Phones confiscated at preview screenings: whose hypothetical risk is more important?

My latest Guardian column, "Stop worrying, Hollywood - nobody is stealing your films with mobiles," looks into the curious practice of forcing attendees at preview screenings to surrender their phones while they see the movie. The industry admits that no one has ever camcordered a movie with a phone, and further, they admit that 100 percent of pre-release leaks come from insiders, not camcordering. And then there's the small matter of all the data on those hundreds of VIPs' phones that are left in care while they spend a couple hours watching giant robots throw buildings at each other.
If I wanted to stop movies from being pirated, I'd focus my effort on the places where they leak. In the case of the Oscars, that's the insider awards voters who leak every movie they're sent within six days, not the film critics - who have never, ever leaked a movie by recording it at a preview.

Likewise, if I wanted to secure hundreds of mobile phones, my first resort would be to leave them where they are, in cinemagoers' pockets, which is surely the safest place for them to be. Failing that, I'd have a top-notch security system, with tamper-evident, shielded, opaque bags for storing phones, a system of multiple watchers who kept an eye on each other as well as the phones, and special background checks into anyone allowed anywhere in the vicinity of the handsets.

Oh, and I'd make sure I was carrying special insurance that specifically covered losses due to data breaches from phones in my care.

What does the film industry do to safeguard your phone when you see a preview? It's very hard to say. No one could really tell me what the details were.

Stop worrying, Hollywood - nobody is stealing your films with mobiles


  1. Maybe they’re taking phones because people can’t be trusted to turn off their ringers? I’m not sure if I’d mind if they did this at all movie theaters actually.

  2. I don’t claim to be a genius or anything, but if they feel the need to confiscate something, why wouldn’t they just confiscate only the battery? That way the phone and it’s data are safe with it’s respective owner, but they would be unable to power it on to do anything with it. No camcordering. No annoying accidental phone calls. Sheesh. Maybe I am a genius.

    (…sending in my application to Hollywood…)

  3. #1:

    People can’t be trusted to not be idiots when they drive their cars, should we confiscate them too?

  4. The paranoid side of me suggests they take phones to confirm their authority, and make sure people keep on thinking about the issue of piracy.

    It’s easier to lobby for protection if everyone thinks there’s a pirate in every theater.

  5. Just yesterday I read on another blog about Warner Studios banning phones from a Harry Potter screening here in Mexico. The thing is that here in Mexico nobody follows instructions and everyone took their phone. The execs from Warner here in Mexico went berserk and some PR people even started yelling at people because of the phone thing. Oh yeah, and there was a lot of whining of the type “since you pirate movies, I’m jobless and I don’t have money for food”. I’m not kidding, it was that pathetic and stupid.

    Here’s the link for those who can read in spanish:

  6. Security Guard’s hard-on, only reason why.

    We have power over you, cringe in awe.

    “since you pirate movies, I’m jobless and I don’t have money for food”

    Yep, the outright bald-faced propaganda. Funny that a homeless, out of work, starving person is parading around whining about phones while pretending to be a Warner exec or PR tard. Enhances the disbelief in the message, eh?

  7. When I visit factories in Asia, they simple put a removable, tamper-evident sticker over my lens. When I leave, they take it off. Easy, gets the point across, no liability for protecting phones, etc…

  8. It’s not a government agency doing the confiscating, in which case your concerns over the security of the phones would be valid. It’s a private studio whose policies you opt into by attempting to watch the preview. Yeah it makes no sense, but you are given the choice: “don’t see movie” or “leave phone on table with 20 year old attendant over there”. Seems pretty easy to assess these alternatives on whatever basis you need to.

  9. Recently went to a preview for “Funny People.”

    They made the people attending feel like the homeless vagrants, scum-of-the-earth covnicts. I could not believe that they would totally outlaw cell phones, but they did manage to enforce it. People had to keep running to their cars in the parking garage and running back. I actually put the phone in my shoe when I was in line, but then noticed they had metal detectors, and didn’t want to chance it.

    The goon running the show, was spot on with #6’s comment. He looked like the bald guy in Airplane! (“Lenny’s Getting Larger!”). Sadly, his silliness was concentrated on the absurd — screaming and carrying on like he was protecting China from the mongrel hordes. He claimed I “threw” a pen at him, when I tossed it to him underhanded after completing out a form. Thoroughly unbalanced.

    The one friend who I had asked to join me, told me this is why he NEVER goes to these things, despite having the financial and movie-loving motivation to participate.

    I’m never going again, that’s for sure.


    Some phones – iPhone, I’m looking at you – have non-removable batteries, so just taking the battery isn’t an option.

    I presume that anyone who really wanted to steal a movie with a cellphone would be willing to slip an extra battery or memory card into their sock.

    Realistically, my guess would be that cellphones are about as big a threat to the movie industry as photocopiers are to the paperback book industry. Sure, you can do it, but why would you bother?

  11. Y’know, what would be really fun is to present them with a lengthy legal document that they must sign, accepting liability for the phone and its stored data, and committing to pay the same kind of ridiculous fines that they insist on in the event of any data piracy.

    Naturally, you’d have to present this to them with your best polite manner, and speak movingly of your fear of piracy, and how you can’t trust anyone these days, and so on.

    Oh, and of course, you’d film it and put it out over BitTorrent. Mustn’t forget the salt when we’re wounding…

  12. I’m not sure that they’re worried about someone recording the whole movie, but in the case of Cloverfield, the design of the monster was kept very secret until it was leaked as a series of cell phone pictures from a screening.

  13. yeah, it sucks
    i left my phone in my friend’s car when i went to see the new Harry Potter the other night.
    and I picked up a free bottle of water and some popcorn on the way in.

  14. Someone wants to take my cell phone before I can enter an event. Then I’ll just leave. I refuse to play that game.

    I have something they want, My Time, My Money. Only thefts and cheats are so paranoid that they think everyone is out to seal from or get them. They can keep their… ( I’ll stop now )

    1. Someone wants to take my cell phone before I can enter an event. Then I’ll just leave.

      The theater won’t care. They make their money off the snacks. You’ll already be holding your tub of popcorn by the time that you decide not to surrender your phone.

  15. “only thefts and cheats are so paranoid…” I think you nailed it. It’s what THEY would do so they assume everyone’s doing it.

  16. Hahahaha these idiots… they keep making it more and more difficult for honest people to see the movies without huge inconveniences… how many people do you think said, screw this, I’ll just go home and download the movie?

  17. @HeruRaHa:
    A lot of people already have.
    Charging $3 for a cup of “only pennies a glass” kool-aid isn’t helping their case any.

  18. They’re handled by a private security company. I forgot I had my Casio exilim on me when I saw Watchmen preview, and I handed it over to the security staff. After I had left, I forgot about it. I returned to the theatre the next day and after a few calls by the staff, they gave me the number of the security company that WB (or whoever) had hired.

    I called, and the camera was still in the possession of the guard from the previous night (as he hadn’t been back to head office yet). They offered to drop it by my place the next day with another guard who would be working in the area. The camera arrived with no problems.

    A relatively painless experience, but I imagine the same thing would happen with a forgotten phone.

  19. I could not believe that they would totally outlaw cell phones, but they did manage to enforce it. People had to keep running to their cars in the parking garage and running back. I actually put the phone in my shoe when I was in line, but then noticed they had metal detectors, and didn’t want to chance it.

    This absolutely flabbergasts me. Wouldn’t it be easier not to see the movie, if other, more pressing business, forces you to interrupt your and others’ viewing of it? Like, maybe the right of others to simply see the film with as few interruptions as possible trumps your right to check on the babysitter every five minutes, from your seat or (!?!) from your car?

    A theater’s a private space, people: we’re paying $$$ for the privilege of voluntarily entering Plato’s Cave for two hours. Leave your other shit at the door, figuratively…. and maybe literally as well.

    Would you do this at the opera?

  20. i don’t know what everyone is worried about, you can watch everything on the internet now and you can take calls at the same time.
    you could record it too if your that way inclined

  21. 1) Of course it’s a power thing.

    2) In my experience, there’s more “pirate” video leaked out of VFX houses than anywhere else. Granted, my experience was ten years ago when high-speed desktop connections weren’t 100% “normal” and computers were much slower and copying took longer…

    3) My cell phone wasn’t confiscated at the WATCHMEN screening I attended in Wonder-Con this year, and that was a studio thing.

  22. The relative importance that the studios put on you as a preview attendee, vs. the people who get the “screener” DVDs, is pretty obvious from the way they treat you vs. the way they treat the screeners. You: cattle who are better-treated by the TSA, in hopes that your enthusiastic comments to your friends will bring in $25 more in ticket sales. Screener: preview DVD direct to the door, despite the fact that 100% of recently leaked copies come from screener DVDs. Guess whose high opinion they figure they can’t live without?

    Of course they do watermark those DVDs now, so some idiots have been privileged to undergo the legal equivalent of an auto-da-fe. But they still send ’em out.

    I figure if they value my previewed opinion that much they can just send me a damn DVD. And I live in the city that has five of those preview guys with clipboards standing outside every theater.

    (On the other hand be it noted that my girlfriend was a TV Academy member for several years due to Emmy stuff, and we used to go to their weekend current-movie screenings for members only at the Academy theater in North Hollywood. Now, THOSE totally rock! Best theater I’ve ever been in, totally respectful audience [they all have friends in the end credits], no audience chatter, pristine prints. Heaven.)

  23. This happened to me awhile back when We had free passes to a sneak preview of 10,000 BC. Warner Brothers was confiscating phones and keeping them in paper bags outside the theatre.

    We took our tickets and went to watch another movie for free. In this case it was Be Kind Rewind. I emailed Warner Brothers that instead of getting free publicity for their movie, their Draconian practices made me opt to use the advertising money to watch another film instead. They didn’t respond.

    I started keeping a rudimentary blog of which companies were trying to collect phones. Unfortunately, I did a poor job of updating it.

    Since then, I have never been asked to surrender my phone. I’ve managed to see atleast another 10 sneak previews.

  24. To #7 and #13: I figured my sarcasm at the end would make it obvious I was being sarcastic overall ;) I realize some batteries aren’t removable and that they could just whip out a second battery…and speaking of…couldn’t they just whip out a second phone altogether if they were really all that hard up to pirate or whatever else Hollywood’s afraid of? It’s all ridiculous…every bit of it.

  25. Anonymous @10, the security concerns are valid no matter who the agency is that’s doing the confiscating. If someone leaves their phone in the care of a movie theater or a PR flack, and the phone is stolen, or some data on the phone are stolen, the stolen material doesn’t magically become un-stolen just because the confiscation wasn’t done at the demand of a government agency.

    Antinous @29, the movie theater makes its money off the snacks. The studio is hoping to generate word-of-mouth marketing off the free screening. Imagine that everyone who showed up for a screening decided to leave instead of surrendering their phones. The studio (or maybe the PR firm) would have spent money on holding the screening, but they’d get no buzz out of it.

  26. I went to see a movie in IMAX and the guy next to me was texting girls all through the film! It was really distracting. I wish someone had confiscated HIS phone. I was ready to grab it and throw it through the screen haha

  27. I only attend movies on the second or third week of release. The other people who show up are usually there to see the film. I can’t imagine putting up with this bullshit.

  28. This is the usual at movie screenings, and most of you seem to know this. Either stop going to screenings, or leave your phone at home. You’re probably those people who text during movies, annoying me with the glare a few rows away.

    They do it to protect themselves, not boss you around. They aren’t benevolently letting you see a movie for free because they want to exercise their power and enforce their “draconian” rules on you. They’re showing you a movie so they can get valuable feedback as to how they can improve the movie.

    As someone who works in the arts, I jump at the chance to go to a test screening. It is an incredible thing to me, seeing an unfinished work, and having input (even if only a tiny amount) on its final result. And plus, free movie!

  29. #34

    There’s a difference between test screenings and preview screenings. Most of these people are talking about preview screenings – those movies are be released soon, and the studio is not going to make any changes at that late hour. The point of the screening is to have those people tell their friends to go see the movie. That’s it.

  30. I went to a preview screening of The Incredible Hulk last year with my boyfriend. The pass specifically said no camera, so I left my digital camera at home and my boyfriend borrowed his father’s cell phone so he could leave his camera phone. My cell phone had no camera, because when I originally bought it I made sure to pick one that didn’t have a camera so I wouldn’t have to worry about it being confiscated at concerts/screenings etc.

    Let’s make that clear: we followed directions and left any recording devices we had at home.

    When we got into the theater we found out it didn’t matter, because they were confiscating everything anyway. Because in their words, “They don’t know what can record and what can’t.”


    They took my cell phone, my boyfriend’s cell phone, and my Nintendo DS. The items were taped together and left on a bench with everyone else’s stuff behind a rope with a security guard for the next two hours.

    Even when you play by their rules, you still can’t win.

  31. There’s a difference between public preview screenings and press screenings. I went to a press screening of The Hangover here recently in Auckland, New Zealand, the first time I’ve had my phone confiscated as a critic. If the studios keep doing this, they’ll find eventually that critics just won’t bother to publicise their films.

  32. I was just in the first session of the new Harry Potter (9 AM, Sydney, Australia) today and they didn’t check for anything.

    It would have been easy as hell to simply film it.

  33. “What does the film industry do to safeguard your phone when you see a preview? It’s very hard to say. No one could really tell me what the details were.”

    The one screening where this happened at a film festival that I was volunteering at, one of the security guards ended up guarding a table piled high with mobile phones for the duration. I am guessing that generally the studio just lets the security people make it up.

  34. One of the things you mention in the article – livelihood of corn growers depending on movies – reminded me of Mack Reynolds’ story “Subversive“.

  35. I am just getting back to reviewing films after doing something else for a few years. If this ever happens to me I will walk up to the nice man from the publicity company, smile and ask, “Do you really want to read the review I’m going to write if you take my Blackberry?”

  36. I’m a security guard (not at a theater). My concerns would be:

    a) properly securing each item, ie, in a sealed bag, labeled on the outside. Maybe the owner’s business card placed inside for identification.

    b) liability! who is responsible if “something happens”? Me, my employer, the theater, etc… If someone takes the wrong phone, must I do paperwork? lol…

    c) secured storage of items. Locked in an office. who has access? If someone has to leave, can they get their phone back in a reasonable amount of time?

    d) are the patrons being searched??? ie with a wand, pat-downs, etc. What’s the policy if someone is “caught” with a phone?

    I don’t necessarily agree with the confiscation policy, and if my phone were being “held”, I would want the above information, at a minimum.

    And, wouldn’t it be A LOT EASIER AND SIMPLER to just have a guard or two WALK THE AISLES DURING THE MOVIE to look for cameras????

  37. I’m wondering how closely they search you; it should be pretty easy to get one of those traveler’s wallets that strap to your calf or the small of your back and just say that you knew they were going to confiscate them so you left it at home/in the car/at the hotel. If they’re really going to feel you up, I’d have to ask myself if watching Megan Fox being chased by a snarling pile of junk was worth getting my beans and franks groped by some random ticket-ripper.

  38. They confiscate phones, because they set up guards in a room behind the theater with scopes. These scopes detect any cameras that people may be using to bootleg a movie, but unfortunately they also detect cell-phones, which confuses them.

    They’re like “That guy’s pirating, no wait… cell phone. That guy has a cam… no wait, cell phone.”

    So now they’re just confiscating the phones so they don’t get confused.

    They think they can actually stop piracy. That’s about as retarded as trying to stop terror. lol

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