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Film Critic Calls 911 After Spotting Cell Phone Use At Press Screening

Many theater-goers are annoyed by cell phone use during films but one journalist at the Toronto International Film Festival took his response to the extreme yesterday – he called 911. 

I first started hearing about the incident last night on Twitter and was instantly boggled by the actions of’s founder Alex Billington. The owner/writer was attending a press and industry screening of The Sacrament when he noticed another member of the press using their cell phone. First, he went to theater management. He tweeted, “Arguing with theater manages that tell me that cell phones are allowed in theater while guy in FRONT ROW has it on the whole time. WTF.”

While I certainly don’t appreciate the use of cell phones in theaters, everyone has their own opinion on it. However, considering this was a press screening, I personally would give leeway for taking notes on the film considering it’s hard to write in the dark. But Billington did not want this particular distraction and spoke with TIFF officials about it as well. In a string of tweets he said:

Just told by TIFF that industry have the RIGHT to blatantly use phones in the film. They will ‘take my complaints’ but nothing can be done. They also claim that I am the only one who has ever complained about cell phone use at TIFF. So it’s now a major campaign to take action. I will be starting a petition & support group for any/all TIFF press & industry who want to voice their concerns about phones being allowed.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. Not receiving a satisfactory response, Billington called 911 to report “potential piracy” at the theater. And that’s when an incident which would have gotten a lot of sympathy and support turned into disgusted shock. Billington even said the 911 dispatcher he spoke with laughed at him. But after admitting what he did on Twitter, both regular movie fans as well as fellow critics felt the need to tell Billington he made a huge mistake.

Personally, I’m not sure how someone couldn’t see how calling 911 for a non-emergency was anything but a big dilemma. This went on for a while.

At least here in the United States, each state has different rules for qualifying what is and isn’t misuse of the 911 system but individuals have been known to incur fines or jail time for using the number to report non-emergencies. However, Billington insisted his calling of 911 wasn’t the topic to be talked about and that cell phone use in theaters was the bigger issue. Buzzfeed reached out to Billington for a comment:

The man in the front row had his phone out pointed towards the screen for the first 10 minutes. I complained once to the theater managers, who looked and said there was no one with their phone on. I returned, and 5 minutes later he had his phone out again in front of him, pointed towards the screen. I thought I might be witnessing an act of piracy, a major crime being committed, and wished to report it to the proper authorities.

The call made was to report an act of piracy in progress, a major crime that many signs around TIFF remind people is a punishable offense. I simply requested that an officer confront and confirm that he was not pirating. Another 10 minutes later, a venue manager intercepted the report and responded claiming he was only texting, and subsequently stated he had the right to use his phone in this screening. My complaints at that time, based on their response, turned to the policy of TIFF and allowing phones to be used.

Even though theater officials and those from TIFF did not seem to think the phone user was recording anything, Billington says he assumed piracy was taking place. Coincidentally enough, someone in the comment section of the Buzzfeed story pointed to another article by Devin Faraci, which reported on Billington’s own use of cell phones to tweet during a movie theater experience back in 2009. Of course, people can change their mind about what is and isn’t acceptable over time. For his part, Billington today says he made a mistake.

Although in his initial tweets concerning discussions with staff, Billington only mentioned telling them about cell phone use and not piracy, I think many would disagree “the policy” was the bigger issue in this particular instance. In my mind, Billington did a disservice to the issue he cared about by misusing 911.

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  • Anonymous

    I am firmly in the ‘put your damn phone away, you frickin’ jackass’ camp but calling 911 is pretty indefensible.

  • Gerald Kirby

    Film piracy is not a “major crime” in Canada. The victims are never in any physical danger, so calling 911 was a waste of his time own time and that of the 911 operator.

  • OwlMouse

    I once had to call 911 to rescue an injured robin at college. We had pretty much tried every other avenue, and this was what campus security as well as an animal clinic told us to do. 911 was totally on their A-game (I guess this happens on…a semi-frequent basis in PA?) and a nice cop showed up with gloves and everything. He checked to see if the bird’s wing was broken and left with the robin afterward. (I guess it counts as an emergency from the bird’s perspective though.)

  • RodimusBen

    What an ass.

  • Anonymous

    Well, other than getting up, it’s safe to assume that all of his other actions were outside the theater and, thus, not a disruption at all. As for telling the person to politely put it away, I have done that before to mixed results (a few months ago, it actually turned into a violent confrontation!) so I don’t have a problem with the guy taking it to management.

  • Anonymous

    Larry David WISHES he’d thought of this.

  • OwlMouse

    Duly noted! We were without Internet access at the time so it was a big game of phone tag. My phone wasn’t (and still isn’t) very smart.

  • Anonymous

    But there was a crime going on maybe! After all:


  • Anonymous

    I’m glad he taught us what the real danger was: potential piracy.

    (This is like an Alan Partridge sketch.)

  • Sarah Brockman

    Having volunteered at Sundance for several years, this is incredibly frustrating. Press and Industry screenings are specifically for people to take notes on so they don’t do so in general screenings. Thus, there will be technology allowed (especially now that iPads are more popular than pen and paper) that would normally raise flags in a general screening. If you don’t like that, fine, skip the P&I screenings and go to a general one, but realize that getting a pass that allows you into restricted showings comes with a few rules that might be different from everyone else.

    Regarding staff (most likely unpaid volunteers) enforcing anti-piracy: it is incredibly difficult, especially in this day and age where phones are ubiquitous, to combat piracy without potentially alienating and embarrassing innocent movie-goers. In a theater of 300 or more, having someone pull out their phone to check on a text and get distracted on Facebook is hard to distinguish from someone recording the film. Accusing someone of piracy is a delicate situation, especially when most volunteers working the event don’t have the authority to ask someone to hand over their phone/device to check for pirated material (we don’t get blanket warrants for this).

    Festivals have a process in place, and usually the person making the call is someone much higher up the chain than anyone at the theater. I get that the guy was frustrated – any film festival is going to be a 10-day monster full of no sleep, constantly working and networking, running to the next film, and hoping that you get to see maybe 1/3 of what’s on your must-see list, so tempers run high. But that’s no reason to make a massive scene over something that can be handled quietly. I really hope the guy gets his press pass revoked next year so the staff doesn’t have to deal with him again.

  • kat

    I will admit (having been to two industry screenings at TIFF this year), there are some mixed messages to this because before the films, they were running a title card asking people to please power off and put away their cellphones.

    But I really don’t think it was as big a deal as Alex Billington is making it out to be (and this is me saying this, after having to sit next to a woman who kept pulling out her phone to check the time during the screening) and TIFF does take piracy pretty seriously. There were even anti-piracy squads of security guards wandering around while I was waiting for my screening and checking any of the larger bags that were being carried in.

  • kat

    It is a disruption to theatre staff though. During TIFF, the theatre that hosts the industry screening turns into absolute chaos and if I was a manager, I’d be kind of annoyed at having to divert my attention from the million and one other things going on, to deal with some guy who was complaining about a cellphone in a theatre, especially if he’d already been told there was nothing they could do (or were apparently allowing press to use their phones in the screenings?)

  • Anonymous

    Yup. 911 calls are for life and death situations, ONLY.

  • Anonymous

    Yup. 911 calls are for life and death situations, ONLY.

  • MeatyStakes

    Yeah, bit it’s not an emergency.

  • MeatyStakes

    I’d say that pretty much all “white collar” crimes aren’t classified as emergencies, and they shouldn’t be reported to 911, which is pretty much for life or death situations.

  • Bert Yelverton

    This is probably the most press that guy’s site is ever going to get.

  • Anonymous

    It’s bad enough that we sue one another over any perceived injustice, now we’re calling 911 every time someone does something that we don’t like? Wouldn’t be surprised to hear that someone called 911 to report that Superman didn’t try hard enough to save more citizens of Metropolis in Man of Steel and that the filmmakers should be arrested.

  • Anonymous

    This PSA has led me to believe otherwise. Why would they say “REPORT IT” if they didn’t mean “directly to the police, if not the Prime Minister”?

  • Elias Algorithm

    Yeah I’m sorry but if I can’t get EMTs because some chucklehead abused the system, I’m making sure your fans know what a jerk you are.

  • king mas’e

    did u really just ask that? so if someone steals my lunch at work i should call the police? as it’s stealing and stealing is a crime? smmfh

  • Anonymous

    “having someone pull out their phone to check on a text and get distracted on Facebook is hard to distinguish from someone recording the film”
    Well, let’s start with, “Are the pointing their phone at the screen”?
    And as far as I’m concerned, if they’re holding their phone portrait, let them record. Pirates deserve a little narrow picture that only fills a sliver of the screen.

  • Anonymous

    Uh, no, obviously you wouldn’t call the police. For stolen lunches you would call the Prime Minister.

    (If you don’t have a Prime Minister in your country, call Bill Pullman. He is very presidential and he knows Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith. They’ll take care of it.)