The Aristocrats: Will “The Dirtiest Joke Ever Told” Be Heard?

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July 14, 2005
AMC Theatres not amused by The Aristocrats

“The dirtiest joke ever told” won’t be told in an AMC theater. AMC Theatres, which will become the country’s second-largest theater chain after its pending merger with Loews Cineplex, has decided not to exhibit The Aristocrats , an upcoming unrated documentary about a particularly blue joke, on any of its screens.

According to the movie’s distributor, ThinkFilm, the Kansas City–based AMC originally agreed to play the film—which features an all-star cast of comedians, including out wits Bruce Vilanch, Judy Gold, and Mario Cantone—in Atlanta and Chicago but later backed out of its obligations. AMC countered that though the two companies engaged in early conversations, AMC never reached an agreement with ThinkFilm to play The Aristocrats . AMC spokeswoman Pam Blase said that whenever a film is unrated, the company’s policy is to send the movie up to its corporate offices. Blase said in this case AMC Film Group chairman Dick Walsh made a business decision not to play the film.

Blase added that even if Aristocrats , which showcases a string of comedians telling the same vaudeville-era dirty joke, performs well when it opens in limited engagements July 29 in Los Angeles and New York, AMC will not try to secure it for one of its 3,500 screens. “We are trying to program more specialty films in our theaters, but we are very selective,” Blase said. “We’ve made a business decision and evaluated all the factors and we will stick with that decision.”

Closely held AMC seems to be the only major theater chain offered the picture that has given it a thumbs-down. According to ThinkFilm, The Aristocrats , directed by Paul Provenza and executive produced by Provenza and Penn Jillette, will open in New York at a Loews theater in Times Square as well as at a Mann theater in Santa Monica and a Pacific theater in Los Angeles. (Pacific Theatres does not confirm bookings that are more than five days in the future.) When the movie, which bowed at January’s Sundance Film Festival to strong reviews, expands August 12 to additional markets, the nation’s largest theater chain, Regal Entertainment Group, and other companies are on board to play it. The Knoxville, Tenn.–based company will play the film at its Cinema Art screens that show specialty product. “We occasionally play unrated films in these locations, and this one was never an issue for us,” Regal chief operating officer Greg Dunn said.

Theater chains often decline to play certain films, especially if they suspect the films won’t do any business in their market. But ThinkFilm contends that AMC, rather than making a simple business calculation, is engaging in censorship, and that given AMC’s status as the country’s second-largest chain, that could impact the film’s fortunes. “AMC has some very strategic theaters that we’d like to access,” ThinkFilm president and CEO Jeff Sackman said. “They’ve said [The Aristocrats] is too small, but this film is not smaller than others that they’ve played. The real problem is somebody is deciding on a personal basis what’s appropriate and what isn’t.”

Some circuits, like Texas-based Cinemark USA, have policies in place stating they will not play any unrated or NC-17-rated films in their theaters. As a result, ThinkFilm didn’t approach Cinemark. But AMC does not have such a policy. The chain has played such challenging recent fare as Universal Pictures’ Inside DeepThroat , which carried an NC-17 rating, and the unrated version of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. ThinkFilm said AMC’s decision could have broader consequences about what pictures are available to moviegoers once AMC takes over Loews Cineplex and its 2,200 screens. (Nicole Sperling, via Reuters)