Indie-Cinema Turf War!

Friday we received an email exchange between Cressandra Thibodeaux, owner/director of 14 Pews (a microcinema housed at the former Aurora Picture Show); Marian Luntz, director of MFAH Films; and Erin Owens, a distributor with Arthouse Films.

Here's the gist: Thibodeaux says Luntz is systematically "pulling" films from 14 Pews' programming schedule for the exclusive right to screen them at the MFAH. Over the phone, Thibodeaux became very emotional describing the way Luntz accused her of "ripping off filmmakers," and "renting Netflix by Marian Luntz and showing them illegally and taking the money and not properly paying filmmakers." Thibodeaux assured Art Attack that she, being a filmmaker herself, always deals with distributors and has a 50/50 contract with her cinema and filmmakers. During a meeting in August at SWAMP, Thibodeaux says Luntz voiced presumptions that Thibodeaux was a con-artist, in front of several of Thibodeaux's own peers. Then Luntz, Thibodeaux claims, stole her idea to do a film festival featuring the work of the late Houston director Eagle Pennell.

Thibodeaux also says Luntz wields so much power over what gets shown in Houston that she is able to persuade film distributors to grant her exclusive rights to screenings.

Luntz denies the accusations.

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"It seems like there are a lot of films out there, and in my world, in film programming, there is a courtesy that's gone on for years with us and Rice and SWAMP and Aurora," says Luntz. "Because [Thibodeaux] is inexperienced or chooses to do things a different way, I felt like that [courtesy] wasn't extended, and I've been only supportive and trying to make people aware of 14 Pews, and I felt slapped in the face."

Thibodeaux is concerned that if she books a screening at her theater and submits her calendar to Luntz, that Luntz will see a film she wants to book at the MFAH, contact the distributor or the filmmakers, and have the film pulled from Thibodeaux's schedule.

"This young woman is trying to slander me," Luntz adds, "In my field nobody has power, are you kidding? We're talking about art-film programming."

In the email we received, Luntz, in an exchange dated Thursday, sternly chastises Arthouse's Owens about allowing 14 Pews to screen certain Arthouse titles, like The Waste Land, which Thibodeaux had scheduled to screen at 14 Pews three weeks after the MFAH next year, compromising the exclusivity Luntz presumed to enjoy. Luntz then criticizes Thibodeaux of being inexperienced and not considerate. Owens responds that she didn't see anything wrong with booking the film at two venues.

"Arthouse films and I had committed to screening The Waste Land at the museum months ago," says Luntz.

Luntz says she's only been supportive of 14 Pews and continually talks it up around town, even at her own MFAH events. But she feels Thibodeaux obviously doesn't appreciate it.

Thibodeaux says that Luntz harassed her into pulling The Waste Land from the 14 Pews schedule.

"I've been doing this for 20 years," says Luntz. "[Thibodeaux] bought the former Aurora Picture Show and is showing movies and trying to figure it out. More power to her; I want more movies to be shown here, but people need to have a variety of films to see, and she had so many films to pick. She is new at what she's doing, and for those of us that have been doing it for awhile, and like anything else, some respect is requested."

Delicia Harvey, executive director of Aurora Picture Show agrees that there's a way things get done in Houston.

"Houston has this longstanding, well-established collaborative spirit when it comes to film programming," says Harvey. "We're all very good about extending common courtesy, making sure that as much diversity comes to Houston as possible in terms of film content. I'm expecting that to continue and I'm sure that it will."

Art Attack asked Harvey what was wrong with Thibodeaux screening The Waste Land at her considerably smaller theater three weeks after the MFAH screening. Harvey declined to comment.

Luntz feels that having screenings in close proximity makes promotion that much harder. "It undermines our ability to get coverage if it's also showing at another venue three weeks later. That's how it works in my experience," she says.

Now Thibodeaux wants to rumble meet up and discuss what's happening.

Among the topics on her agenda, from an email received over the weekend:

"...let's have a meeting about programming where you share your programming."

" I would like to discuss the act of pulling Oscar worthy films from my theater and why it's unethical and not a common practice in NYC nor in Texas."

"Furthermore, I'd like to address the taking of my 'Eagle Pennell' Film Festival by Marian Luntz."

"And last but not least I'd like to discuss what harassment is, why Marian's emails were harassment and 3 suggestions on better ways to communicate."

Looks like Thibodeaux has decided to be defiant instead of reaching out to the indie-cinema community. And that's a perfectly legitimate choice. While we wish everyone could get along, communicate, and agree to work together to enrich the experience of independent cinema in Houston, no one should dictate which films indie cinemas choose to program.

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