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

BAD IDEAS FROM SMART PEOPLE

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 FirstShowing.net’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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