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To the TIFF Blogger Who Called 911: Learn What Emergency Means

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Today started much as many do in the heart of the Toronto International Film Festival at my house. The phone buzzed as it received a text with a link to a film-related story, but this link came not from one of my business partners or one of the writers I'm lucky enough to work with and have covering the festival, but from my wife.

And it wasn't a reaction to a film, or news of a big title being picked up for distribution, but the story of a film blogger (Alex Billington of First Showing) calling 911 because he was bothered by someone using their cellphone during a screening. It's kind of a funny story to most, I suppose -- one that illustrates just how wrapped up people can get in this odd world. Except I didn't find it funny. At all. On any level.

Let me explain. My work history is, well, "diverse" is one word for it. I founded a film site (TwitchFilm.com) of my own nine years ago. I am a partner at a production and sales company working in independent film (XYZFilms.com). I have spent years programming for a handful of film festivals myself, most notably Austin's Fantastic Fest. I am a former volunteer at TIFF and an ongoing programmer of content in their year-round programming, though I have no involvement in the festival itself. And, very much outside the film world, I spent eight years working full time as a 911 operator here in Toronto, working in the call centre for Toronto Fire. So this is a story that hits me on a number of levels and the reaction on all of them is bad.

The film world is a small one. The blogging world even smaller. There are scarcely more than a handful of us who have been working this beat for any length of time and so Alex and I have had a decent amount of contact in the past.

I don't know him incredibly well but I've generally liked him enough, generally share most of his opinions and taste, and understand perfectly where his frustration here -- though not at all the reaction -- comes from.

Cellphones are a nuisance in a theatre. A bright and noisy distraction that is enormously disrespectful to the hundreds of other people in the room who have paid to see the film, not to be blinded by the light from someone's phone screen. Theatre etiquette has become something of a cause célèbre amongst the online community. One theatre chain -- the Alamo Drafthouse -- wins much love for its well publicized, hard-line policy of kicking people out of their theatres for using phones.

But here's where Billington's protest begins to immediately fall apart. He wasn't in a public screening. There was not a single person in that room who had paid for a ticket. He was in a screening designed and meant exclusively for industry and press professionals -- a screening where use of cellphones is explicitly permitted.

For those unfamiliar, here's how things work behind the scenes at events like TIFF and Cannes. While the public premieres draw all the glitz and attention, the engine that actually makes the whole thing go occurs behind the scenes, in a private parallel world open only to industry and media professionals.

Why do people care about these festivals in the first place? Because this is where new films are discovered by the industry and their rights purchased for large amounts of money so that they can be put into public release. Though TIFF does an admirable job of remaining friendly to the public -- far more so than Cannes, for instance -- make no mistake about it: If people aren't here buying and selling, the whole enterprise winds down. And this particular screening was for industry buyers.

And one of the things that means is that potential buyers need to be in constant, real-time contact with their bosses -- the people who write the checks -- if and when they stumble across the elusive pot of gold. And so in Toronto, as is the case in literally EVERY other industry event in the world, industry members are welcome to use their phones. It's always been this way. 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.

Billington noted on his Twitter account how he went out and told theatre staff of the phone use and how upset he was because they did nothing. Well, yes, that's because the phone user was doing nothing wrong. And so then he goes on to try and justify his actions by saying he was trying to fight that big old bogeyman, piracy.

Let me be clear: Piracy is a serious issue. I'm a producer of a film that was pirated while still fresh in its release and know first-hand what that does to admission statistics. It's awful and it has personally cost me money. It's also not what was happening here. We're not talking about someone with a camera trying to record a movie, we're talking about someone who was probably checking his email.

Back in my days as a TIFF volunteer, I received the full training that all volunteers go through and it very definitely includes what to do if someone is trying to film the screen. And yes, that person will be ejected from the theatre and face criminal charges. But that's not what was happening here.

It's not what happens in the thousands upon thousands of other market screenings that occur in Toronto, Berlin, Cannes, Hong Kong, the American Film Market and other industry screenings around the world. Having attended well over a thousand market screenings in my life -- all of which permitted phone usage -- I am not aware of a single occasion where a cam-job recording (a recording of the screen from the audience, as Billington says he was worried about happening here) has EVER being shot and released online. It never happens, for the simple reason that everyone in those rooms is an active member and stakeholder of an industry that is hurt by such behaviour. You don't crap where you eat, basically.

So what actually happened? It's not an etiquette issue. It's not a legal issue. It's nothing but a guy with an overly large sense of entitlement and inflated idea of his own importance blowing a gasket because his favourite toy didn't work exactly the way he wanted it to at that particular moment and taking his frustration out by radically misusing a resource designed to respond to issues that actually matter. Things like people having heart attacks. Or houses burning down. Not some irritable writer upset by having a bit of light shone in his eyes.

As a guy who spent every day of my working life for eight years trying to keep up with the volume of calls pouring in to 911 -- legitimate calls, each of which carried with it the weight of someone possibly dying -- I find Billington's action offensive. As someone who knows first hand how frequently we failed to keep up with that volume of calls and how people with legitimate emergencies were left to sit on hold -- which happens more often than you'd like to know -- I find Billington's actions here deeply offensive.

I find his equating a dude with a phone to an actual life and death emergency ludicrous well beyond the scale of humour, so much that it just makes me angry. 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. Thanks, Alex. Thanks for giving people yet another reason to think that online press are nothing but a bunch of idiots with entitlement issues sitting in their parent's basements rather then the hard working pros that most are.

Apparently the 911 operator who Billington spoke to laughed openly at him. Good for them. If it had been me and it had been a quiet day, I would have sent a car. But it wouldn't have been for the guy in the theatre, it would have been to charge Billington as a public nuisance.

Alex Billington's 911 TIFF Call
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