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INTERVIEW: Here's the Story Behind That Theater's No Refund Policy for "Tree of Life"

Indiewire By Indiewire Staff | Indiewire June 24, 2011 at 8:2AM

Nonprofit arthouses aren't known for their rabble rousing, but "The Tree of Life" refund policy at Avon Theatre in Stamford, CT has become a viral meme after an audience member posted a Twitpic. We called Adam Birnbaum, Avon's director of business development and film programming, to get the full story.
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Nonprofit arthouses aren't known for their rabble rousing, but "The Tree of Life" refund policy at Avon Theatre in Stamford, CT has become a viral meme after an audience member posted a Twitpic. We called Adam Birnbaum, Avon's director of business development and film programming, to get the full story.

So, what was the audience response to "The Tree of Life" when you screened the movie last weekend?

Well, I think it's important for us to give context and clarity to the message that's gone out about the memo we posted. The memo shouldn't be misconstrued to imply that the majority of the audience disliked the film; that would be totally misrepresentative of the overall audience response.

The overwhelming response to the film was, in fact, positive. There was a small but vocal minority of patrons who walked out of the film, but there were a few individuals who were fairly nasty and belligerent towards the management staff, demanding their money back. There have been a significant number of people who were fascinated by the film and there were plenty of individuals who have written to us to tell us that they thought the film was a masterpiece.

The combination of walkouts and isolated instances led us to take our approach with the memo. We always want to be as direct, open and transparent as possible with our patrons and potential filmgoers. If they're not totally informed about the movie's stylistic approach, then they might want to take a moment to read up on it and decide whether or not it's something they might want to see. We wanted to keep customers aware while preemptively diffusing instances like what happened last week when customers got up in the faces of our kind and caring staff.

The Avon Theatre in Stamford, CT posted this disclaimer at their box office after last week's screenings.

Is this the first time you've taken this approach?

Yes. Like any arthouse theater, we have had films that were met with disdain, and there are films that had a universally negative response. Two that come to mind were "Me and You and Everyone We Know" and "Margot at the Wedding." In general, dysfunctional suburban films tend to be received very poorly in our market. I certainly wouldn't put "The Tree of Life" in that category; the negative response to the film isn't for that reason. It's more for the particular visual and stylistic approach in the film that is so different from what people are accustomed to these days.

How do you feel about your memo going viral?

I have no problem with it. Of course, I'm a little surprised that it's gained as much momentum as it has. For us, it wasn't as much of a story as it's been made out to be, but I think it's great. Unlike many films in the marketplace, it's a film that's eliciting such a huge response from people, be it negative or positive.

If this situation and the posting of the memo can elicit further discussion and debate about the film, that's great. It's something that's missing in so many movies these days. Most of the time, when an audience leaves a film, it's forgotten right away. In the past, especially in the art house market, movies challenged audiences to debate and people would go out after the film and talk about it.

So, I'm so glad that a film has finally arrived that has caused heated discussion and brought the spark back. It's something that's so lacking from films these days. I've always said that the best film is a film that elicits a response from the audience.