It’s been surprisingly rare for CEOs to confront governors directly during the pandemic, but Paul Glantz finally figured he had little choice. After Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer forced Emagine Entertainment to cancel a Juneteenth film festival, Glantz has sued Whitmer and the state, alleging everything from violations of civil rights and due process to politically motivated hypocrisy.
Glantz founded and runs Troy, Michigan-based Emagine, which owns and operates luxury theaters in Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin with a combined 244 movie screens. His company was “highly compliant” with gubernatorial shutdown orders in those states over the winter, Glantz said. And while Whitmer still has been keeping theaters in Michigan closed, Emagine proposed a six-day film festival beginning June 19 anyway. The “Juneteenth” event would have shown a dozen flicks at one location with themes about African-American life, including The Color Purple, and by black creators, including Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and planned to donate all proceeds to the United Negro College Fund.
But Glantz postponed the festival at the 11th hour after getting a letter from the Michigan attorney general that proceeding would bring criminal charges. He and his company sued a few days later.
“I was shocked,” Glantz told Chief Executive. “I felt like the purpose of the festival would be a good reason to open, and a way to demonstrate that we could operate safely with social distancing and a proof of concept, while doing good on several levels.”
Also evident was that Glantz and Emagine are no johnny-come-latelies to the concerns and aspirations of African-Americans and the Black community in Detroit and elsewhere. Two years ago, he launched a joint venture with Big Sean, a BET Award-winning rapper with strong Detroit connections, to develop a cinematic and live-music center in the Motor City, with the initial goal of opening next year.
So the irony was clear to Glantz. Emagine “wants to support the movement for equality” through the Juneteenth festival, its suit noted, but wasn’t allowed to do so; yet Whitmer didn’t try to restrict the many protests that sprouted up in Michigan cities in the wake of the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd on May 25. “Street protests are okay, but cinema protests are not,” the suit stated. Emagine’s suit also mentioned that on June 4 Whitmer “attended an anti-police brutality march” in suburban Detroit and “did not maintain a distance of six feet from others.”
“My major grievance has to do with [Whitmer’s] inconsistencies,” Glantz said. “Strip clubs and massage parlors and bars have all been allowed to reopen, and yet this opaque assertion about the science and the data supporting all of this has never been revealed to any of us why movie theaters [constituted] undue risks to health and safety. So I believe that the actions of the governor have been arbitrary and capricious. Bars constitute a larger threat than movie theaters, yet they’ve all reopened” in Michigan.
Glantz said he was not going to “further second-guess the governor’s motivations; they’re pure. But her execution leaves something to be desired, particularly in the fact that she’s unwilling to accept input from others or explain her behavior.”
Glantz told Chief Executive that his company remains financially able to withstand months of forced closure of Emagine theaters, and a few have been allowed to reopen. But he’s concerned about the future of the movie-exhibition industry generally, especially as he sees suppliers such as Disney delay and postpone major planned movie openings. Emagine and other theater chains could be ready to reopen in compliance with governors’ Covid-19 guidelines – but have little to show customers.
“But that’s the lot for most of us as entrepreneurs and business people,” Glantz said. “It’s about bobbing and weaving and rolling with the punches.”