I've seen some of the best movies of my entire life at film festivals — and shared the experiences with some of the worst audiences. That's because there's two different types of attendees at festivals: the people who are there to watch movies, and the people who are not. In the first group, you have critics and amateur enthusiasts who genuinely care about cinema and want to engage with the stuff they're seeing in a serious way. In the second group, you have everybody else, from deal-making distributors to star-fucking fame whores who just want to sit in the same room as Sam Rockwell. One group pays attention to the silver screen; the other pays attention to the screen on their cell phones.
It's getting to be a huge problem — and, according to writer and longtime Sundance attendee Dor Dotson — the problem has reached epidemic proportions at this year's Sundance. Unfortunately, this isn't a virus you can fight by handing out thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer, either. In a piece on her website, Movies With Dor, Dotson sizes up the gravity of the issue:
"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."
Dotson says she believes that most people are inherently good, and that by and large they simply don't realize their behavior is distracting and intrusive. I, being a cynical, horrible person take a different view: society, in the immortal words of Ivo Shandor, is too sick to survive. People know their behavior is unacceptable and simply don't care. Their email is way more important than the purity of your moviegoing experience.
It really comes down to those two groups. I don't think people realize how many folks go to Sundance because they work for someone who advertises with a media company that uses the festival as a place to wine and dine their clients with free food, skiing, and maybe occasionally if the weather's really bad, a movie or two. These folks aren't cinephiles; they're businessmen and marketers. For them, it's basically the Sundance Schmooze Festival.
And hey, there's nothing wrong with that — so long as it doesn't impede on the experiences of the folks who genuinely care about those movies they've flown thousands of miles, and paid hundreds of dollars, and waited hours in line to see. Dotson has some sensible suggestions how to get this epidemic under control — making the no cell phone announcements before movies more pronounced; enforcing penalties for rule breakers — but I'm not sure it's going to get any better as long as that second group is in attendance.