“The J.B.F.C. is a force for social change disguised as a movie theater,” Demme once said.
But now something more unsettling than a sudden, cinematic cut to black has stirred debate at the institution in Pleasantville, about 30 miles north of Manhattan.
The former head of programming, Brian Ackerman, was quietly fired in May after more than 20 years of service. Though the film center did not publicly announce the dismissal, it had decided, it later said, that he had become a bully at work, menacing staff and unable to control his temper.
Two people — one longtime employee and another person who worked at the center part time for years — then stepped away in protest and Mr. Ackerman drew multiple letters of support.
“It was completely inconsistent to me that he would be working with someone who felt threatened by him in a way that they had to insist on him being removed from his position,” Karen Goodman, who worked with Mr. Ackerman on programming at the Burns for years, said in an interview. “It’s almost laughable its so insane.”
But the film center has held firm, shedding its initial reticence to discuss a personnel matter by responding with a statement that said Mr. Ackerman’s dismissal had been based on multiple episodes of bad behavior.
“There is a well-documented history of at least four instances just over the past 14 months of threatening, intimidating and harassing behavior by Mr. Ackerman, most of which involved female staff members,” the film center said in the statement. “Several employees at the Burns have voluntarily come forward to express gratitude to the Burns’ management for their taking action to remove Mr. Ackerman and some even described additional incidents of Mr. Ackerman’s bullying behavior.”
Last week, in the latest development, Mr. Ackerman sued for millions of dollars in damages, asserting in a 39-page lawsuit that his termination was part of a plot hatched by the film center’s founder and former executive director, Stephen Apkon. The lawsuit accuses Mr. Apkon of trying to regain his influence at the center so he can hob nob with its deep-pocketed donors and leverage those relationships into support for his new nonprofit, Reconsider. The nonprofit organization describes its mission as working “to address mental health and societal challenges by supporting the emergence of transformational medicines, including psychedelics.”
In a statement, Mr. Apkon said he was “deeply troubled” when he learned of Mr. Ackerman’s behavior and offered support for the board, executive staff and employees. But he did not directly address the lawsuit’s allegations about him.
To the film center, the matter is straightforward: An employee exhibited serious harassing behavior and was fired. It characterizes the suit as part of a continuing effort to distract, seek attention and harm the organization.
“We believe there is no merit to this lawsuit, and we will vigorously defend the Jacob Burns Film Center and its people,” the film center’s board said in a statement.
The four episodes cited in firing Mr. Ackerman began last year, the film center said. In one, the film center said, he threatened a female executive, saying to her: “I was deciding whether I should quit or come back and destroy you.” In the others, film center officials said, Mr. Ackerman, using profanity, belittled a female colleague after a disagreement over plans to refurbish a theater; screamed at a colleague who had asked him about the feasibility of using a hybrid model for a coming film festival; and yelled at a person in a meeting.
Months before his dismissal, Mr. Ackerman had been formally warned about his behavior by the director of human relations, the film center said.
When the termination finally occurred, it was carried out by the film center’s executive director and soon thereafter relayed to the board, according to Mr. Ackerman’s lawsuit. The court papers said the film center refused to tell Mr. Ackerman why he was fired and has ignored requests for documents that outline the misconduct he was accused of.
Told about the details of the allegations as provided by the Burns Center, Robert D. Piliero, one of Mr. Ackerman’s lawyers, said the information “reveals how pretextual the whole thing is.”
Mr. Ackerman said in a statement: “A co-founder wanted to come back and turn a beloved institution into a toy for his own personal gain, and I refused to allow it.”
For some, Mr. Ackerman’s removal has underscored a broader shift in the culture at the film center, from small, friendly and familial to something larger and more impersonal.
Janet Maslin, the Burns’ board president and the former chief film critic for The New York Times, said the way Mr. Ackerman’s firing was handled was “completely unprecedented” and said that the case for his termination was “not made to my satisfaction.” In an earlier era, she said, those in a dispute like this would have worked things out around a table.
“It just got ratcheted up to 11, and it should never have come to this,” said Ms. Maslin, who has been affiliated 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 more humanely.”
Ms. Maslin, who occasionally reviews books for The Times, said she was aware of complaints that Mr. Ackerman had become irritable. “He started acting out,” she said. “He was saying no to things. It was very hard to program anything.”
Still, she said it “really hurt” when, at a recent screening attended by Ethan Hawke, it dawned on her that Mr. Ackerman would never be at the theater alongside her again. “Without Brian, I don’t think this thing would have worked.”
The story of Jacob Burns Film Center begins in 1998 when Mr. Apkon, a Pleasantville resident, bought the Rome Theater, an old movie house driven out of business by nearby multiplexes. With help, he formed a nonprofit organization, bought the lot adjacent to the Rome and started a $5 million capital campaign to build a film center.
From the start, the effort drew big names. Glenn Close and Martin Scorsese helped lead the capital campaign. The center opened in 2001 and Mr. Ackerman, whose family owned a number of art house theaters in New York City and beyond, became its first and only programming director. (The center’s tax return for the year ending September 2021 listed his salary as $154,000.) A page on the center’s website listing “special guests” includes smiling photos of Ahmir “Thompson, known as Questlove; Bong Joon Ho; Meryl Streep; Michael Douglas; and George Clooney.
The center, which has a $6 million budget, says it shows more than 200,000 people more than 400 films each year. It was for a time, court papers say, “the highest-grossing suburban art house in the United States.” But screening movies eventually proved insufficient. Today, in addition to the center’s five-screens, it has a media education center, hosts discussions, houses artists-in-residence and teaches filmmaking to students.
In his role, Mr. Ackerman was responsible for curating the presentation of the film center’s independent, documentary and world cinema, duties he was credited with being skilled at performing, but work that is now being performed in part by a committee, according to the lawsuit. “Brian was instrumental in the creation of this unique institution,” Joanne Howard, Demme’s widow, wrote in an email to the film center’s board.
But the film center said his bullying behavior simply became intolerable. At least one of his tirades had driven a co-worker to tears, according to the center, which said it “was left with no choice but to terminate his employment.”
Sheelagh McNeill and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.