Cries of “censorship” were thrown around after the Academy Theatre Film Committee was told by the theatre’s executive board last year that it couldn’t show Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” until after the presidential election.

In an odd twist, however, this so-called “censorship” is actually leading to more opportunities to see small-market and art films that otherwise wouldn’t be screened in the area.

After a winter/spring hiatus following the “9/11” controversy, the committee is back, made up of mostly new volunteers, and working on a winter lineup of movies that starts in January. Meanwhile, a former committee member is working with The Movies at Meadville to show an eclectic mix of foreign films, documentaries and independent films on Sunday nights starting in January.



What happened with “9/11”?

The 15-member Academy Film Committee decided in September 2004 to start its fall series with Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the “far and away” most heavily-requested title by past film series patrons and a highly acclaimed movie, said then-committee chairman Don Goldstein.

The theatre’s executive board, however, soon received feedback from donors who said they would cut ties if the President Bush-bashing movie was shown before November’s presidential election. Lang called the movie “political propaganda,” and the theatre’s executive board sided with Lang and many others who complained by barring the film committee from showing the movie before the election.

“We realized that it was not a documentary but rather an attempt to unseat the president,” said board President Ted Watts Sr. at that time, explaining that the theatre board doesn’t believe it should be involved in politics.

Goldstein simply called the board’s decision “censorship.”

The board was going to allow the committee to show the movie after the election, but Goldstein said his committee decided the audience appeal that led to scheduling it in the first place would be largely missing after the election.

Upset over the issue fueled by election anxiety immediately spilled onto The Meadville Tribune’s pages as readers sent hundreds of anonymous comments and dozens of letters to the editor. Tempers were so hot that a Democrat compared the theatre board’s decision to tactics used by Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union; and a Republican compared the film to Hitler’s anti-Semitic propaganda.



The fallout

Goldstein was one of the founding members of Academy Theatre Film Committee in 2000 and up until 2004 he had always felt the theatre board worked with the committee on a “basis of mutual trust.”

He claims that up until “9/11” the board hadn’t attempted to control either the titles or the sequence in which the movies were shown.

The film committee continued with its fall series that year, leading off with “Napoleon Dynamite” instead of “9/11,” but Goldstein said attendance was lower throughout the season than in previous years.

“Certainly there was some backlash,” he said, but he noted it’s impossible to know exactly what effect the “9/11” controversy had on attendance.

When the fall season ended, the majority of committee members quit.

“We disbanded due to concerns about censorship,” said Goldstein. “After the theatre board pulled ‘Fahrenheit 9/11,’ we were unable to get the board to sit down with us to discuss how we might all deal with issues of programming control going forward. And most of the film committee members were unwilling to continue at the Academy with this hanging over us.”

Rachel O’Brien, another former film committee member, said she decided to leave when she learned the executive board had control over programming choices.

“It was a surprise to us to learn that we could have our choices rescinded,” said O’Brien, who complained that the board “refused to engage in dialogue” about the issue of programming. Instead, she said theatre manager Geoff Joslin told the committee that a list of programming would have to be approved by the theatre board in the future.

“That wasn’t workable,” she said.

When asked if that policy was indeed laid out, Watts replied, “I frankly do not recall the dealings with the former committee. I put it out of mind and I’m not going to rehash that.”

Joslin couldn’t be reached for comment.



A lamenting goodbye

Ticket sales didn’t nearly cover the expenses when the Academy film series first started in 2000. But O’Brien said by the time she joined in 2002, the series turned a corner and was in the black.

“It caught on,” said O’Brien, pointing out that there were about 100 loyal patrons. “We were not a financial drain to the Academy from 2002 to 2004.”

Of course, many people had to donate time to make the series successful, and the Academy provided a space for the film series rent free, but the medium of film was also introducing many area residents who didn’t attend live theatre to the historic building.

O’Brien said she’s sad to see her relationship end with the Academy Theatre and was reluctant to talk to the Tribune because she didn’t want to give a past controversy new life.

“I do lament the fact that what seemed to be a successful working relationship with the Academy Theatre, a local venue for these kind of films, a historic building downtown, I lament the fact that had to end ... on many levels we don’t want to have another venue.”

Goldstein said that while he won’t be rejoining the newly formed committee, “I wish them the best with whatever they bring to the community.”



A new beginning at Academy

Although the committee is now a fraction of the 15 members who used to volunteer their time, the roughly seven members in the re-formed group are excited to be diving into their second series of films.

“Let’s just look ahead and push forward,” said former theatre board member and current film committee chairman Tom Hall.

Hall said that after the film series stopped in winter/spring earlier this year that the theater’s board decided to advertise in the Tribune’s Bravo! entertainment section for new members.

The group then put together a fall series showing four films — “Mad Hot Ballroom,” “Murderball,” “Assisted Living” and “March of the Penguins.” “Penguins” received the largest attendance, 120 people over two evenings, but for the most part he said attendance was varied.

Hall had some strong praise for the former members of the film committee, saying, “They did great work. They showed some wonderful films down there. If we could be nearly as successful as them I’ll be excited.”





He said the committee is currently talking to distributors in an attempt to line up six or seven movies for a winter/spring series January through March. Plus, Allegheny plans to return to the Academy with its annual international film festival early next year.







Hall said the Academy will still strive to show good movies that other theatres in the area wouldn’t normally show, such as foreign films and independent movies.

As far as rules for the film committee to follow in light of the “9/11” controversy: “We don’t have any rules regarding subject matter,” said Watts.

But Watts did add that there is a theatre board liaison on the committee who is “letting me know what’s going on, generally speaking.”



A new beginning in Vernon Township

O’Brien and her husband typically drove to Pittsburgh or Cleveland to see non-mainstream movies before the Academy started showing its movies.

“We think we can provide those kind of films here to the local community,” she said about why she joined the Academy film committee and why she’s working to show the same type of movies at The Movies at Meadville.

Owner Jon Goldstein has offered his new Vernon Township theatre to show movies that O’Brien selects.

“I said I thought my theatre might be a good place to see them,” said Goldstein, mentioning that “art films” are the most requested on his Web site.

He said there will be “no censorship” and “if people don’t want to see it, don’t come.”

O’Brien will simply provide Goldstein a list and he’s going to take care of booking the films.

The series is tentatively scheduled to run on Sundays and start in early January. Goldstein said he’s looking to create a club so that people could pay a lower price for the whole series instead of buying individual tickets.

“We are going to keep with the caliber of film,” said O’Brien, talking about movies the regulars were used to at Academy when she was a film committee member.

As far as two film groups surviving in one town: “I don’t see a problem with two committees,” said O’Brien. “I think we need to let the market decide what’s going to work.”



Eric Reinagel can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at ereinagel@meadvilletribune.com

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