Hey everybody!  It’s been a while, Best of Philly 2013 award-winner PhilaMOCA keeps me real busy.  Speaking of which, did you see that great article on us in this past Friday’s Inquirer?  Good stuff, I especially love the rather strange url.  But enough about me, it’s been a while since we checked in with the Philadelphia Film Society and I’ve been sitting on a ton of PFS-related news and gossip, which I’ll likely get to someday.  But for now, just in time for Halloween, let’s take a horrifying inside look at the Society courtesy of three former members who were excited to discuss their feelings and frustrations towards the local nonprofit…

Liam O’Donnell (34, writer for Cinapse) was a PFS member from 2007-2013; Joshua Alvarez (35 and a Cinedelphia contributor) and his wife Meilani Georgis (30) were PFS members from 2010-2013.

CINEDELPHIA: What were the positive aspects of being a paid member of the PFS?

LIAM O’DONNELL: I really liked feeling like I was a part of something that was about film in Philadelphia. The free screenings were pretty great at first, and I like having access to films in advance.  The best part for me though were the passes to the Film Fest.  Going to the Fest when you have passes is so great, it just makes the whole process a lot easier.

MEILANI GEORGIS: The perceived benefit for me was to get advance access to screenings and special events that the average Joe wouldn’t be able to see.  It was a guise that we were getting to see movies first.  After a while you realize that you’re seeing movies with other people who aren’t paying $500 a year to attend the exact same screenings.  There’s nothing special about it.

C: So Film Society members are sharing these screenings with the general public.

JOSHUA ALVAREZ: Yeah.  It was really just like having a glorified Gofobo membership, that’s all it was.

MG: That between us we paid $1000 a year to have. [Gofobo is an online service that aids in the promotion of films by allowing the general public admission to advance movie screenings for free]

JA: It was cool to get your name on a reserved seat, but these jamokes with a high-speed internet connection are getting into the same movies as you.  Not to be an elitist, but it just made it seem, like, what’s the point?  We were members of the Film Society for three years and we were only invited to one party at the sound stage, a members celebration type of thing.  That was fine, we drank beer and hung out with Liam, because nobody else in the Film Society would talk to us.  It was a very unfriendly atmosphere.

MG: Very hoity-toity.

C: Related to that observation, can you characterize their membership base?

JA: We met a person that had never seen Dumb & Dumber.  We went to a screening at Dive and I had said something afterwards like “Man, I can’t believe something-something Dumb & Dumber” and the person I was talking to was like “Dumb and what now?  I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

MG: In our experience it is largely older, more affluent people.  Someone who wants to support the arts, but wasn’t involved in them, didn’t take an active passion in them aside from giving money, didn’t really have much of a care for film.

JA: We attended a bunch of the screenings and after three years of being members we’ve only come away with two friends, Liam and Susan [Susan is Liam’s fiancee who simultaneously left the PFS].  That’s it.  And the only people we’d ever recognize from screening to screening were the annoying ones that would talk the whole time.

MG: Yeah, a lot of older ladies.

LO: It’s not just not making friends, it’s the hostility.  The other members are hostile towards younger people.

JA: For sure.

MG: Upturned noses and dirty looks.

LO: They make you feel, like, “Why are you here?”

C: It’s starting to sound like the word “society” is a misnomer, at least as far as camaraderie goes.

JA: It definitely is.  The only other person we met that we liked was Justin Nordell [Manager of Membership, Education, and Community Outreach, quite a title], he was really good until they let him go.  From what I understand, they let him go to get a person with a stronger background in finance.  Justin was the membership coordinator after Jared, the second Jared.  Once he left that felt like the end of friendly people to me.

C: Is there a lot of staff turnover at the Film Society?

LO: There has been a constant rotating cast of characters there.  Many have been friendly and nice to work with, but it also begins to feel as if no one knows you there.  When you are a member of a society, especially one that involves such a serious financial investment, it’s nice to feel like the folks running it know about you and who you are.  Some of the staff over the years have been great at that, really showing some personal attention.  Others have seemed like they were not sure who I was.

MG: After three years, this was a couple months ago before we parted ways with them, we were eating at Pagoda right next to [PFS Executive Director / CEO] Andrew Greenblatt and he didn’t look up, he didn’t nod, he didn’t “Thank you for being a member for three fucking years.”  And then I went up to him before we left and said “Hi, I don’t think we ever met,” and he was like “Oh, oh, oh, we’ve met, we’ve met.”  It just felt really shitty that the head of this organization didn’t know who we were and didn’t thank us or acknowledge us.

JA: And this was after donating $500 to the Roxy.

MG: That was a mistake.

JA: We donated $500 to the Roxy in addition to our membership, we were so hyped on the idea of having a theater for the Film Society.  This was around the time that Joseph Gordon Levitt was doing the hitRECord show at the Academy of Music.  The money came out of the account prior to this event.

MG: They were doing heavy promotion, literally twenty people with buckets in the lobby asking for money.

JA: They were saying “We even appreciate $1, poor college kids $1 is appreciated.”  And they hadn’t said anything to us about the $500 we’d given them.  Liam tells us to speak to the new fundraising lady, the one who replaced Justin, so I went up to her and said “I don’t think we were thanked for our donation and it was a lot more than $1.”  She took my name down and said she’d look into it.  A day or two later and still nothing, they eventually put up a post on Facebook that said they really appreciated everybody’s donations so I wrote under it “Well I guess a $500 donation doesn’t get a thank you but a $1 donation from a college student does.”  And then that night Greenblatt called us and was all “I just wanted to thank you personally for your generous donation, but the problem is we can’t find it.”  And we were like “Well, that’s funny.”  We’d already given it, it had already been taken out of the account.  And then that was the last we heard of it.  I can only imagine us once going into the Roxy to see the brick with Meilani’s name on it, then never going back!

C: Liam, why did you leave the Film Society?

LO: Honestly, I really left for financial reasons.  To get the kind of access I was enjoying, I needed to spend a considerable amount of money and I couldn’t maintain that expense anymore…I loved the benefits, but the benefits were not enough to make me keep giving money.  Feeling like I was giving money to something important and meaningful is really why I wanted to do it in the first place, but the quality of the Film Fest has gone down, with constant projection issues and less interesting programming.  Feeling like I was helping to make it happen as a member was pretty great when I felt like it was something I wanted to help with.

MG: All of the problems during the Film Festival were always such a bummer and made it feel like it wasn’t worth the money.  I felt bad for the people that bought tickets at the door, I would have been pissed if I hadn’t basically paid for my tickets far in advance [as part of the $500 membership].  I have a letter that I sent them in 2011 that details all of the mistakes that I counted in the beginning of that festival.  [The letter is posted in full below]

JA: That was rough, man.  That was the year we saw Europa, there were no subtitles!  An explanation that we were given during Film Festival season was that they only had the prints for a few hours so they were never fully prepared for whatever could come up during the screening.  But again, that’s $12 that people are paying to see a movie.  I remember during the screening of Stand Up Guys, it was the pivotal scene of the movie and the whole thing messed up and the sound cut out.  During the one moment that brought everything together.  It was just quiet for five minutes.

LO: I was for a very long time a sort of Film Society evangelist.  Organizations like that flourish with more and more participation, and so I wanted everyone I knew who loved movies to be a part of it.  Over time though it got harder and harder to sell the idea, not just because of diminishing returns or value for membership, it got harder to make the case that the Film Society had an impact on the experience of film fans in Philadelphia.

C: So in a way the older, snob-type members won the battle now that you’ve all moved on from the PFS.

JA: I don’t even know if anyone left in the Film Society is tattooed.

LO: I felt like I wanted to be a member that much more because of that condescending attitude, I was sad to leave because it was like the old people won…I think they have to negotiate between what the people there may or may not want and a very active board with a very strong opinion.  The board gets to make decisions that us members don’t get to make.  No one ever asked us what we think.

JA: Yeah, that’s true.

LO: I am still very hopeful for the Film Society and the Philly Film Fest.  That is not to play down anyone else’s frustrations, I think many people have had legitimately bad experiences with them.  Not me though.  I’m more frustrated because, more than any of us, they have an opportunity to grow the filmmaking and watching community in Philadelphia and I wish they would do it more.


Thanks to Liam, Josh, and Meilani for speaking with us, Cinedelphia.com is more than happy to act as an outlet for the justifiable public venting of frustrations such as these.  I ended the interviews by asking them what they consider Philadelphia’s most valuable outlets for film and they all cited the same organizations:  Awesome Fest, International House, PhilaMOCA, and Secret Cinema.

Here’s that letter mentioned above, the crazy thing about it is just how obviously passionate Meilani was about the PFS, a world away from her current stance:

Subject: Totally Dissatisfied & Disappointed

I want to preface this e-mail by stating that nothing in this note is directed at you personally. I think you’re great, but I need to vent some things about the Philadelphia Film Festival and I hope you will get this note into the hands of the appropriate staff. Any further mention of “you” from this point forth is the collective “you” that is the PFS or those specifically managing the Philadelphia Film Festival.

First, I would like to state that this is my third consecutive film festival and second year as a PFS member. My friends and I look forward to the Philadelphia Film Festival, it’s an exciting and promising time of the year. However, I am very disappointed in the manner in which the screenings are being shown. We have seen 7 films just this weekend alone and three out of the 7 have had some sort of major projection problem. That’s almost half of the films. Looking at it with an analytic eye, a near 50% error rate on a random sampling is terrible. Thank goodness we’re not talking about vehicle manufacturing or pharmaceutical production. But I digress…

What brought me to write this note is the latest screening blunder. We saw “Europa” at 10:00 PM at the Ritz East this evening and it was shown without subtitles. Granted, this film is 20 years old and is readily available for purchase or rental, but this film is 50% in German and is supposed to be shown with subtitles. I was able to make it about 15 minutes or so but had to walk out because I felt like we were missing out on dialog integral to the plot of the film. Perhaps I’m overreacting, but the amount of German dialog in the film was not ancillary dialog. Several other people walked out and we commiserated on the way to our respective cars. Anyway, we did speak to Lansie as we were walking out of the theater and she profusely apologized, which came after her confirmation that it was in fact supposed to be shown with subtitles but that nothing could be done once it had started. Nothing could be done once it had started? I find that hard to believe, but even if that is true, hopefully you are sensing my frustration.

We also saw “Coriolanus” today. And that, too, had huge issues. The film speed was sped up, almost as if it were being shown in fast forward, and then after some complaining by other audience members, several minutes later the speed was adjusted (with the screen blacking out momentarily no less), however the rest of the screening was mostly out of focus or blurry. Other audience members noticed this and commented on this, too, so I know it’s not just me. This projection issue clearly made for an unenjoyable viewing experience. We stuck this one out. But not even a word of apology or acknowledgment from anyone as we were walking out. That’s a shame.

The other film we saw was “Jeff, Who Lives At Home,” which had the incorrect aspect ratio for the duration of the screening. It was annoying but bearable. Tops of heads were cut off and things were totally off screen. I doubt that was the intended effect. Once again, no apology or acknowledgement or even attempt to correct it.

I remember there being quite a few projection issues last year as well, but that is beside the point of the here and now. I understand that often times you are working with new and/or different projection equipment or film formats, but come on. From my perspective, this shouldn’t be happening as often as it is. I want the Philadelphia Film Festival and Philadelphia Film Society to succeed. I really do. With all the money and effort that goes into advertising and promotion, I would think that you would be doing your best to ensure that the product is perfect. What is really disheartening is the fact that most of the screenings are prefaced with a “Please join PFS” spiel and to those in the audience that would be potential members, I feel like you’re losing them when you have such issues as the ones mentioned above. It really looks and feels half-assed sometimes and I know that is not the case. I know you guys work hard on the festival, but there is great room for improvement. What can be done to prevent these issues from further happening? Better training? Better understanding of the equipment and copy format? Better transparency? Actual ownership and acknowledgement of problems? Forewarning that projection issues may occur? Something. Anything. Please.

Thankfully for me, my membership level includes two all-access passes. If I had to pay the $12 per ticket price tag or $350 for the all-access badge, I would feel like I had been ripped off and I’d be extremely pissed at these screenings. Just remember, praise often goes unsaid but negative feedback from disgruntled customers has a far and unsettling reach. It’s hard to bring someone back around, if you are even lucky enough to get them back for a second try. Oftentimes, once you’ve lost a customer, you’ve lost them for good, as well as potential customers along the way that may have been forewarned by those that are dissatisfied. I would really hope that the PFS is working hard to prevent this. With the exception of “Melancholia,” the screenings this weekend seemed to have rather low attendance. At first this surprised me, as I wholeheartedly bought into the 20th Anniversary being a big draw event, but now, I think I’m starting to see why…

Also, has any screening, thus far, even begun on time? Thankfully for me, I have the unique gift of being late to everything in life, but still. It seems awfully unprofessional, especially for the first films of the day.

Anyway, if you made it this far, thank you. I really love the PFS and I want to see it grow and be successful. I’d like the festival to be bigger and better. I want to be able to bring friends to these screenings and have them be excited not disappointed. I want to be proud of my hometown film festival, not embarrassed. I also want to feel that my $1,000 yearly membership fees are being spent wisely. Best of luck in the future. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or comments.

And finally our new slogan – Cinedelphia: We’ve seen Dumb & Dumber.

Author: Eric Bresler

Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.

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