- By Elizabeth Findell American-Statesman Staff
Promoting female-only “Wonder Woman” screenings was a violation of Austin’s equality laws, the Alamo Drafthouse acknowledged in a letter to the city last month.
To settle the anti-discrimination complaints, the Drafthouse has offered to send each of the men who filed a complaint a DVD of the film.
The city processed two formal complaints against the theater for the two female-only screenings in June, one from Albany, N.Y., law professor Stephen Clark and the other from an unidentified man, claiming sex discrimination. City equality laws ban a public accommodation such as a movie theater from limiting its service, or indicating through advertising that it will limit it, based on race, sex, sexual orientation or other factors.
The Drafthouse quickly sold out two June 6 screenings at its downtown Austin Ritz theater that it called “women-only,” noting: “we’re embracing our girl power and saying ‘No Guys Allowed’… And when we say ‘People Who Identify As Women Only,’ we mean it.”
In a settlement offer July 18, Missy Reynolds, director of real estate and development for the Drafthouse, called that decree a “tongue in cheek moniker” and said the theater wouldn’t actually have denied men admission if any had purchased tickets. She emphasized the Drafthouse’s tradition of “immersive movie-going experiences,” citing for example its “Jaws on the Water” showings of the famous shark movies at Volente Beach.
But the theater admitted it made two mistakes: underestimating the hubbub the screenings would create and advertising them as women-only.
“Respondent did not realize that advertising a ‘women’s-only’ screening was a violation of discrimination laws,” the movie theater’s offer to the city says. “Respondent has a very strict non-discrimination policy in place, but this policy did NOT include a specific prohibition against advertising.”
The screenings received nationwide attention. They drew celebration and praise from many feminists, a snarky open letter from Mayor Steve Adler to one critic and backlash from others. Instead of backing off, the Drafthouse courted the controversy with cheeky responses to online critics and the addition of women-only screenings in other cities.
City records indicate one of the men with a complaint pending offered to settle in exchange for the theater changing its discrimination policies and publicly apologizing on Facebook. The other complainant asked the Drafthouse to pay him $8,892 — roughly three times the estimated value of tickets and concessions for the women-only screenings.
The Drafthouse responded to both with the counteroffer saying it would update its company discrimination policies using “Wonder Woman” as a case study, share letters describing the men’s points of view with employees and send each man a “Wonder Woman” DVD.
An agreement has not yet been reached and negotiations are ongoing, said Gail McCant, Austin’s equal employment and fair housing administrator. The Drafthouse would not answer questions about the screenings or its settlement offer.
The back-and-forth is part of an informal settlement effort allowed under the city code. If no agreement is reached, the city will investigate the complaints, determine whether the code was violated and, if so, refer the matter to city attorneys for possible prosecution.
It’s up to the complainants, not the city, to decide whether to accept any settlement agreements instead of pressing forward with a full investigation.
“We make no decisions,” McCant said. “The respondents and the charging parties can respond; they can accept; they can reject.”
At least eight people filled out complaint forms against the “Wonder Woman” screenings with Austin’s Equal Employment and Fair Housing Office, city officials said. But only two followed that up with the formal notarized version required for the complaint to be considered.