A season of trouble behind the scenes for a well-known art house movie theater.
One of the original leaders of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester was fired because he was accused of bullying. This has caused a lot of trouble at the center, which is well-known and has the support of Hollywood’s A-list.
The Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester County has been a shining example of success for more than 20 years. It is a haven for film fans who come to see the art house movies and admire the style of its A-list leaders, members, and visitors.
Ron Howard sits on its board, as did Steven Spielberg. Jonathan Demme, who was also on the board and ran a film series at the center, which was in a historic theater in town with a Spanish Mission style that had to be fixed up at a high cost.
Even though art houses and commercial theaters always seem to be in danger, the nonprofit Burns Center has done well. It has added screens and expanded its goals by opening a Media Arts Lab and then making a “Creative Culture” program for new filmmakers.
Demme once said, “The J.B.F.C. is a force for social change that looks like a movie theater.”
But now, something even scarier than a sudden cut to black in a movie has gotten people talking at the institution in Pleasantville, about 30 miles north of Manhattan.
Brian Ackerman, who used to be in charge of programming, was fired quietly in May after more than 20 years of service. Even though the film center didn’t tell the public about the firing, it later said that he had become a bully at work, threatening staff and not being able to keep his temper in check.
Two people, one who had worked at the center for a long time and another who had worked there part time for years, then left in protest, and Mr. Ackerman got many letters of support.
Karen Goodman, who worked with Mr. Ackerman on programming at the Burns for many years, said in an interview, “It made no sense to me that he would be working with someone who felt so threatened by him that they had to demand he be fired.” “It’s so crazy that it’s almost funny.”
But the film center has stayed strong. At first, it didn’t want to talk about Mr. Ackerman’s firing, but then it released a statement saying that Mr. Ackerman had been fired because of multiple instances of bad behavior.
In the statement, the film center said, “There is a well-documented history of at least four incidents in the past 14 months of Mr. Ackerman’s threatening, intimidating, and harassing behavior, most of which involved female staff members.” “Several employees at the Burns have come forward on their own to thank the Burns’ management for getting rid of Mr. Ackerman, and some have even talked about other times when Mr. Ackerman was mean to them.”
In the latest news, Mr. Ackerman sued for millions of dollars in damages last week. He said in a 39-page lawsuit that the film center’s founder and former executive director, Stephen Apkon, was behind his firing as part of a plan. The lawsuit says that Mr. Apkon is trying to get back his power at the center so that he can hang out with the center’s wealthy donors and use those connections to get help for his new nonprofit, Reconsider. The mission of the non-profit organization is to “address mental health and social problems by supporting the development of transformational medicines, such as psychedelics.”
Mr. Apkon said in a statement that he was “deeply troubled” by Mr. Ackerman’s actions and offered his support to the board, executive staff, and employees. But he didn’t directly answer the things that were said about him in the lawsuit.
From the point of view of the film center, the matter is clear: A worker’s bad behavior was so bad that they were fired. It says that the lawsuit is part of a long-term plan to distract, draw attention to, and hurt the organization.
The board of the film center said in a statement, “We don’t think this lawsuit is valid, and we will fight hard to defend the Jacob Burns Film Center and its people.”
The four incidents that led to Mr. Ackerman’s dismissal all happened last year, the film center said. In one, he told a female executive, “I was trying to decide if I should quit or come back and destroy you,” the film center said. Officials at the film center said that in the other ones, Mr. Ackerman used foul language to insult a female colleague after they disagreed about plans to fix up a theater. He also yelled at a colleague who asked him if a hybrid model could be used for an upcoming film festival, and he yelled at someone in a meeting.
The director of human relations had told Mr. Ackerman in writing about his behavior months before he was fired, the film center said.
Mr. Ackerman’s lawsuit says that when the firing finally happened, it was done by the film center’s executive director and was soon after told to the board. In court papers, it was said that the film center wouldn’t tell Mr. Ackerman why he was fired and hasn’t given him any documents that explain what he did wrong.
When one of Mr. Ackerman’s lawyers, Robert D. Piliero, was told the details of the accusations as given by the Burns Center, he said that the details “show how fake the whole thing is.”
In a statement, Mr. Ackerman said, “A co-founder wanted to come back and turn a well-known organization into a toy for his own gain, but I wouldn’t let him.”
Some people think that Mr. Ackerman’s firing shows that the culture at the film center is changing from small, friendly, and family-like to bigger and less personal.
Janet Maslin, who used to be the chief film critic for The New York Times and is now the president of the Burns’ board, said that the way Mr. Ackerman was fired was “completely unprecedented” and that the case for his firing “did not make me satisfied.” She said that in the past, people who were in a fight like this would have sat down at a table to talk things out.
“It just got turned up to 11, and it should have never come to this,” said Ms. Maslin, who has been involved with the center since its early days. “I just wish this hadn’t turned into a war, because I think it could have been settled in a more peaceful way.”
Ms. Maslin, who sometimes writes book reviews for The Times, said that she had heard that Mr. Ackerman had become more angry. She said, “He started acting up.” “He was telling people no. It was hard to get anything to work.”
Still, she said it “really hurt” when she realized at a recent showing with Ethan Hawke that Mr. Ackerman would never be at the theater with her again. “I don’t think this would have worked without Brian.”
The Jacob Burns Film Center’s story begins in 1998, when Mr. Apkon, a resident of Pleasantville, bought the Rome Theater, an old movie theater that had been forced out of business by nearby multiplexes. With help, he started a non-profit group, bought the lot next to the Rome, and started a $5 million capital campaign to build a film center.
From the start, well-known people joined the cause. The capital campaign was led by Glenn Close and Martin Scorsese. When the center opened in 2001, its first and only programming director was Mr. Ackerman, whose family owned a number of art houses in New York City and other places. (His salary was written down as $154,000 on the center’s tax return for the year ending in September 2021.) On the center’s website, there is a page called “Special Guests.” On that page, there are smiling pictures of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Bong Joon Ho, Meryl Streep, Michael Douglas, and George Clooney.
With a budget of $6 million, the center says it shows more than 400 movies to more than 200,000 people each year. Court papers say that for a while, it was “the most profitable suburban art house in the United States.” But showing movies was not enough in the end. Today, the center has five screens and a media education center. It also has artists-in-residence and teaches students how to make movies.
In his job, Mr. Ackerman was in charge of how the film center showed independent, documentary, and world cinema. He was known to be good at his job, but the lawsuit says that some of his work is now being done by a committee. In an email to the board of the film center, Demme’s wife, Joanne Howard, said, “Brian was a big part of making this institution special.”
But the film center said that his bullying was just too much to handle. The center said that at least one of his outbursts had brought a coworker to tears and that it “had no choice but to fire him.”