Like a movie you’re deeply invested in being interrupted by the annoying glow of a self-centered guy checking his Facebook, the long-simmering debate over cell phone usage in theaters received a major distraction after FirstShowing.net’s Alex Billington called 911 to report a man who was using his phone during a Toronto International Film Festival screening. Billington says he was watching Ti West’s The Sacrament when he noticed a man in the front row with his phone out and pointed toward the screen. After complaining to theater managers—and reportedly being told that TIFF allows everyone at its press and industry screenings the right to “blatantly use phones in the film,” and that he was the only person to ever take issue with it—Billington then made the bold decision to stand up against unnecessary disturbances by calling 911.
As Billington later claimed in a statement to BuzzFeed, he did so not because he was simply annoyed with the man’s cell phone usage (because then calling 911 would have been crazy), but because “I thought I might be witnessing an act of piracy, a major crime being committed, and wished to report it to the proper authorities.” Unfortunately, the authorities weren’t nearly as convinced by his reasoning. Billington says the 911 dispatcher laughed at him, forcing him to take his case to the public court of Twitter, where he continued to make his dissatisfaction known to festival organizers, Ti West, and the world.
As you might expect, reaction to Billington’s actions has been mixed. On the one hand, there are those (many of whom you'll find quoted on his Twitter page) who have applauded Billington for trying, as Billington said, to “make a difference for the better.” They point out that—even given the embarrassment of the many “Movie Blogger Calls The Cops…” headlines that have been circulating—at least those stories have reignited the conversation on the issue of cell phone usage in theaters, which still somehow necessitates discussion. On the other hand, a lot of that conversation has so far been about giving Billington the same sort of public lashing typically reserved for people who call 911 to complain about their cheeseburger.
Some of that negative attention has also come from Billington’s fellow movie critics—such as Slashfilm’s Peter Sciretta, who reminded Billington that “911 is for serious emergencies only.” Some, like Movies.com and FEARnet reviewer Scott Weinberg, have been far less diplomatic, with Weinberg calling Billington an “embarrassingly unprofessional attention-starved stooge” and “national laughing stock” whose actions “make film press look like fucking assholes,” when they are normally very nice and even-keeled guys, obviously.
Probably not helping matters is Billington’s history of drawing negative attention to himself while also earning the enmity of his colleagues, such as when several other reviewers—including HitFix’s Drew McWeeny, Ain’t It Cool’s Harry Knowles, and CHUD’s Devin Faraci—cosigned a letter, sent to all the major studios’ publicity departments, calling upon them to ban Billington from screenings. This was after Billington allegedly complained, then “blackmailed” his way into a secret showing of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. (Billington subsequently denied this accusation as a "vicious attack.")
And definitely not helping matters is Faraci’s now-being-recirculated, very scathing account of Billington live-tweeting during a 2009 screening of Crank 2, wherein Faraci blasted Billington as a “douchebag…. a fraud, a fake movie lover,” and urged readers to write Billington nasty emails letting him know “what you feel about him pulling out his phone during a movie.” Though, apparently that public shaming worked, seeing as Billington is now such a champion of the cause, defiant Steve Jobs quote and all.
For Billington’s part, he’s since admitted he made a mistake in calling 911, saying he “overreacted” and made a “heat of the moment gaffe,” and concluding, “Attention should be on the policy” rather than on him. And TIFF spokesperson Jennifer Bell has also responded to Billington's assertions about the festival's supposed separate policy for press and industry screening, denying to Deadline that it has one, and saying it asks all of its audiences to turn off their phones. Billington has called Bell’s response a “surprising denial.” He has yet to call 911. (Ha ha! Now we’re being distracting!)
Anyway, with no reasonable advancement expected to arise out of this latest kerfuffle, we must await anew a more decisive end to this “phones in theaters” debate that we can’t seem to stop having. Such as everyone simultaneously developing a sense of shame, and learning to behave with respect and rationality toward their fellow human being, so that no one again pulls out their phone in a movie to engage in their own irritatingly self-involved pursuits, or uses it, ironically, to write irate tweets or call 911 about someone doing that. Or, in a more likely outcome, maybe we start using ninjas.