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Thursday, July 22, 2004 11:33 am

Kerasotes 9/11

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Michael Moore

Families often fight about what movies to show. But among the members of Springfield's famous movie-theater clan, the Kerasotes family, Michael Moore's controversial new movie Fahrenheit 9/11 has produced very different reactions.

The biggest-grossing documentary in history, Fahrenheit 9/11 is drawing more customers to movie theaters than most big-budget Hollywood films do. But it still can't be seen in some small Midwestern towns monopolized by Springfield-based GKC Theatres, the 15th-largest theater chain in the country with 29 theaters (268 screens) in 24 cities. GKC banned the movie from all of its theaters with the exception of one in Traverse City, Mich.

GKC -- the "GK" stands for company founder George Kerasotes -- is completely separate from the bigger Springfield-based Kerasotes Theatres, which is showing Moore's film at dozens of its locations.

Kerasotes Theatres was founded in 1909 by Greek immigrant Gus Kerasotes. It's now the ninth-largest chain in America, with 76 theaters (562 screens) in 54 cities. George Kerasotes, one of Gus' sons, split from the family company and founded GKC in 1985. He died in 2001; daughter Beth Kerasotes serves as GKC's president.

To explain why the chain wouldn't exhibit Fahrenheit 9/11, Beth Kerasotes issued this statement: "GKC believes in Michael Moore's freedom to make his movie. We trust that our customers will recognize and respect our own freedom of choice not to play it. During a time of conflict, our troops need and deserve our undivided support."

GKC denies that the company was responding to the call of conservative groups such as Move America Forward, which called for a boycott of the film by movie-theater owners. According to GKC executive vice president Bryan Jeffries, Beth Kerasotes made the decision after seeing the movie in mid-June and before conservative critics of the film became vocal. However, GKC initially gave a different reason to explain why the chain wasn't showing the movie. In a June 21 e-mail, Jeffries wrote: "Unfortunately, most of those decisions come from the motion-picture studio . . . we just wait to see where the film is being offered to us."

In Bloomington-Normal, where GKC dominates the market with 26 movie screens, the ban meant that Moore's movie couldn't be seen in town on its opening weekend. The recently renovated Castle Theater couldn't show the film because owner Ben Slotky was involved in his own fight with GKC. In April, Slotky complained, "It's extremely difficult for the Castle to get movies if the big-chain theater here in town is playing them," because GKC would threaten not to show the movie at all if the Castle was also allowed to show it. Slotky asked his patrons to sign a petition to GKC. In late June, Slotky finally got his chance to open a top movie in competition with GKC. But his commitment to exhibit The Terminal meant that the Castle couldn't show Fahrenheit 9/11.

As a result, Fahrenheit 9/11 opened instead (six days later) at the Normal Theater, a city-owned theater that shows classic and art films and has never had a first-run major release. Fahrenheit 9/11 is "the largest-grossing film for the Normal Theater" in its 10 years of operation, says manager Dawn Riordan -- and the theater had to triple the number of showings to meet demand. The Normal Theater did post a message on its Web site distancing itself from any endorsement of Moore's politics, and, in an apparent act of theatrical political balance, it has scheduled two films starring Ronald Reagan after the run of Fahrenheit 9/11 ends.

GKC joined at least one other large chain, Des Moines, Iowa-based Fridley Theatres, in deciding to ban the movie -- a move that distributors sharply criticized. "What these chains are doing is horrible precedent for the movie business, and it shows exactly how fragile the First Amendment is," Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gates Entertainment, told the New York Times. Lions Gate picked up distribution of the film after Disney refused to do so.

Curiously, spokesmen for both theater groups raise the flag -- and cite the war in Iraq -- to explain the decision to show or not show Moore's film.

GKC's Jeffries says Beth Kerasotes "was raised to believe that you show unwavering support for your troops and their leaders."

Kerasotes spokesman Scott Cottingham says his company "believes in open discourse and diversity to allow our customers to make up their own minds." That's important, he adds, "especially at a time when our soldiers in Iraq are giving their lives to promote democratic ideals."

Cottingham acknowledges that the chain has received some complaints from critics of the film but says none has been from an individual who'd actually seen it.

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