“The JBFC is a force for social change disguised as a cinema,” Demme once said.
But now something more disturbing than a sudden, cinematic lowering to black has sparked debate at the Pleasantville institution, about 30 miles north of Manhattan.
Former head of programming, Brian Ackerman, was quietly fired in May after more than 20 years of service. Although the film center did not publicly announce the resignation, it had decided, it later said, that he had become a bully at work, threatening the staff and unable to control his temper.
Two people – a longtime employee and another person who worked part-time at the center for years – then walked out in protest and Mr Ackerman signed several letters of support.
“It was completely inconsistent to me that he would work with someone who felt threatened by him in a way that they had to insist that he be removed from his position,” Karen Goodman, who worked with Mr. Ackerman on programming at the Burns for years, said in an interview. “It’s almost laughable, it’s so insane.”
But the film center held out and lost its initial reluctance to discuss a personnel issue by responding with a statement stating that Mr. Ackerman’s resignation was based on multiple episodes of bad behavior.
“There is a well-documented history of at least four cases in the past 14 months of threatening, harassing and harassing behavior by Mr. Ackerman, involving most of the female staff,” the film center said in the statement. “Several Burns employees have come forward voluntarily to thank Burns management for their action to remove Mr. Ackerman, and some have even described additional incidents of Mr. Ackerman’s bullying behavior.”
Last week, in the latest development, Mr. Ackerman sued for millions of dollars in damages, alleging in a 39-page lawsuit that his termination was part of a plot masterminded by the film center’s founder and former executive director, Stephen Apkon. The lawsuit accuses Mr. Apkon from trying to regain his influence at the center so he can become nob with his entrenched donors and use those relationships to support his new nonprofit, Reconsider. The nonprofit describes its mission as working “to address mental health and societal challenges by supporting the rise of transformational medicines, including psychedelics.”
In a statement, Mr. Apkon that he… “deeply concerned’ when he learned of Mr Ackerman’s behavior and offered support to the board of directors, executives and associates. But he did not directly address the lawsuit allegations against him.
For the film center, the case is clear: an employee showed serious intimidating behavior and was fired. It characterizes the suit as part of an ongoing effort to distract, draw attention and harm the organization.
“We believe this lawsuit is futile and we will vigorously defend the Jacob Burns Film Center and its people,” the film center’s board said in a statement.
The four episodes mentioned in Mr. Ackerman’s firing started last year, the film center said. In one, the film center said, he threatened a female director, telling her, “I was deciding whether to quit or come back and destroy you.” In the other, film center officials said, Mr. Ackerman had belittled a female colleague, using profanity, after a disagreement over plans to refurbish a theater; yelled at a colleague who had asked him about the feasibility of using a hybrid model for an upcoming film festival; and yelled at a person in a meeting.
Months before his resignation, Mr Ackerman had been formally warned about his behavior by the director of human relations, the film center said.
When the termination finally took place, it was executed by the film center’s executive director and passed on to the board of directors shortly after, according to Mr. ackerman. According to court papers, the film center refused to tell Mr Ackerman why he was fired and has ignored requests for documents detailing the misconduct he was accused of.
Told on the details of the allegations as provided by the Burns Center, Robert D. Piliero, one of Mr. Ackerman’s attorneys, said the information “reveals how pretextual the whole thing is.”
Mr. Ackerman said in a statement, “A co-founder wanted to come back and turn a beloved institution into a toy for his own personal gain, and I refused to allow it.”
For some, Mr. Ackerman’s move has highlighted a broader shift in the culture at the film center, from small, friendly, and family-owned to something bigger and more impersonal.
Janet Maslin, the Burns chief executive and former DailyExpertNews feature film critic, said the way Mr. Ackerman’s resignation was handled was “completely unprecedented” and said the case had not been handled to my satisfaction prior to his resignation. In an earlier era, she said, those in a dispute like this would have settled things around a table.
“It just moved up to 11, and it should never have come to that,” said Ms Maslin, who has been affiliated with the center since its inception. “I wish this hadn’t turned into a war, because I think it could have been solved in a more humane way.”
Ms. Maslin, who occasionally reviews books for The Times, said she was aware of complaints that Mr. Ackerman had become irritable. “He started behaving,” she said. “He said no to things. It was very difficult to program anything.”
Still, she said it “really hurt” when, during a recent screening attended by Ethan Hawke, she realized that Mr. Ackerman would never be in the theater next to her again. “Without Brian, I don’t think this thing would have worked.”
The Jacob Burns Film Center story begins in 1998 when Mr. Apkon, a resident of Pleasantville, bought the Rome Theater, an old movie house that had gone bankrupt due to nearby multiplexes. With help, he set up a non-profit organization, bought the plot next door to Rome, and started a $5 million capital campaign to build a movie center.
From the start, the effort attracted big names. Glenn Close and Martin Scorsese helped lead the capital campaign. The center opened in 2001 and Mr. Ackerman, whose family owned a number of arthouse theaters in New York City and beyond, became its first and only program director. (The center’s tax return for the year ended September 2021 listed his salary as $154,000.) A page on the center’s “special guests” website features smiling photos of Ahmir “Thompson, known as Questlove; Bong Joon Ho; Meryl Streep; Michael Douglas; and George Clooney.
The center, which has a budget of $6 million, says it shows more than 200,000 people more than 400 movies a year. It was for a time, the court documents say, “the most profitable suburban art house in the United States.” But showing films ultimately proved insufficient. Today, in addition to the center’s five screens, it has a media education center, hosts discussions, houses artists in residence, and teaches filmmaking to students.
In his role, Mr. Ackerman was responsible for putting together the presentation of the film center’s independent, documentary, and world cinema, duties that he was credited with being adept at acting, but work now partially performed by a committee, according to the lawsuit. “Brian was instrumental in establishing this unique institution,” Joanne Howard, Demme’s widow, wrote in an email to the board of the film center.
But the movie center said his bullying behavior was just getting unbearable. At least one of his tirades had brought a colleague to tears, according to the center, which said it had “no choice but to end his employment”.
Sheelagh McNeill and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.