TIFF's Embarrassing Problem - Rampant Industry Cell Phone Abuse
by Alex Billington
September 16, 2013
"We can't afford to let ourselves be guided by contemporary cultural standards—particularly now..." -M. Scorsese on cinema. Last week at the Toronto International Film Festival, my story and name made headlines around the world. But for all the wrong reasons. I love TIFF, I've been attending for seven years and hope to return for many more. But the fest has an embarrassing problem with rampant cell phone use during Press & Industry screenings. And I am the first person in the festival's history to stand up to it, say something about it, and make a ruckus big enough to actually draw the attention of the festival's decision-makers. It's time for them to make a change. It's time for this repulsive problem to be brought to light and for the festival to once again set a precedent for preserving the profoundly affecting experience of cinema.
After a long week of seeing films, fielding interviews, and keeping up with running and writing for the site, it's finally time to address this issue head on. TIFF is the world's largest film festival (based on attendance and the number of films they show) and they work with three groups: the public, the press, and the industry. Public screenings, which anyone can buy tickets to, are usually well-maintained and carefully monitored by a massive staff of volunteers. Press & Industry screenings are offered to accredited members of the press, and the industry, for work - whether that might be buying, selling, reviewing, critiquing or promoting. They are called Press and Industry screenings to accommodate the large numbers of attendees from both sides.
Over the last few years with the rise of mobile technology, the industry side of the fest has become rampant with abusers of technology who seem to have no respect for other attendees or the theatrical experience. During most Press & Industry (P&I) screenings, a handful of people in the screening will often take out their phones/iPads/laptops and begin to do "work" right in the middle of the film. Sometimes this happens at the very beginning, sometimes half-way through. Over the seven years I've been attending TIFF, the problem has become worse in the last two years (going unchecked or uncriticized), reaching a head in 2013 during a P&I screening of Ti West's The Sacrament held on Monday morning. That's where things got a little crazy.
In years past, I have left the theater and spoken with festival staff and theater managers in attempt to solve the problem. This achieves nothing. Not only are the staff uninterested in helping, but they will repeatedly tell you that the policy is that cell phones (and any devices) can be used unchecked. How else is this problem supposed to be addressed if none of the staff will even hear your complaint. It's as if I'm in the wrong for even complaining because, they'll say, since these are Press & Industry screenings people are there to work and are allowed to work in the middle of a screening if they wish. Seriously?! That is simply unacceptable.
On the Monday morning at TIFF, I sat down with my friend/colleague Ed Douglas of ComingSoon to watch a P&I screening of Ti West's The Sacrament. Within minutes of the film starting, a man sitting in the very front row of the theater took out his phone, held it out in front of him pointed towards the screen at full brightness and started "working". I left the theater after five minutes to complain to the theater staff that a man was using his phone, he might be pirating, and should be confronted. They went in once, but he had put the phone away, so they told me they didn't see him and couldn't do anything. So I returned to my seat.
Another five minutes later, the same person sitting in the very front row took out his phone again, at full brightness (I could only see a bright white spot), and pointed it towards the screen directly in front of him. He kept using it like this for 10 minutes. At this point I became very concerned. Is he taking photos of the screen? Is he pirating? And the theater staff won't do anything about it? Who will? Anyone? So I called the police. Alas, being up in Canada, I called the first number that came to mind to reach the police - 911. It was a big mistake, a heat of the moment gaffe, as I only wanted to report what I thought was potential piracy. The 911 dispatcher seemed to chuckle and said they would send an officer. I was off the call in 60 seconds.
As I began to tweet my story and explain my actions, the rest of the world seemed to blow up over the wrong side of my story. Yes, I called 911, but that was my own mistake and I have since learned a big lesson about taking time to find the right contact in the future (a local Toronto police officer tweeted at me the next day with the correct number). I feel a considerable amount of remorse, and I fully understand that I mistakenly called the wrong number to report piracy. But that's not the issue here, and yet everything suddenly began to be overshadowed by my actions. The 911 call obviously escalated the issue as high as it would go and I was soon confronted by two more TIFF executive staffers for a discussion outside as I missed the rest of the film.
In response to missing half of the film, TIFF's press office offered me a ticket to a later public screening of The Sacrament, which was their way of assuring me that no phone would ruin it again (see my tweet below).
Note: this photo was taken 30 minutes before the screening started; this slide is part of the pre-show.
There is a slide that is shown before every screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (seen above). It even shows in front of every P&I screening. This slide clearly states: "Please remember to turn off your cellphones, smartphones, and camera and put them away during the screening. Thank you." There is also an anti-piracy slide that shows before every screening, including P&I, that says "please turn off your electronic devices" in order to prevent piracy. TIFF doesn't follow their own rules, as far as I can tell. These slides are only meant for the public. I was explicitly told by TIFF staff in our discussion there is a separate policy for P&I screenings, and they do allow any devices to be used in P&I screenings. So why do they show this slide?
My tweets written while I was having a discussion with various staff members working for the cinemas and for TIFF's "Communications" (aka PR) Department best capture my frustration with their policy. They have since denied that they have any policies, which doesn't make sense. Was I lied to by the staff at the time? Or are they lying in their official statement? Because there is a policy and there is a major difference between P&I and public screenings yet they don't want anyone to know this. But I'm telling you now that their official policy is to allow anyone in P&I screenings to use any technology any way they want during P&I screenings.
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 #TIFF
— Alex Billington (@firstshowing) September 9, 2013
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.
— Alex Billington (@firstshowing) September 9, 2013
They told me I should goto only public screenings if I don't like phones used. Which doesn't make sense because these are PRESS & industry.
— Alex Billington (@firstshowing) September 9, 2013
To clear the air, I am not narcissistic and my goal is not to bring any extra attention to myself or this website at all. My only goal here is to get TIFF to understand how embarrassing, repulsive and frustrating this problem/policy is and to change it. After two years of complaining to their staff to no avail, escalation was necessary. I made a mistake in my method, but nonetheless I have successfully shined the light on TIFF's embarrassing problem with industry cell phone use. It is unacceptable. There is no reason that any of these industry members should be using their phones/devices. It's disrespectful to the rest of the audience, and disrespectful to the film itself and the filmmakers who made it. They should have their TIFF badges revoked.
I have attended press screenings, and "market" or "industry" screenings, at film festivals all over the world - at Sundance, Cannes, Telluride, New York, Los Angeles. I rarely ever have problems at those fests and when I have complained, the staff talks with the offender on the phone and the problem is quickly solved. It seems to be only TIFF that is insistent on a policy of allowing devices unchecked at P&I screenings. The big reason being that they must cater to the "industry", and the industry needs to work (apparently during screenings). I don't know about everyone else, but it literally makes me sick to think it's acceptable for anyone in the industry to disrespect a film or audience by doing "work" in the middle of a screening where press are also working. Press are there to review the film, and that means experiencing it uninterrupted, distraction free.
It's absurd to claim any of these reprehensible industry people are "working". They are not working. They've totally checked out of the film they're (supposed to be) watching and are too lazy, and too disrespectful, to step out of the theater to send an email, respond to a text or call a friend/co-worker (or whatever they need to do). Instead, they selfishly sit still (usually in the front row because they came late) and distract everyone else in the theater, ruining the experience for every other audience member. Our job as press is to see the film in a perfect setting so we can judge and criticize that film purely on its own merits - not whether the viewing experience was good or bad. That's all I ask for - a pristine experience at all film festival screenings.
Cell phone use at TIFF is a serious problem, and for several years NOBODY has listened or helped me. It ruins the experience.
— Brad (@bradmiska) September 10, 2013
Since the topic is up: TIFF, a marvelous, wonderful festival, has a REAL cellphone in P&I screening problem. Adjustments need to be made.
— Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman6) September 9, 2013
I cannot believe that TIFF is allowing this disregard for the integrity of cinema and letting disgusting industry ruin experiences. #TIFF13
— Alex Billington (@firstshowing) September 9, 2013
I've spoken with and I'm friends with many prominent members of the industry, from marketing executives to agents/managers to production presidents, who do not ever take out their phone to "work" in the middle of a screening. They happily and successfully work in this industry because they have respect for the art and for the filmmakers, and they know better than to ruin the experience for the rest of an audience just to work. If they really need to do any work, they will leave the theater, or discreetly and quickly send a text while keeping their phone in their lap on the lowest brightness. Any industry members who argue with this should not be in this industry, and should be shamed for their abhorrent disregard for integrity. So who are they?
In response to Todd Brown's rather well-written editorial on Huffington Post, he misses the boat entirely. While Brown began as a member of the press, he has transitioned into the industry (as a producer for XYZ Films). He barely mentions that these are Press and Industry screenings, and instead focuses solely on the notion that buying and selling films only happens in the middle of screenings. "This particular screening was for industry buyers," he claims. Yes, but it was also for press to review. And we're just as important as the buyers. "Yes, it's a nuisance for those who just want to watch the film, but if putting up with a few bright lights is the cost of free access to hundreds of films with no need to fight for tickets and stand in line with the public, then so be it... It's always been this way." And now it's time to change that policy for the better.
As much as I admire and respect the work Brown does and love his website TwitchFilm (which I've been reading since before I started this site) maybe he needs to take a big step back. Maybe this is his confession that he doesn't respect audiences, or the cinematic experience, and that he's as reprehensible as the few who claim they need to work in a screening. In his article, he fails to even consider the action of stepping outside of a screening to do work, to send an email, to buy the film. If the folks who run the industry and distribute films are so disrespectful, why wouldn't those detestable sensibilities then trickle down? If TIFF won't set a precedent for respecting all audience members, then they're directly responsible for perpetuating disrespect.
It doesn't make sense that an industry member, say a buyer for a distributor, would all of a sudden want to buy a film part of the way through a premiere screening and decide to do so without thinking about the rest of the audience. When someone like Harvey Weinstein wants to buy a film at Sundance, he leaves the theater and makes calls/sends emails from the lobby. That way the rest of the audience can finish viewing the film without distractions, without anyone ruining their experience. Thus, they'll likely enjoy it more and the film will get better buzz, which helps the distributor in the end. So why does Brown, and TIFF, reject this entirely? Why does the "industry" insist so vehemently that they must "work" in the middle of a film?
Brown's article borders on perpetuating disrespect. He is so completely blinded by his personal frustration with how I handled the situation that he doesn't even address concerns about the rest of the audience, the film, or the filmmakers. "I am embarrassed by the fact that I now get to be viewed through the lens of this utterly asinine behaviour by virtue of what I do for a living." The same can be said for you, Mr. Brown. I am embarrassed that a filmmaker and member of the press has absolutely no care or concern for preserving the theatrical experience. It's this kind of arrogant attitude that runs rampant at TIFF's P&I screenings and only further perpetuates a lack of respect for the art form that I, and most of my colleagues, care so much about.
So How Can TIFF Change the Policy and Still Keep Everyone Satisfied?
During my discussion with two TIFF staff members outside of the theater on Monday, I proposed a number of very sound ideas for changes to their policy. I am outlining a few of them here for the sake of providing additional, healthy alternatives to the embarrassing policy of allowing any electronic devices to be used at P&I screenings. There is no debate - cell phone use at screenings is unacceptable, reprehensible, abhorrent and should not be allowed. This is why I love the Alamo Drafthouse and Telluride Film Festival - both of these places will kick you out of the theater before you can even finish typing. Here are my suggestions:
1. Stop allowing any cell phones or electronic devices to be used during P&I screenings. Period. Make sure the very same policy in place at TIFF's public screenings is carried over to P&I screenings. If someone is using a device that is distracting/annoying other audience members, TIFF staff should confront them, ask them to move, and eventually kick them out if they refuse to cooperate. Simple as that. If TIFF doesn't want to adopt this policy, they must remove the slides that show in front of P&I screenings or include a note that says "all devices can be used unchecked at P&I screenings" so that all attendees are aware.
2. Designate a special section in the very back of the theater for industry members who wish to use their cell phones/laptops. Rope off the final two or three rows of the theater and request that anyone who wants to use their device (and only those people) sit in this section, so that no one will be distracted by their use. If someone sits elsewhere and begins to annoy others with their phone/device, TIFF staff can then ask them to sit in the back and will even have an open seat for them to sit in while they use their device.
3. If all other ideas are rejected, adopt a "one warning" policy that all P&I members are explicitly aware of. If a single person complains about someone using their phone in the middle of a screening, TIFF staff should be able to confront the person and ask them to move to a seat where they won't distract the rest of the audience. If the person won't move or continues to use their device after one warning or request, then they should be kicked out and told to return to another screening and find a seat in the back next time.
4. Separate the press and industry screenings just like Cannes does. Let the industry act as they wish in their own screenings, and implement a policy for press screenings to prevent phone use (something that most press would greatly appreciate). This is logistically impossible due to limited screenings venues and limited time as well as an excessive number of films programmed at the festival and a large number of press and industry attendees. However, it's another good solution that would satisfy all parties involved.
When I proposed a number of these ideas to the TIFF staff at the time, I was told that they will "take my complaints" in their postmortem report, but that no changes can or will be made in 2013. My impression is that they wanted to indicate they were at least listening to me, but they were probably not going to actually make a change. Nothing I said would actually make them care enough to make a difference. Plus, there's the issue that TIFF later went on to flat out deny they even have a policy to begin with. Deadline called TIFF's PR department to get a quote for their article and were told: "the festival has no existing P&I cell phone policy 'but we do ask all audiences to turn off and store phones and smart phones,'" adding that "at every screening at the Festival front of house staff are on hand to deal with concerns from audience members."
At my "make-up" public screening of The Sacrament later in the fest, which was offered to me since I missed so much of the original film, I noticed a woman using her phone in the third row the moment the lights went down. I got up, politely pointed her out to the volunteer in the theater, who immediately approached her and spoke with her. Moments later the phone went away and I never saw another screen the rest of the film. I tried this at the P&I screening of The Sacrament, but was told that because of their P&I policy, they cannot even talk to their person using the phone because he has "the right" to use it. So they obviously do have different policies between screenings, despite claiming "the festival has no existing P&I cell phone policy."
So who is lying? Someone is. Is it TIFF's PR department, trying to cover up these embarrassing policies? Or is it the staff assigned to the Scotiabank theater where most press screenings are held? Considering I was told that this is a policy they've had for years, I have a feeling they don't want anyone to know this actually exists - when it obviously does. Are they trying to hide the fact that the industry abusers are who the festival caters to the most? Are they afraid of what will happen if the rest of the world finds out that the "industry" has the right to ruin the experience for the rest of the audience? Because they should be concerned. And they need to man up and recognize it's an embarrassing policy that is there, and that changes must be made.
If it really is @TIFF_net's policy that phone use during press/industry screenings is OK, then I really will never go to TIFF again.
— Eric D. Snider (@EricDSnider) September 9, 2013
And if it takes someone making a huge, dramatic fuss to get festivals to take phone use seriously, then so be it. Something has to change.
— Eric D. Snider (@EricDSnider) September 9, 2013
Stunned by the number of people on their phones during press screening of ENEMY. Every single one should lose their badge #tiff13
— Steven Weintraub (@colliderfrosty) September 9, 2013
Not joking around. The guy next to me was on it for 80% of the film and all around me others were as well. It's deplorable behavior #tiff13
— Steven Weintraub (@colliderfrosty) September 9, 2013
My theory is that TIFF is truly afraid to make changes or even admit that they need to make changes. If they were to suddenly change their policy all because one irate young blogger made a scene, it would be a huge embarrassment for them. They're a corporation with board members and thousands of industry partners and they need to carefully make the right decisions. However, this policy and the fact that they encourage cell phone use is an even bigger embarrassment. They need to weigh both sides of the issue and understand that it's much worse for them to perpetuate a disrespect for the art that they claim to care so much about.
If TIFF is truly the world's greatest film festival, they need to act that way, in every sense. They need to set a precedent from the top down, and that means admitting a policy exists and changing it before next year. Even if they upset a couple of abusive members of the industry and get a few angry phone calls from people claiming to be powerful. It will all be for the better. If they really do change the policy and express concern for the theatrical experience even in P&I screenings it will show the world that they are the leaders and that they do respect audiences. Because right now that's obviously not the case and every single critic, reviewer, blogger and industry member should be concerned returning if they continue to ignore our vital concerns.
When I left the theater to complain and eventually call the police, I didn't realize that this issue would blow up on this scale. My only intention was to get them to change the policy. I've complained peacefully to TIFF staff for years, in different ways, and nothing has ever changed. I sincerely wish I didn't have to make a fool of myself to get them to change, but I fully believe there was no other way. No one would be talking about it, and I wouldn't be writing this manifesto otherwise. As tweeted by Alamo Drafthouse's CEO Tim League:
— Tim League (@timalamo) September 10, 2013
Much of the debate that has since arisen thanks to the news making global headlines has focused on whether what I did was right or wrong (trust me, I already know calling 911 was wrong - mea culpa) but that kind of debate is missing the point. The bigger debate about cell phone use in movies is now at the forefront of the industry in a big way thanks to my actions, and I hope more than anything in the end this will bring about some change. I believe that something needed to be done, and after years of this policy going unchecked and uncriticized, it finally reached a head and I'm sorry it did. I do still love TIFF, and I plan to keep attending the festival as long as I can, because it really is about the films. I just hope they've learned their lesson, too.
I'm attending the New York Film Festival coming up this September and I reached out to their publicity department in advance to confirm that they have a policy against cell phone use at their Press & Industry screenings. Here's the quote sent from Film Society of Lincoln Center's Senior Publicist John Wildman:
"While we do not have a specific policy on the use of cell phones or electronic devices during our press & industry screenings separate from our public screenings, there is an assumed 'good neighbor' approach that you would not do anything to inhibit the viewing experience of your fellow journalists or industry professionals."
This is the way it should be. No festival wants to adopt a written policy (likely for the sake of acknowledging that some people occasionally do carefully use mobile devices to assist in note taking and there's nothing wrong with that) but they at least support the notion that the experience shouldn't be ruined. TIFF, despite PR department claims to the contrary, doesn't believe in this. Complaining to the offender (as I have done in years past) only results in an arrogant response. They know they can use their phone and just don't care that it ruins it for anyone else. It's sad and that's the reality. TIFF staff can't address the offender, shaming them won't make a difference, what else can be done? How can we get TIFF to change their ways once and for all?
Now is the time for change. TIFF may be fearful to make a change at the demands of a blogger, but I am confident in time they'll make the right choice. This is an embarrassing situation for them to end up in, and I've sacrificed much of my own time, effort and reputation to make a difference. The day after the incident, I was interviewed by every major Canadian TV station - Global News, CTV, CBC and CP24. All of them just wanted to hear my side of the story because, I think deep down, they sympathized with me. They don't agree with my actions, but they agree with the problem that I was complaining about. No one likes that idiot blatantly using his phone in the middle of a screening. And it's ludicrous to claim that essential "work" must be done during the middle of a screening, disregarding all of the other attendees who are also there to work.
For all of the flack I've received over my methods for change, I have received even more support from those who agree with my plight. Almost every member of the press I spoke to at TIFF agreed with me about how bad cell phone use is at P&I screenings (see above examples). But I am one of the few to ever stand up and say something about it. Truthfully, this fight isn't about me, this isn't about the site, this is only about TIFF setting a precedent and teaching the industry how to act during screenings. They need to show that respecting the film and the rest of the audience is as important as buying and selling and promoting. And that no one has the right to ruin the experience for others, no matter what "work" they claim they're doing.
At this point, we will have to wait until 2014 to see if TIFF does anything. I don't expect them to reply to this editorial or to address any of these concerns publicly, but I do hope they'll change for the better. I do hope they eventually realize how embarrassing it is to keep this policy, and that maybe just maybe making the right decision will keep them as one of the top film festivals. Only time will tell. I have learned many lessons through this experience, but I'll keep fighting the good fight. Because the pure cinematic experience must be preserved. It's that experience that makes films so exciting and so affecting. Let's keep it that way.
Note: comments on this editorial have been turned off so that the industry-wide discussion and concerns focus solely on the bigger issue plaguing the festival. Thank you for reading my own take on this problem.
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