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Censoring Aristocrats

There are plenty of weird and unsettling examples of corporate censorship floating around out there. For instance there’s the story we ran a few months ago about IMAX refusing to run a documentary on volcanoes because it referenced evolution and because they feared attack of the religious nutjob. Our world is rife with that kind of insanity. This isn’t one of those instances.

Instead, this is controversy generated for the purposes of marketing. This morning the company promoting the Penn Jillette produced documentary The Aristocrats is sending around a Newsweek article in which it’s revealed that AMC Theaters are refusing to carry the controversial film. We’re supposed to be shocked and upset. Don’t be.

The Aristocrats is a niche documentary in which a bunch of comedians get together and tell the same joke over and over again on screen. It’s the dirtiest joke ever written, and the punch line is the film’s title. By all accounts it’s both unsettling and hilarious. My kind of movie. But it’s not exactly the sort of film that’s going to have mass appeal. Like most documentaries, I’d expect to see it in small arthouses in the big city, and then quickly shipped to video. It only cost twenty thousand bucks to make, so it’s not like they need much to turn a profit.

AMC says they aren’t carrying it because it has such narrow appeal, and that’s a statement that makes a lot of sense to me. AMC Theaters are not niche arthouses, they’re massive, overbearing mega-plexes that make their money showing Mr. & Mrs. Smith, not the latest film from Penn Jillette, however much I personally might like him. That they wouldn’t show The Aristocrats is no surprise, they aren’t in the business of supporting low budget indies. They might show a few once in awhile, but running this sort of film isn’t their game. There’s no reason to bash them for it… unless you’re trying to promote the film by stirring up controversy.

Here’s an excerpt from the aforementioned Newsweek article anyway. Decide for yourself whether or not this is a story. I vote no:

”If you want to hear the dirtiest joke ever told... don't bother heading for your local AMC megaplex. The theater chain has decided not to show the buzzed-about documentary "The Aristocrats" on any of its 3,500-plus screens, and the filmmakers aren't laughing. The $20,000 unrated film features 102 comedians, each telling the same infamous joke-involving a XXX stage act-passed down from comic to comic since vaudeville. (The punch line is the film's title.) Despite great test screenings-and a cast with figures ranging from Jon Stewart to Phyllis Diller-AMC's film group chairman, Dick Walsh, decided, according to a company spokeswoman, the film "would have very narrow appeal."

The filmmakers think that's ridiculous. "Look, it's a stupid little movie that people are loving," says executive producer Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller). "So this is like a supermarket announcing that it's not going to carry vegetables. It's their right to do that. It's just a goofy decision based on one person's taste." (Last year AMC did show John Waters's NC-17 nymphomania comedy, "A Dirty Shame," which made only $1.3 million.) ThinkFilm, which is distributing "The Aristocrats," says that AMC had agreed to show the film at theaters in Atlanta and Chicago, but then renege. "In my 20 years in this business, I've never heard of this happening," says ThinkFilm CEO Jeff Sackman. AMC counters that it "considered" booking the film but never committed to do so.

AMC is such a huge chain that its snub may make it harder for "The Aristocrats" to reach its audience. "It's the kind of thing that makes you go 'Come on, play fair'," says Jillette. "It's not like we're trying to slide this by anybody by calling it 'Love Bug 2: Herbie Takes It Up the A-'." Actually, that would give a more accurate idea of what you'll hear in "The Aristocrats"-if you can find it.”