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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Would you check your cell phone at a movie?

I’ve discussed before the pointless security procedures critics have to go through, sometimes, in order to get into a press screening, such as having our belongings searched for recording devices. The most ridiculous thing that happens, at some screenings, is that “security guards” collect cell phones with cameras and hold them till the movie’s over. No, check that: the most ridiculous thing is — and this has happened more than once — the “security guards” collect all cell phones, regardless of whether they are equipped with cameras or not. When I upgraded my phone a few years ago, I specifically avoided getting one with a camera (which I really would have liked to have, actually) so I wouldn’t have to go through the hassle of surrendering my phone and then reclaiming it after the screening — which really is a major hassle. Hundreds of people all clamoring for their phones back at the same time is not a pretty sight.

But not only is all this a major pain in the ass, there are other issues at play, too, as Cory Doctorow discussed in an article in the Guardian on Tuesday:

Let’s talk about hypothetical risks. If you go to a big preview screening in Leicester Square – a privilege given to the press, entertainment industry VIPs, and a fair number of punters who win radio phone-in prizes – you’ll be asked to leave your mobile phone in a baggie behind a counter at the front of the cinema.

The film industry says that this is a necessary precaution against the hypothetical losses that would result should someone use a mobile phone to “camcord” (that is, record from the audience) a pre-release movie and leak it onto the internet….

When pressed, spokespeople from the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) and the Film Distributors’ Association (FDA) admitted they had never heard of a pirated movie “in the wild” that originated with a mobile phone, nor, to the best of their knowledge, had anyone ever been ejected from a cinema for attempting this.

What’s more, although FACT and the FDA stressed their belief that the majority of pirate movies originate with camcorders, they also admitted that this was never the case with pre-release movies: film previews have never been a source of film piracy.

That’s one factor: piracy by people who camcord a movie with their cell phones at press screenings simply is not happening. And yet the studios continue to playact this security theater anyway.

But wait, there’s more:

Which brings us to the other theoretical risk: the risk of leaving hundreds of increasingly powerful phones in the safekeeping of a cinema, out of your sight for two or three hours while you watch gigantic robots throwing buildings at each other.

This risk is also substantial. From sim cloning (copying the phone’s sim so that other phones can use your account, listen to your voicemail, and make calls that are billed to you) to data theft, the risks are enormous. Think of the data storage on your phone – that potential 64GB on a postage-stamp-sized SD card. That’s enough to carry around libraries’ worth of confidential or proprietary information – several times the amount of data lost in the enormous HMRC leak of family financial information last year. Add to that the contact information – personal phone numbers for all the people in the lives of everyone at the movie, including, for example, ministers of state and other VIPs who are routinely invited to previews. Then consider confidential diaries, family photos, personal voice memos, access to your search history …

Once you start enumerating the potentially sensitive information on a mobile phone, it’s hard to stop….

What’s more, the more confidential – and useful – things there are on your phone, the less likely you are to want to leave it at home during a night out. Indeed, the very capabilities that make a phone useful also make it indispensable. It doesn’t take a techno-visionary to see the train wreck in the offing.

I’ve worried about this kind of thing before, in fact — not with my cell phone, which doesn’t have much sensitive information on it (but if and when I upgrade to an iPhone, that will be an issue, considering how much of my life now resides in my iPod Touch… which is the purpose I bought it for in the first place, to be my external brain!), but with my laptop, which I have been required to surrender at more than one screening. What’s more, typically the security people who want to take my laptop also want my driver’s license, so that they can be sure that they give the computer back to the right person after the screening. But an unscrupulous person now would not only have access to some very private information indeed, he or she would also know where I live!

I’ve also sometimes been required to sign disclaimers when surrending my laptop acknowledging that the people taking responsibility for my expensive equipment take no responsibility for it and can’t be held liable if it’s damaged or lost!

Leaving this stuff — laptop and phone — home isn’t always possible. If I’m out all day bouncing from screening to screening, I must have my laptop and phone with me: it’s the only way I can keep even halfway caught up with my work. We critics are working journalists — these are the tools of our trade. We can no more be without them than a plumber can be without a wrench.

And as Doctorow points out in the Guardian, cell phones are getting much more powerful — it may soon be possible to record a movie in high definition on a phone. When that day comes to pass, Would you check your cell phone at a movie? Would you leave your phone home (thereby rendering it pointless)? Or would you stop going to the movies?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)



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  • bitchen frizzy

    I would not check my cell phone at a movie.

    I might leave it at home, if I really, really wanted to see the movie in the theater, but then I would certainly see far fewer movies at the theater.

    I don’t think this requirement will ever be placed on the general public.

  • I make a conscious effort to turn my cell phone off.

  • I generally leave my cell phone in the car so I don’t have to bother worrying whether I remembered to turn it off or not. Not the smartest thing in the world to do, true, but after attending movies with a former girlfriend who almost always had to be reminded to shut her cell phone off at the beginning of the movie, I don’t consider it to be the worst thing either.

    As for checking my cell phone…

    Well, I recently passed up the opportunity to go to a club with a metal detector because I feared–among other things–that my cell phone would be confiscated and not given back until I left the club.

    So I definitely would not check my cell phone at a movie.

  • LaSargenta

    I turn my cellphones (yes, plural, one personal, one provided by work) off for nearly anything. And, I don’t surrender it. The one time I got asked to at a court house, I satisfied the cop at the metal scanning gate by removing the battery and putting the cell phone and battery into two different parts of my bag. I did agree to leave my pocket knife with them, though.

    If a rent-a-cop at a movie theater asked me to, I would politely ask her or him to have the supervisor talk with me. If I have to check things with data — aside from the data, they aren’t owned by me, but by my company, and I’m responsible for them — I’d demand a locker with a key. Obviously, if I hadn’t been warned of this in advance to start the whole ball rolling, I wouldn’t be seeing that movie that night, now would I?

    Shit that’s annoying and intrusive. I thought the security stuff I go through was a pain, but, at least I go places where security checks are logical.

  • Andrew

    Yes. Fuck yes. It should be mandatory everywhere.

    Nothing short of that is going to stop assholes from getting calls or texting throughout the entire movie.

  • Victor Plenty

    Andrew, did you read this article, or only the title? Just curious.

  • JoshB

    The question is moot. I’ve smuggled cell phones into concerts, and that’s with guards doing pat-downs at the door.

    So no, I wouldn’t surrender my phone, I’d hide it in my shoe and go in.

  • Victor Plenty

    What will the studio goons confiscate in just a few years, when miniaturization allows beyond-HD-quality camcorders to be incorporated into ordinary looking eyeglasses, or even into contact lenses?

  • Anne-Kari

    There is no way I would ‘check’ my cell phone at the door, mainly because I’ve got small children and I feel better about a night out if I know the sitter can reach me in case of emergency. Also for the information security reasons mentioned above.

    Now, I WOULD be happy to show my cell phone to an attendant at the theater to prove that the ringer was off (vibrate on). And I certainly wouldn’t be making calls or texting during a movie. Ever.

  • markyd

    I don’t typically bring it in with me. I am there to see a movie, not yap on the stupid phone.
    If for some reason I DID have it with me, and they asked me to check it in, I suppose I would. As long as everyone else does too. I can’t f’ing stand idiots doing ANYthing with their phones in theaters. Even you, Mary Ann, can’t possibly be using the phone in the middle of a movie? Do you? Being a movie lover I imagine you do not. Why not just leave this stuff in the car? Now…if there is no car to speak of(public transportation and all that) then my case is lost.

  • AJP

    Mary Ann lives in New York City. I’m guessing she doesn’t even own a car, much less use one to get from screening to screening.

  • MaryAnn

    Even you, Mary Ann, can’t possibly be using the phone in the middle of a movie? Do you? Being a movie lover I imagine you do not.

    No, of course I don’t use my phone in the movies, but that’s entirely irrelevant to the point here. I’m required to trust my expensive equipment and personal information to rent-a-cops at screenings, for no good reason — and not even for a bad reason!

    Why not just leave this stuff in the car? Now…if there is no car to speak of(public transportation and all that) then my case is lost.

    I don’t own a car, and even if I did, I wouldn’t be driving it to screenings. Not in Manhattan. Hardly anyone in Manhattan owns a car. But leaving the phone in the car still isn’t an option, not when people are using their phones to arrange meeting up for a screening!

    What it all boils down to: We are being treated like criminals. We are being treated based on the assumption that we’re going to do something illegal, with no justification whatsoever.

    The one time I got asked to at a court house, I satisfied the cop at the metal scanning gate by removing the battery and putting the cell phone and battery into two different parts of my bag.

    That wouldn’t fly in any NYC courthouse I’ve ever been in. You have a cell phone, you don’t get in.

    Stupid as that is, it’s still an entirely different matter than what I’m talking about here.

  • Victor Plenty

    The talking past each other in this thread of conversation is impressive, even compared to the usual levels seen in many political debates.

  • Andrew

    Victor, I don’t care if they’re checking them to advance the eventual conquest of Earth by the Reptilian Scourge. I just want all cellphones gone from movie theaters forever.

  • Althea

    I’m curious why so many people would give their phones up at all. I’d just say I didn’t have one. They gonna search me? Or do they have metal detectors in movie theaters in New York?

  • Anne-Kari

    Hey, MAJ – have you noticed them requiring ‘major’, high-profile reviewers (such as Stephen Holden, Jeffrey Lyons etc) to hand over their phones etc?

  • Madeleine

    They did a similar cellphone seizure (combined with a bag search and magnetic wanding) at certain public screenings during this year’s AFI Film Festival in Dallas. However the process was so unwieldly and slow that they only had let in about 1/3 of the audience prior to the scheduled start time. The security people finally decided to let in the rest of the crowd without seizing their phones. The first third weren’t very happy…

  • I go to a few clubs that don’t allow cell phones, so I just lock mine in my car — but I have that option, living in the Midwest where I have to drive anywhere. I’d never surrender a cell phone to someone to look after, especially not at a movie theatre. Since I don’t make my living watching movies, I can easily just tell them they’ve lost my business and go elsewhere or wait for the DVD.

  • LaSargenta

    That wouldn’t fly in any NYC courthouse I’ve ever been in. You have a cell phone, you don’t get in.

    Well, King’s County Courthouse let me keep it in Feb. 2008. They didn’t even tell me to turn it off. The last time I did jury duty in the court building on Centre Street, it was the same. We had to keep it off if we went in to a court, but were allowed to make calls in the hallways. I was shocked at that since all the previous times we had been told No Cellphones! No one brought it up at all at the NYS Supreme Court when I was there last November for a meeting. Maybe they’ve given up.

    Stupid as that is, it’s still an entirely different matter than what I’m talking about here.

    Yes. No “risk” of piracy in a court.

    I can’t believe that anyone would consider cellphone cameras a serious tool for piracy. I suspect it is more a case of what George Carlin described in his prescient bit on Airport Security: That they do this just to show they can fuck with you any time they want.

  • Paul

    I’d leave my cell phone at home, but if I ever became important enough that I needed a cell phone with me all the time, I guess I’d stop going to movies.

  • Lindsay

    I carry my cell phone all the time. Not because I’m so “important” but because my mother is in ill health and there is NO WAY I’m not going to be reachable if she needs me. I would never surrender my cell phone in a movie theater. But I am responsible enough to have it on vibrate and to not answer it until I’m out of the theater. Maryann, next time you go to a showing, just do what I do and stick it in your bra.

  • Plastiquehomme

    I think asking people to check cellphones in is fairly heavy-handed. But I do think movie theatres should be more pro-active about punishing people who use phones for texting or talking in theatres. So, if your phone comes on or rings, you get kicked out of the theatre.

    I guess this could seem heavy handed too, but people will quickly learn not to forget to turn their phone to vibrate if they’re going to be kicked out if they use it once the film is playing. If the phone is on vibrate, and you feel that it is something important you need to check you can simply leave the theatre and check it in the lobby, as Lindsay above states she does (and as I would if for some reason I thought it couldn’t wait).

    I completely accept that there are plenty of legitimate reasons for a person to have a phone in a theatre, but I also think there are no legitimate reasons for people to start using phones in there. Based on this I don’t think it is right to take people’s phones away from them; parents, on call workers, and others really genuinely do need to be contactable. Instead, I think the responsibility should be on theatre owners (who are charging us huge amounts of money to see films) to actually deal with people who do annoying things like talk/text on phones, talk loudly to each other during the film, take your allocated seats (most theatres here in Christchurch, NZ have allocated seating). Surely they could allocate a staff member to each screening to deal with people who stuff wrong, then have the surly rentacop to deal with people who get hostile about it.

  • Plastiquehomme

    LOL and in all my ranting I didn’t actually answer the question. Yes, personally I would check my phone in if it was a condition of entry, because I can’t think of a single time when I have been in a movie and needed to remain contactable. So for me it wouldn’t be a big problem. If it became a condition of entry, it wouldn’t put me off going to movies). But I still think it is a poor solution to the problem of people using phones in theatres.

  • Paul

    Lindsay, it sounds like you are important enough to at least one person that you have to remain reachable.

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