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by Indiewire Staff
June 24, 2011 8:02 AM
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INTERVIEW: Here's the Story Behind That Theater's No Refund Policy for "Tree of Life"

"The Tree of Life" has some filmgoers running for the exit. [Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.]

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.

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14 Comments

  • F C | May 28, 2013 7:39 AMReply

    I think everything is subject to return policy. The key is to be an informed consumer. I do not know what that theater RP is. I do know that most chain product consumer companies - and movie theaters fit the category- post their policy online among other legal information. As a Consumer, independently of the reason why and withing the policy of the company representing your purchased product, you might be entitled to a refund. I disagree with those of you here criticizing those asking for refunds the way you do. We all return consumer products and expect being treated with dignity. A different issue is how dignifying the act of requesting their refund was in this particular instance with the Avon staff. They also deserve dignity and respect.

  • Rob | July 12, 2011 12:46 PMReply

    Dylan Skolnick: "You never hear stories like this about people demand their money back because they didn’t like a movie at an AMC or Regal multiplex."

    Actually, as an employee of a large movie theater chain, I can say that we do get customers who want refunds for movies they did not enjoy. It doesn't happen ALL the time, but it happens often enough.
    However, I would not attribute these refund requests to any sort of "close bond".....perhaps an entitlement complex, instead?

  • Jilly Fisher | June 28, 2011 2:36 AMReply

    Oh Boy - I can't wait to see the film now. These responses remind me of the reaction to "The Last Temptation of Christ" years ago. And yes I agree, no way should anyone ask for their money back when they dislike a movie or choose not to sit through it. I've had to walk out of a few so-called block busters filled with so much violence--which I generally can avoid--but never dreamed of asking for a refund.

  • F C | May 28, 2013 7:18 AM

    Well Jilly, I think that as a Consumer YOU are entitled to a full refund with "no questions asked" After all that is what i expect from all and Amy consume article that i purchase in the American market. Why a movie ticket would be Amy different?

  • milton mankoff | June 27, 2011 12:55 PMReply

    Anyone who demands a refund for this film should be sentenced to just watch re-runs of
    Father Knows Best, listen to muzak and read Mickey Mouse comics for the rest of their life.
    Malick allows the audience to do their own interpretive work and doesn't have a standard narrative. Not everybody will like it, but to be offended and want your money back is like going to a foreign country and demanding the natives speak your language.

  • Herb Sorgen | June 27, 2011 12:54 PMReply

    Saw it at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck last night and am still thinking about it. Like Mallick, I do find the Book of Job of considerable consolation when trying to understand our place in the universe and our relation to the Creator. And I do also understand how important our relationship with our father is in shaping our values, in either their acceptance or rejection. While his lens is decidedly Christian, I can share his hope in eternal connection and wonder and celebration of Creation.

  • RONNI WITKIN | June 27, 2011 9:59 AMReply

    I went to the theater with great anticipation, some of my favorite reviewers declared it a masterpiece. I HATED IT. I wanted to leave after 45 minutes. That doesn't mean I should get a refund. A few days later I saw the new Herzog film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which was brilliant and fascinating. You win a few, you lose a few.

  • Lisa Nesselson | June 27, 2011 6:09 AMReply

    Unless the film broke in the projector or a plague of locusts invaded the theater during the screening, why in the world would patrons think they deserve their money back? In years gone by, did they return CDs to the record store because they didn't enjoy the music? Do you return a book to the bookshop because you didn't like the writing style or the story (or the typeface or the pagination)? Filmgoing is not a purely "consumer" act. You're making a small investment (time and money) and taking a chance. You can send food back to the kitchen if it's raw and it's supposed to be cooked or if you find a foreign object in your meal but I am baffled by the idea of a film-goer demanding his or her money back because they didn't happen to like what was on screen.

  • Fred | June 27, 2011 3:53 AMReply

    No clothes, no taste, no typing skills...everybody's missing something, aren't they?

  • Jim Sharky | June 27, 2011 1:20 AMReply

    oops..make that "doesn't mean that it is NOT complete pretentious crap"

  • Jim Sharky | June 27, 2011 1:19 AMReply

    Just cuz you sit through the entire film (as I did) doesn't mean that it is complete pretentious crap. The emperor has no clothes, people.

  • Dylan Skolnick | June 24, 2011 11:13 AMReply

    Apologies for the accidental double posting...

  • Dylan Skolnick | June 24, 2011 11:12 AMReply

    These are issues that any theater faces if they choose to screen challenging movies. Adam's response is thoughtful and reasonable. I have been to the Avon, and is one of the best places in the tristate area to see a movie. The people in that area should be extremely appreciative that they have this magnificent venues in their community, and I know that the Avon values their audience and puts a high premium on customer service. In a way, incidents like this are a tribute to the close bond between community-driven art houses and their audience. You never hear stories like this about people demand their money back because they didn't like a movie at an AMC or Regal multiplex.

  • Dylan Skolnick | June 24, 2011 11:10 AMReply

    These are issues that any theater faces if they choose to screen challenging movies. Adam's response is thoughtful and reasonable. I have been to the Avon, and is one of the best places in the tristate area to see a movie. The people in that area should be extremely appreciative that they have this magnificent venues in their community, and I know that the Avon values their audience and puts a high premium on customer service. In a way, incidents like this are a tribute to the close bond between community-driven art houses and their audience. You never hear stories like this about people demand their money back because they didn't like a movie at an AMC or Regal multiplex.