Monday, January 21, 2013

Should Sundance do more to stop cell phone usage during festival screenings? This veteran festival attendee says yes

 Dear Sundance,

I adore you. I've come to your festival faithfully for the last thirteen years. Since I was a teenager!  You have  changed my life by providing me with an annual outlet to foster my love of film that attracts thousands of like-minded strangers, several of whom have become my good friends over the years. You're amazing, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being you.

But I need you to do just one more thing for me.

Please, for the love of god, I beg of you: do more to stop the rampant cell phone usage during movies.

It's bad.  You know that, right?

Allow me to take a short but frustrating trip down memory lane.  At the Eccles last year I saw a woman who must have thought she was so thoughtful up in the balcony, diligently cupping her palm around her smartphone to supposedly shield her neighbors from the glaring light that emanated from the web surfing she had to attend to for multiple ten-minute intervals.  Later that same day, I sat directly behind a young man who could not avoid checking the score of an ongoing sporting event every five to ten minutes.  I even had the occasion to sit next to a director who was (to be fair) mortified to learn that his attempts to use his smartphone to record audience reactions during his film were in fact creating a distraction for those around him. 

These are not isolated incidents. And 2013 is not much better.  At last week's screening of Circles at the Egyptian, I did the math. A full 1.4% of the audience had their cell phone ring during the movie. I don't like those numbers. A gentleman in front of me at the 9 AM screening of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's hotly anticipated directorial debut must not have been looking as forward to it as the rest of us, since he took his phone out a total of three extended intervals during just the first 15 minutes of the movie, until I asked him politely to stop.

Let's suppose for a moment that people are inherently good. They also, I believe, want to go with the flow. Adhere to social and cultural mores, if you will.   Can we not cultivate an atmosphere wherein this behavior is universally shunned?  In which even those less inclined to derive their manners from an inner sense of decency at least keep their phones in their fluffy jacket pockets, out of fear of being shamed by the greater community?

What accounts for depth of the problem at Sundance, then?  Let's consider some potential factors, for the sake of discussion:


Can we blame ourselves? Can we blame each other? I used to think "it's Industry. It's definitely industry." I sat behind the producer of one of my favorite movies recently and recoiled in horror and heartbreak when she pulled her Blackberry out over and over, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she was surrounded by other people, not alone in a screening room.   It's not fair, though, to place the blame on solely industry.  Not when you have veteran critics who will bust out with a polite but booming voice mid-movie asking an offender to put her phone away. Not when you have the head of a nationwide theater chain who'd no doubt name this issue instead of "world peace" if there were some kind of weird-ass beauty pageant among exhibitors and distributors and he were asked what change he'd most want to see in the world. No, it's not fair to blame just the industry.

Is it the film fans, then?  Your average Molly Movie-goer, living in our media-obsessed, narcissistic high-consumption world, unable to tear herself away from the allure of an incoming text?  Maybe it's her plus one, the fair weather film fan who can be talked into tagging along when presented with the allure of celebrities in attendance?

But even then, I struggle to convince myself that someone who flew to Utah, spent god knows how much cash on tickets and transportation, would dare not respect the experience  enough not to keep their phone off and demand their friends do the same.

So. I'm choosing to hypothesize, then, that this is a matter of semantics. Nobody is aware they're breaking the rules, they just didn't fully understand the rules. "Turn my phone off? Sure. It's on silent. It's off!" I'm starting to think that maybe (hopefully?) the average offender here had no idea the extent to which others expect a distraction-free environment in a theater, and were mostly oblivious to their contribution to the contrary. 

Which leads me focus on two other key contributors, which are....

Lack of preventative measures

The Sundance programmer introducing the film has a big job to do, balancing priorities like imparting housekeeping details, contextualizing the art we're about to consume, making the filmmaker feel at ease before he or she takes the stage for the big moment.  The "turn your cell phones off" reminder is said, second before the film begins, but arguably not spotlighted enough to be fully digested.  And it's rote enough that I wonder if audiences may just tune it out entirely.

Lack of consequences and enforcement

This is a fact: nothing bad happens to someone who uses a cell phone during a movie.  Rarely do those nearby even ask the offender to shut it off, and never do you see staff catching and correcting this behavior.  Eccles volunteers can smell from 30 feet away the cookie you smuggled in so your growling stomach won't overpower the dialogue. They will eagerly crawl through 20 people to remind you that you can't have food there, but there seems almost to be a silent agreement amongst staff and volunteers that there's no intervention necessary for patrons who can't go an hour and a half without seeing if they've got any new Twitter followers.

More than likely, the problem has reached the epic proportions we see today due a combination of factors, including some I haven't even thought of.   And maybe it's the eternal optimist in me, but I do truly believe it is solvable.   

So, dear Sundance, here are a few of my ideas that I give you here for free, in exchange one day, I hope, for consistent and uninterrupted enjoyment of your outstanding programming.

  1. Make it a rule. Put it in the terms and conditions for pass holders and ticket purchasers. Print it on the tickets, like you do the rule about arriving 15 minutes early.  Clearly explain the consequences.
  2. On that note... create some formal consequences.  It could be as simple as "patrons who refuse to refrain from using their smartphones may be asked to leave."
  3. Standardize the "no cell phones" part of the introduction, just like you do the naming of the sponsors. Infuse the appropriate level of severity.
  4.  Make it funny. Put it in the festival bumper. Normalize the shaming of people who behave badly with their phones.  People like to feel righteous, whether they admit it or not. Superior, even. Ask any vegetarian (myself included).  Cultivate the sense that it's "us versus them" with the smartphone users versus abusers. Everyone will know which side they want to be on.  Just ask Tim League - it's the culture he's created at the Drafthouse.
  5. Incorporate it into the volunteer job descriptions for venue staff, particularly those who handle crowd control.  You do a great job of staffing these positions with bubbly, outgoing individuals who act as the face of the festival.   How about if they remind incoming audiences about the aforementioned smart phone policy & consequences? 
  6. Monetize this.  Find a company who wants to sponsor funny ads about how everyone has to power down.  Banners at venues.  A flier with your registration packet.  TVs in the holding tents that play the sponsored message.  The possibilities are endless, and the potential for delivering a message that sticks is very real.  Hell, I am still humming the "not working for the man, he's independent!" jingle from the Jib Jab bumpers from like ten years ago.

Sundance - you're the best of the best.  And for good reason.  World class programming and your reputation as one of the foremost film markets afford you undisputed influence on not just the cultivation of talent but also on the delivery of truth to the film-going masses as the work you've shepherded is rolled out throughout the year.  Further evidence of your influence is how Sundance audiences are highly sought by potential festival sponsors because of how influential we tend to be as thought leaders in our respective communities.

But as Peter Parker learned in Spiderman if you'll allow me to quote from perhaps not the most independent of all films: "with great power comes great responsibility."   You are already the purveyor of culture and knowledge, the impact of which is endless.  The tens of thousands of Sundance attendees take so much back home with them after the festival.  So many films that have the power to change the world by inspiring action or engendering tolerance have made the splash they did thanks in part to you.  Just think about what could happen if you manage to apply your influence to the way people act in a movie theater.  A vocal push from Sundance to end the use of smartphones in theaters would have a ripple effect. 

In the grand scheme of things, using your influence to permeate a culture that does not accept distractions in a movie theater may not seem as significant as drawing attention to dolphin slaughter in Taiji, inspiring lawmakers to watch a film your audiences awarded for its emotional investigation of rape in the military, or reaching multiplex audiences with a drama featuring a loving lesbian family. But think about it: if we don't get people to put their phones down long enough to watch the movie, they'll be too distracted to hear the message in the first place.

In the meantime, I'll keep fighting the good fight, even if it means (or maybe in part because it means) casting my most menacing, exasperated expression in the general direction of a glowing small screen from up on my high horse.

All the best,

Dor Dotson

NOTE OF CLARIFICATION: my experience is from public screenings only (not press and industry).


  1. this is amazing and deserves to go viral. having been next to you for 2 of those 3 incidents last year, i understand your frustration. who checks texts anymore anyway, instagram me

  2. An impressive post, I just gave this to a colleague who is doing a little analysistreet promotionsand he is very happy and thanking me for finding it. But all thanks to you for writing in such simple words. Big thumb up for this blog post!

  3. Excellent post...Your suggestions are very good - TIFF incorporates some of them and from what you said, it sounds like Sundance is a bit worse. But the problem certainly isn't non-existent at TIFF.

    Part of it is people who just don't think it's a problem as long as they aren't talking on their phone...In 2011 during the wonderful "I Wish" at TIFF (out on DVD now!), the dude next to me was nodding off about halfway through. He woke up with a start and immediately grabbed for his phone and started flipping through text messages. I leaned over and politely asked him to turn it off. His response took me by surprise: "Oh, I'm not calling anyone..." As he went back to his screen, I was actually at a loss for words. I shook my head and then tried again "Um, well, you see, the screen is really bright and..." Fortunately he got it at that point, put it away and wasn't a bother the rest of the way. But I'm still baffled that he didn't get the fact that perhaps it might be distracting.

    But I think that's it - even with all the ads these days, people don't think it's that bad. I mean, "it's just my small itty bitty screen and it's real quiet, so what's the problem?" Typical film goers don't mind a few distractions unfortunately - they're happy just to get the gist of the movie (hence why Pan & Scan was around for so long), so even if it's a bit bright, "well come on, you can still hear what's going on right?". That also makes it hard to shame them...

    At least we can feel that superiority over them though...B-)

  4. I didn't go to the movies at all for a long time due to talking and cell phone.

    Thankfully I moved to Austin, where we're privileged to have the Alamo Drafthouse. Seems like Sundance could learn a few things from their handling of the aforementioned nuisances. Going to see a movie is fun again!

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