Suggestions For Preventing Mobile Phone Distractions At Film Festivals

By J. Sperling Reich | February 1, 2015 2:33 pm PST
Cell Phones In Cinemas

If reader reaction to Celluloid Junkie posts is any indication of broad public sentiment, then a majority of moviegoers are infuriated by fellow audience members using their mobile phones in the middle of screenings.

Raising the topic in conversation or in posts like the ones we’ve published on CJ evokes impassioned arguments about why such behavior is selfish, disrespectful, rude, arrogant, impolite… pick whatever contemptuous adjective you’d like and it won’t be hard to find someone who agrees.

Those who feel that whipping out a mobile device during a movie is nothing to be ashamed of are significantly outnumbered. Actually answering a call and speaking on a cell phone mid-screening is unanimously despised for the most part, punishable by a long list of justifiably malevolent actions.

If exhibitors are struggling with mobile phones making unwelcome appearances in their cinemas during regularly scheduled showings, imagine how such behavior can be magnified in a film festival setting. This is especially true of special screenings held for the press and industry, where journalists must be accessible to receive last minute requests from demanding editors and acquisitions execs may need to counter offers from a sales rep or producer.

The unbridled use of mobile phones during festival screenings is so widespread that one journalist attending the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival infamously called the police to arrest offenders for possibly pirating the movie being shown.

Those who have similarly strong opinions about mobile phones being pulled out during film festival screenings are beginning to speak up – literally and figuratively. Gary Meyer, publisher of EatDrinkFilms and the recently departed longtime programmer of the Telluride Film Festival, is a self-described fascist when it comes to cell phones in cinemas.

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which concludes today in Park City, Utah, Meyer often preemptively warned audiences to put away their cell phones during the movie. This was in addition to the announcement made by a festival volunteer before each screening requesting that all mobile phones be silenced (not turned off) and their screens dimmed, should they need to be used during the movie.

Gary Meyer
Gary Meyer of EatDrinkFilms

“Please turn your phones off,” Meyer would bellow from wherever he happened to be sitting in the auditorium loud enough for everyone to hear. “There is only supposed to be one screen in this theatre and it’s the one at the front of the room.”

The first couple of times Meyer chimed in as the lights dimmed he received a smattering of applause in appreciation and mumbles of agreement. Upon approaching Meyer to thank him for weighing in on the subject, he was quick to express how dismayed he was that the festival would tell audiences to dim and silence mobile phones rather than turn them off.

Meyer made certain such a petition was made before screenings at Telluride and will do the same upon launching the EatDrinkFilms Festival this October. For Meyer, who co-founded Landmark Theatres and operated the historic Balboa Theatre in San Francisco until 2012, a cinema auditorium is a sanctuary for the appreciation of film as an art form. The notion that anyone would want to multitask while watching a movie by using their mobile phones is sacreligious.

Meyer feels so strongly about the matter that he helped craft more than two dozen pre-screening public announcements meant to remind audiences at Telluride and the Balboa to turn off their cell phones.

Meyers was happy to share a few of these sometimes humorous, and at times theatrical, announcements as examples of appeals he has found most effective:

This is the part of the show where we ask you to turn to your neighbor, introduce yourselves and remind each other to check your mobile devices to make sure they don’t ring or light up during the show. You wouldn’t want everyone looking at you during the movie.

For a movie made before 1980: Please do not use any devices that did not exist when this movie was made.

There is only one screen in this auditorium—this big one behind me. Please do not use your electronic device during the show. Did you know that everyone behind you is distracted by that little screen?

Hold up a cellphone upon entering stage and then turn it off and put it away, casually showing the audience what to do without talking about it.

Please raise your right hand and repeat after me: ‘I, state your name, agree that I will personally refund the ticket cost for every member of the audience if my cell phone goes off. Further, if I am so weak that I cannot refrain from texting during the two-hour running time of this show, I give my permission for the stranger next to me to grab the device and crush it under his or her foot (during the intermission, of course).

If you are caught calling or texting, you will be asked to make a $10 donation to the National Film Preserve.

If you’ve come to the show this evening with something that rings, plays snippets of popular music, beeps, twitters, snorts, snaps, crackles or pops, please take a moment to turn them off now.

Have someone call the introducer’s cell phone (volume up high) during the announcements. With a little embarrassment, the phone is answered and the following said: Yes [insert name of manager, programmer, etc.), I was just about to ask everyone to check their cell phones.

Ask if anyone in the audience has a cell phone. Ask a volunteer to stand up and show everyone how to turn them off.

I know you turned your phone off before you came in but our Cell phone detector indicates that several of you didn’t push the off button long enough. Please check now. We can wait.

The light from the movie screen casts a beautiful glow on the audience. The ghostly blue light from a cell phone or PDA causes a distraction for all sitting nearby and behind it. Let’s all take a moment to make certain all-electronic devices have been turned off. Thank you.

J. Sperling Reich