The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Woodward Spine.
By Patrick Smith
Yesterday there was an Internet slap-fight between the operators of Cass City Cinema and fans and friends of the operators of the late-Burton Theatre and the very-much alive and getting alive-ier Corktown Cinema. Because most of the back-and-forth occured on Facebook and was littered with both incendiary and uninformed comments, there is a likelihood that the squabble will be, and has been trivialized, (like me calling it a slap fight) or misunderstood, but this is important stuff and the disagreement is not at all confusing.
Yesterday someone, seemingly the current owner of the former Burton International School, Joel Landy, effectively wrestled control of the Burton Theatre Facebook page and twitter account. How he did this I am not entirely sure, though based on accounts from others’ posts, it seems he managed to do so simply by asking Facebook to give him control of the page. This account had, before Landy took over the page, more than 2,100 “likes” and a robust community of people following and interacting with the theatre, which was promoting the new location and name of the Burton, Corktown Cinema. There is not any question that the Facebook page and twitter account, along with the thousands of fans of the Burton are not the property of Joel Landy or anyone else associated with Cass City Cinema, and there is also no question that stealing someone else’s creation (in this case both the Facebook page and the cultivation of the theatre’s online presence) is illegal and morally wrong.
Right now the Burton Theatre Facebook page has been deleted, either because of complaints from the actual owners of The Burton Theatre or because of informed fans of the page reporting the hi-jacked page as a scam. Please do not mistake the deleting of the Facebook page as a victory for the original owners of the business, as anyone who has ever tried to accomplish something on the Internet knows, building and maintaining a strong following and a consistent Internet voice is a very difficult thing to do. If the page stays deleted, or if it is not restored to its original owners this stands as a victory for the owners of Cass City Cinema.
To start off, let’s be clear on what this disagreement is most certainly NOT about. No one believes that Joel Landy or anyone else does not have the right to operate a theatre within the former Burton International School, of course he does. No one thinks there isn’t enough room in the city for another movie theatre, if Landy is finally realizing his dream of running a theater that is essentially TNT writ large, I have no problem with it. It has been sad and extremely frustrating to watch Landy and his supporters act as if fans of the real Burton Theatre are simply against all other movie theaters.
At issue is that Joel Landy does not have the right to operate The Burton Theatre, because he does not own The Burton Theatre, did not create The Burton Theatre and had nothing to do with the success of The Burton Theatre anymore than any other landlord has to do with the success of his/her tenants.
Perhaps this is already obvious, but I am friends with the owners of the original Burton. That friendship is certainly what makes me so invested in this issue, and that friendship also means that I got to watch a group of very hard-working Detroit and Hamtramck residents build a really special cinema from scratch. Joel Landy provided the physical space of course, and that is not nothing, but Jeff, Nate, David and Matt furnished the theatre with amazing seats, a screen, two projectors, a concession stand and everything else needed to run a theatre. More importantly they established a film program that was at one-time challenging and rare while also being really fun and popular.
And most importantly they made the name The Burton Theatre mean something. People know the name, people know what the Burton stood for and they knew it as the theatre that opened in a great but underdeveloped area in Detroit and brought a really special film-going experience to people who otherwise would not have been able to experience it. This is something that Landy absolutely did not do until the necessary infrastructure and public attention were gifted to him. Many of the movies shown at the Burton weren’t only not available in Detroit, they weren’t available in the suburbs either and they weren’t available in most American cities. In posts on his website and elsewhere Landy has somewhat-subtly used that uniqueness as a club to bash the owners with calls of elitism or at least impracticality, as if the only important thing is building something in Detroit, not building something special.
Legally the issue is not remotely gray, The Burton Theatre is a company officially formed and licensed in the state of Michigan (in case you were wondering neither Landy nor anyone else associated with Cass City Cinema is listed on the articles of organization) and The Burton Theatre is a trademarked name. The fact that the theatre was located in the former Burton School is completely irrelevant, if I were to open a fair-trade organic kale store in the Renaissance Center called “Renaissance Fair,” and then decided to move locations, General Motors could not just reopen the same business with the same name in the same location. It would be laughable to suggest they could. On some level Landy acknowledges this, by renaming the theatre Cass City he is admitting that he knows he does not own the rights to the name Burton Theatre.
But apparently, while being aware that he does not own the rights to the name, Landy is a bit fuzzy on whether or not he owns the rights to a piece of intellectual property he most certainly did not create. And by a bit fuzzy I mean totally delusional, The Burton Theatre Facebook page is not his. The particularly insidious part of this whole mess is that it is very easy to create a Facebook page with the same name as an existing page; as of right now there are at least six different pages titled “cute girls” on Facebook. But Landy did not create his own Burton page, had he done so he would have been clearly stealing someone else’s name but it would have at least demonstrated an actual desire to foster his own publicity and attention, by simply stealing the existing page and not creating his own Landy made it incredibly transparent that what he is attempting to steal is not the name but the goodwill and attention rightfully earned and accumulated by the owners of the Corktown Cinema.
Disingenuously, the operators of Cass City have been claiming on Facebook and elsewhere that their latest efforts are simply attempts to combat confusion and misinformation spread by the owners of Corktown Cinema. It is completely necessary, they plead, to steal someone else’s web page and disrupt legitimate business efforts so that they can get the word out that cinema lives in the old Burton International School. Never, neither publicly nor privately have I heard anyone from Corktown Cinema deny that Landy is operating a theatre in their old space, rather the owners of the Burton have correctly informed their fans and the public that the company The Burton Theatre has changed locations and names.
You see, as hard as this may be to believe, it is NOT the responsibility of the owners of Corktown Cinema to promote Cass City Cinema, that is Landy’s job, and stealing someone else’s Facebook page is not an appropriate way to do so. Finally, not only is it ludicrous to suggest that a company who changed locations is somehow responsible for promoting its old location, it is also important for the Corktown Cinema owners to make sure people are aware they are no longer operating at the Burton School. As they set out on creating a unique and special cinema viewing experience in a new location, Corktown Cinema has an invested interest in making sure the public knows they aren’t the ones screening 8 Mile and The Hunger Games over on Cass Avenue.
And this all matters for a number of reasons: most personally, the Corktown Cinema guys have worked extremely hard to establish themselves in Detroit and are dedicated both to film culture and in contributing to the city, it is not OK for a rich bully to sweep in and denigrate all of the hard work they have put in; on a larger scale it is important that we do not let the owners of property assert their right to own individual and creative product, being wealthy enough to own large chunks of land is its own privilege, it is not accompanied with the right to push others around.