The latest battle in the theater etiquette wars went down Monday in Toronto — of all places, in a Press & Industry screening that pitted press vs. the fest and ended in a call to 911. Shortly after the P&I screening of Ti West’s new thriller The Sacrament began, FirstShowing.net blogger Alex Billington made numerous complaints to festival reps that a patron in the first row was holding a cell phone up towards the screen. When officials refused to take action, Billington called 911 to report a crime of piracy in progress; the 911 dispatcher laughed at Billington’s complaint and the blogger admits now it was a “mistake” to call emergency services instead of a non-emergency number.
The flap is making headlines for Billington’s 911 call, but it revives the hot-button debate over movie theater talking and texting. Sanctioned cell phone use in movies sparked controversy last year at CinemaCon when theater chain owners floated the idea of letting patrons text during screenings. And another journalist in attendance Monday said it appeared the offender was taking pictures of the screen. But Billington says he was told by festival reps that it’s an “unwritten policy” to allow use of any and all devices in P&I screenings. This despite TIFF’s warning ahead of both P&I screenings and public screenings that forbids cell phone use during films.
Jennifer Bell, TIFF VP of Communications and Content Management, tells Deadline 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.” The festival has “strong” anti-piracy measures in place to protect its films, she says. Those include night vision goggles which may be used at screenings. But the festival won’t be changing its policies because of Monday’s kerfuffle, and with the 911 call making headlines out of TIFF Bell’s response made a pointed dig at the way it all went down. “At every screening at the Festival front of house staff are on hand to deal with concerns from audience members. We regret to hear that a press delegate felt his experience of a press and industry screening was compromised, however we firmly believe that 911 is for emergencies only.”