For the past fifteen years, Mary Owen – Reed’s youngest daughter – has appeared in annual performances in small independent theaters that have become a cherished seasonal ritual across the country. “It’s become a tradition,” she said recently from her home in Iowa City, 200 miles from where her mother grew up in Denison, Iowa.
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But that tradition faced an existential threat on par with George Bailey’s earlier this year, when some small theaters thought they wouldn’t be able to play It’s a Wonderful Life. Although many venues were able to book the movie as usual, others said they were told they wouldn’t have access to it until January, after an exclusive screening sponsored by Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies, and distributor Paramount Pictures.
“The first time I heard about it,” Owen recalled, “I thought, ‘We left Bedford Falls,'” a reference to the fictional town Billy grew up in. At the end of the movie, he discovers he’s been a force for good all along. Local arts non-profit FilmScene may be banned from showing It’s a Wonderful Life, she was outraged.
“I’ve been part of that momentum in showing the movie in small, independent theaters since 2007, and it’s become a tradition,” said Owen, 65, who moved to Iowa in 2020 to help organize her mother’s centenary. Banning small theaters from showing It’s a Wonderful Life, she says, is “totally contrary to the very essence of the film” and the ideals of community, generosity and self-sacrifice.
It’s tempting to see George Baileys and Mr. Potters at every turn in a story that has uncanny parallels to It’s a Wonderful Life, where mom-and-pop values manage to trump profit-driven mercantilism. But it is not always as clear as it seems. Life, while often wonderful, is likely to be mysterious, contradictory, and a little messy around the edges.
But the common moral of both tales is that for mom and pop to prevail, they must stand up for themselves.
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After talks with Fathom and Paramount, FilmScene finally joined the Fathom event, which took place in more than 1,000 theaters from December 18-21, some venues following suit, while others took to the streets — literally. After initially being told she couldn’t play It’s a Wonderful Life, Ellen Elliott, executive director of Friends of Penn, which runs the nonprofit Penn Theater in Plymouth, Michigan, said she found out Birmingham’s Alabama playhouse had received an exemption. “I’m like what?!” Recently, Elliott recalled, adding that when she did some digging, she discovered other theaters in Michigan had also received waivers. “Anyone who knows me knows I won’t lie down,” Elliott noted. “Fathom does this with movies all the time—we wanted to book Planes, Trains, and Cars for Thanksgiving, and that got stuck, too. But It’s a Wonderful Life? No, you don’t do that with this movie.”
On October 26, Elliott sent a text message and a Facebook post encouraging Penn customers to show up at the next day’s showing of “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” for a group photo in front of Penn with the message “Please keep our community traditions” on his shade.
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but people came and kept coming,” Elliott recalled, estimating that as many as 1,000 people took part in the march. “It was like the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ where everybody comes over to George’s house. … We got amazing pictures of the crowds, our NBC affiliate was there. They reached out to Paramount twice that day and never responded. But I did get an email.” the next afternoon [from the studio] Saying, “We’re happy to book this for you.”
Since October, more theaters have been given the green light to play “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but not all have been so lucky. Chris Collier, executive director at Renew Theaters, which operates four nonprofit theaters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, says he received an email from Paramount in August saying the movie “will be out of release this holiday season due to the upcoming Fathom event.” He simply took “no” for an answer and moved on. “We’re small and we’re still understaffed because of the pandemic,” Collier explains. On one level, it wasn’t worth our staff’s time to fight a losing battle. The other side is the amount of time we could have invested in pressuring Paramount that we now spend communicating to frustrated sponsors about why we’re not playing It’s a Wonderful Life.
As for who plays Mr. Potter in this story, no one is willing to accept the role. Fathom Events CEO Ray Nutt insists the company has made an exception to its usual policy of demanding exclusivity, allowing more than 300 independent theaters to show It’s a Wonderful Life along with the multiplexes that make up the bulk of its network (Fathom is owned by the three biggest chains). Theatrical in the US: AMC, Regal, and Cinemark). Fathom is a box office success: When it ended December 21, “It’s a Wonderful Life” had grossed over $1.4 million and a spot on the week’s top performers list. The film has attracted more than 117,000 moviegoers, a reminder that in many cities, suburbs and suburbs, there is a complex He is community theatre.
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Paramount declined to comment directly, and sent a statement through its spokesperson that any theater that wants to play It’s a Wonderful Life is able to play it — an assertion that raises the question of whether every time a Hollywood studio tries to dodge a potential PR crisis an angel gets its wings. .
For Elliott, in Plymouth, Mich., this year’s epic “It’s a Wonderful Life” shows the fragility of a theatrical ecosystem in which small, independent theaters are chronically endangered—even though they have often shown ingenuity and grace in sticking to audiences during the lockdown pandemic. “When a multiplex is allowed to take something that was born and originally appeared in these little theaters and was being chained from it, you’re killing the little guy,” she says. “Small-town theater is treated the same way as small-town theater, and it’s not the same thing. Distributors need to understand that.”
At a time when nostalgia and fan loyalty increasingly grapple with the realities of private property—for everything from popular HBO shows to Twitter—It’s a Wonderful Life occupies a unique place in the collective psyche as something that belongs to everyone, the product of Bedford Falls, not Pottersville. Owen, who recently presented the film at the IFC Center in Manhattan, said this year’s screenings were imbued with a different spirit than in years past.
“There was an excitement that I hadn’t felt in a long time,” she said, adding that in addition to the post-pandemic joy of being together in the theater, something more ambitious was happening. “The universality of this movie is kind of incredible,” Owen said. “I also think it speaks to this idea of community that we’ve really lost. We’ve become so divided. People probably identify with Pottersville as more than we live in now, but they really want to treat each other better.”
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