This year should have been a celebratory one for the Cinefamily, marking the 10th anniversary of an organization founded in 2007 that had grown to become one of the best known spaces for repertory and independent film exhibition in the city.
Instead, in the wake of a scandal, the board of directors of the Cinefamily has decided to permanently shut down the organization and dissolve the board.
“The damage caused to the organization by the conduct of some and the crippling debt now facing The Cinefamily are, in the Board’s view, irreparable,” read a newly released statement from the board, citing an “exhaustive analysis of the organization’s current operational, reputational and financial status.”
“There was no reasonable way forward,” said Rory Miller, an attorney at the firm of Glaser Weil who has been consulting with the board and represented the organization before the recent controversy.
As previously reported in The Times, in late August anonymous emails accusing members of Cinefamily leadership of sexual harassment, a toxic working environment and, most seriously, rape, circulated online. Executive director and co-founder Hadrian Belove and board member Shadie Elnashai resigned on Aug. 22.
The loose, freewheeling atmosphere that made Cinefamily feel special for audiences had, according to many, also led to friction and an increasingly fraught environment for the mix of volunteers and paid staff. After the anonymous emails circulated, many stories emerged of a difficult workplace in which alleged harassment and mistreatment of staff, particularly female employees and volunteers, went unchecked due to the organization's overall lack of structure and accountability.
As former employees and volunteers began airing their grievances online and in the media, the organization suspended operations on Aug. 26.
The Cinefamily board retained Giles Miller, a principal at the firm of Lynx Insights and Investigations, to conduct an investigation into the allegations. The investigation included establishing a hotline for complaints, full access to the Cinefamily’s email server and internal documents and interviews with current and former employees.
The board’s final statement comes at the conclusion of that investigation. Though they found no evidence to support the allegation of rape, the inquiry did uncover “breaches of acceptable behavior alleged to have happened at Cinefamily offices and events; a climate that discouraged employees and volunteers from reporting distressing workplace incidents and/or made them feel unheard if they did so; and critical lapses in communication from the executive management to the Board.”
Due to the board’s limited financial resources, the investigation could go only so long; the board and Giles Miller acknowledge there may still be victims who have not come forward.
“From the beginning and throughout this, the board was very clear that they wanted to fully investigate all these allegations of bad acts,” Giles Miller said in a recent interview with The Times, “whether it be rape or sexual assault, or whether it be a toxic, dysfunctional environment at the theater.”
“I think it’s important that the public know that a good faith investigation was entered into by the board and was initiated by the board and supported by the board,” he added. “And it did get to a place where there were findings — not conclusive findings, but findings that I think the board was able to work with [to make their decision].”
The 16-person board is currently made up largely of industry professionals including Amazon Studios executive Ted Hope, filmmaker Phil Lord, screenwriter Michael Bacall, filmmaker Katharine O’Brien, agents Bec Smith and Liesl Copland, producer Albert Berger and Cinespia’s Alia Penner and John Wyatt.
The allegations against Cinefamily emerged shortly before the recent wave of accusations involving harassment and abuse among powerful figures in the entertainment industry. The ensuing cultural conversation weighed into the board’s decision regarding the future of the organization.
As attorney Rory Miller said, “The investigation, though incomplete, showed how deep the problems were. Even though the rape claim wasn’t supported, it’s not possible to know everything that may have happened. No one wanted to proceed with that uncertainty. In light of the conversation that was happening in the industry, no one was confident to vouch that everything was now fine.”
The Cinefamily had grown to be involved in events at venues all around the city, such as the Vista Theatre in Los Feliz and the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, but its main exhibition space and office remained at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue.
The building is owned by brothers Dan and Sammy Harkham, who bought it in 2006 and co-founded the Cinefamily along with Belove. (Dan Harkham was on the organization’s board.)
According to the statement released by the Cinefamily board, the Silent Movie Theatre “will be closed and renovated by the landlord.” A source close to the Harkham brothers said they are committed to having the space remain a venue for repertory film exhibition and are considering whether to again start something on their own or take on an outside partner.
The shutdown of a screening venue within the carefully calibrated ecology of the Los Angeles exhibition scene has already been felt as some programs have moved to other venues in the city.
“I’m sure the people who were devotees are feeling the loss of it, but it doesn’t mean that a space like that won’t exist again,” said Maggie Mackay, board chair of the Vidiots Foundation, the currently shuttered longtime Los Angeles video store that is itself actively looking to move further into the programming and exhibition arena.
The mobile screening series Acropolis Cinema had previously held a number of events at Cinefamily and in the immediate wake of the email scandal in August moved an event from Cinefamily to the Downtown Independent. They have since put on other screenings there as well. The French film series known as La Collectionneuse that screened at the Cinefamily has also moved east, relaunching at the Zebulon venue.
Jordan Cronk, founder of Acropolis Cinema, noted, “I'd say cinephilia has firmly shifted east in the wake of Cinefamily.”
As to the impact of Cinefamily’s demise on the broader scene in Los Angeles, Gwen Deglise, programmer at the American Cinematheque, said, “I feel that the city is healthy, because there are a lot of places to go, there is a lot of choice.”
Even the statement from the board shutting down the Cinefamily attempts to reach out to the community that sprang up around the venue, with an eye toward the future.
After declaring the Cinefamily “a unique institution” marked by a “film-loving vitality,” the statement concludes with, “We hope a new organization will emerge that reflects the positive spirit of the film community and finds a way to again celebrate the best of cinema in a healthy environment.”
A transition team is being established to finalize the Cinefamily’s financial and legal affairs after the board dissolves. Yet the immediate aftermath of the end of Cinefamily will likely still be raw and emotional.
As attorney Rory Miller put it, “No one is happy, including the Board. They joined Cinefamily and contributed their time, energy and money because they loved it just like everyone else. They were hopeful they could save it, but the issues became too immense.”