Addicted to Your Phone? Steven Spielberg's Former Assistant Can Help

Courtesy of Lorelei Nelson
Brick’s 2019 Ojai retreat.

Tommy Sobel, a former Amblin digital media exec, throws screen-free getaways in spots like Ojai that challenge guests to seal their devices in VHS cases and make meaningful real-world connections.

As more and more resorts and hotels create digital detox programs for the device-obsessed — in California, both La Quinta Resort & Spa and the Golden Door offer phone-free retreats — Tommy Sobel has gone one step further.

A former new-media creative executive at Amblin Partners (and before that, assistant to Steven Spielberg for five years), Sobel is the founder of Brick, a sort of roving social club that aims to create a sense of community among participants while asking them to detach from their phones.

"I really loved the experience — Brick's events really help people break terrible habits," entertainment lawyer Benjamin Rubinfeld of Ziffren Brittenham says of the two-and-a-half-year-old company, which has thrown weekend getaways in Ojai and Joshua Tree (costs have ranged from $125 to $600), one-night-only get-togethers in L.A. and even beach cleanups. "Brick gives people agency and permission to turn off their devices and be present with each other," says DJ Chris Holmes, who has attended Brick pop-up events in L.A.. "It helps break us out of our constant state of fight or flight and remember what it’s like to be human."

At most events, guests place their phones inside VHS cases and ceremonially seal them with wax. Activities have included hikes, yoga and group Reiki healings. 

Sobel got the idea for Brick — named after the concept that turning off one's phone renders it simply a brick — when he worked in digital media. "I got to know a bunch of influencers who were super successful and all incredibly anxious and isolated and felt this obligation to be on their phones all the time."

An April retreat in Costa Rica will take guests on a six-day volunteering trip to a turtle conservation research station ($1,500). Sobel also coaches clients one-on-one on breaking their addiction to devices and the "persuasive technology" they contain. "Brick's core message," says Sobel, "is to carve out a daily screen-free practice by going phone-free for a little bit every day and do something that's meaningful in the real world."

Adds actor Emile Hirsch, a friend of Sobel's, "With every new model of phone put in our hands taking up more and more space and time in our lives, Brick's relevance will only come into sharper focus. People are massively addicted to their technologies — it's making them miserable, it's making them unhappy, even vacant parents or distant lovers. It's time we take control of this narrative."

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.