Friday, June 08, 2001

Esquire Theater's fans feel betrayed

Cutting of film scene a rare occurrence

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Patrons of the Esquire Theatre in Clifton are accustomed to thinking of it as the region's only safe haven for mature, challenging, non-mainstream films.

        News that the theater had cut footage from director Wayne Wang's erotic drama The Center of the World without telling ticket-buyers or the film's distributor, stunned and angered longtime customers.

[photo] Management of the Esquire Theater refused to discuss its actions.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        “I feel violated, I can tell you that,” said Media Bridges executive director Belinda Rawlins. “I went to see a Wayne Wang movie and now I find that I got to see part of one.”

        Gary Goldman, president of Theatre Management Corp., which operates the Esquire and Mariemont theaters, declined to answer questions about why he decided to cut the film, why he did not disclose the changes and whether he has changed other films.

        Distributor Artisan Entertainment pulled the movie after it learned that the Esquire had changed the print, a copyright and contract violation that industry veterans uniformly described as “unheard-of.”

        “Only in Cincinnati,” said film buff Ahron Leichtman. “Honestly I have not seen this anywhere else in the country. I'm shocked and outraged they would do this.”

        “No one twisted his arm and said "You have to book this film,'” said Michael Porte, a professor of communications at the University of Cincinnati and a devoted film fan. “You'll wonder at each film you see there whether it's been tampered with or if it's the original film.”

        Over the years, the Esquire has shown many unrated and NC-17 rated films, including Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream,Todd Solondz's Happiness,Deepa Mehta's Fire,Philip Haas' Angels and Insects, Abel Ferrar's Bad Lieutenant and Gregor Nicholas' Broken English.

[photo] The controversial poster for the film.
        The Center of the World opened May 25 to lukewarm reviews, based on videotapes provided to critics by Artisan, not on the Esquire's print.

        Unbeknownst to critics and audiences, sometime before the movie opened, Mr. Goldman told an employee to snip out a few feet of footage, amounting to a few seconds of screen time. The scene, early in the movie, involves a stripper's action with a lollipop and a customer.

        The altered movie was shown as many as five times a day, and attracted enough customers to warrant a second week's run. On May 29, Theatre Management Corp. extended the film's booking through Thursday. It ran through the weekend, but on Monday, it was gone. Patrons who tried to buy tickets were told it was gone, and nothing else. The same answer greeted callers to the theater and the management offices.

        So far, neither the Esquire nor Artisan has explained how or when the distributor learned what had happened to its film.

        “Artisan cannot condone when an exhibitor makes a unilateral decision to alter a film,” said an Artisan statement issued on Wednesday. “We stand by the integrity of the films we release and the vision of the filmmakers we support. Thus, we made the decision to remove the film from that venue.”

        Controversy has dogged The Center of the World ever since Mr. Wang and Artisan decided to release it without a rating rather than accept an NC-17 label. Many theaters will not book NC-17 films and many news outlets will not accept ads for them.

        Even without the rating, the first ads were rejected by major newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times. The ads reproduced the movie poster, a shadowy image of a recumbent woman with her legs in the air and a lollipop near her mouth. When the lollipop was removed, the ads were accepted.

        Artisan also promoted the movie with a Web site featuring nearly nude bar dancers, visible after layers of warnings that the site contains sexually explicit material unsuitable for children.

        While other sexually oriented films on a few occasions have been targeted by anti-porn protesters, the experience of a theater owner taking the initiative to edit a movie appears to be without precedent, at least within the past 20 years.

        Although a video retailer caused a furor in 1997 when he trimmed scenes from rental copies of Titanic, neither the Directors Guild of America nor the National Association of Theater Owners could find another case of an exhibitor changing the contents of a feature film.

        Todd McCarthy, chief film critic for the entertainment trade paper Variety, pointed out that “One of the reasons the MPAA came into existence is municipalities and states used to do that. The movie studios got together and agreed to have ratings so these local boards would not go snipping away.”

        As for exhibitor editing, he said, “I don't know of any instance in recent memory when that happened.”

What: Art and specialty films.
Where: Esquire Theater, 320 Ludlow Ave., Clifton.
Screens: Six.
Phone: 985-1520.
Web site:
   The silver screens in Clifton have had their periods of darkness and brilliance. Here are some important dates in the history of the Esquire Theater.
   1911 — Built in art-deco style to run B movies in single, 500-seat auditorium.
   1960s — Moves from art theater concept to second-run Hollywood movies.
   1983 — Closed by competition from suburban multiplexes and home video.
   1984 — Approved for new life as a Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant.
   1984-90 — Restaurant conversion successfully challenged by Clifton Town Meeting and Clifton Theater Corp. neighborhood advocates.
   1990 — Reopened as a three-screen, 400-seat theater.
   1999 — Remodeled to incorporate six screens.
        The artistic implications are disturbing, said Ms. Rawlins.

        “If an artist can't even trust that their material is going to be presented in its intended form ... then who can you trust other than yourself to be distributing your material? Where does that leave you?”

        “It's like removing pages from a book,” said Mr. Leichtman. “I happen to be a writer, and I would be extraordinarily offended if someone did that to my work.”

        “The Esquire has shown the riskiest films in town,” said Mr. Gebhardt. “But then when they take the step of becoming the censor, that's another question altogether. Who knows if they've done this before?”

        Several people said this incident does nothing to dispel Cincinnati's image as a bastion of censorship dating back to the 1990 prosecution of the Contemporary Arts Center for exhibiting graphic sexual photos by the late Robert Mapplethorpe.

        “This is awful,” said Ms. Rawlins, “especially at the time when it seems the concept of a (conservative) community standard in Cincinnati is flipping around, finally. And, boy, hasn't everyone always wanted this, to kind of dump the image?”

        Lori Holladay, director of the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Film Commission, said the story is unlikely to boost the city's appeal to potential visiting productions.

        “I can't tell if it hurts us or not, because those people won't even bother to call,” she said. “They'll just assume that we're not open-minded, I guess.”

        However, Ms. Holladay added, “Does this one incident do that? I don't think so. It's this combination of things that happened over the years from Mapplethorpe on.”

        Said Over-the-Rhine filmmaker and Cincinnati Film Society board member Steve Gebhardt, “I don't understand why somebody up there would do this. ... We do have a huge problem with the ability to express sexuality in this city. I don't know what the problem is.”

        Fans of the foreign, independent, cult and other off-beat fare that is the Esquire's speciality said they do not expect to stop patronizing their favorite theater.

        James Kesner, who coordinates a weekly group trip to the Esquire on Tuesday nights, said he was disappointed in Mr. Goldman.

        “On the other hand, he's responsible for what we have, which is a treasure compared to what most cities have. ... We're lucky to have it here. That makes it even more ironic and hurtful that this person we are so grateful to has done this deceptive thing.”

        “I've always been so proud of them for having the nerve in this town to show NC-17 movies when nobody else is going to do it,” said Ms. Rawlins. “I feel betrayed.”


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