mistake,” Billington said. “But ... the issue is cellphone use. It’s a rampant problem.”



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