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'Great Debaters' Leaves Out D.C. Debaters

The Hollywood publicity machine behind the Denzel Washington Christmas flick "The Great Debaters" is portraying the movie as an inspiration to black students who might shine academically but for the low expectations and narrow opportunities they face in too many inner-city schools.

To promote the movie--which opens Christmas Day and tells the story of the first black college debate team to win a national championship (at Wiley College in Texas in 1935)--the producers have hired PR firms to invite high school debaters to come see advance screenings. That's how Colin Touhey, executive director of the D.C. Urban Debate League, which sponsors tournaments and trains teachers to be debate coaches for several hundred kids in Washington, came to be invited to bring 60 students to a screening at the Regal Gallery Place theater downtown.

Touhey exchanged a series of emails with Carol Jones of the New York firm Bazan PR in which Jones confirmed that she had allocated 60 seats for the D.C. students. But when Touhey and the students arrived at the theater Monday evening, they were told that the seats were all taken by others who had been sent passes to the movie.

"Despite the fact that a guest list had been demanded and that the students and teachers were in line, the lists were not used to let people into the theater," says Touhey, a former teacher at Cardozo High School. "When I asked why I had been required to provide a list, I was told that this was to justify the numbers [of seats] that I had been offered. When I protested that the students had done what they were supposed to do and that Bazan was not living up to its obligation, Ms Jones said that she would try to get some passes for the opening day."

When Touhey didn't hear back from the PR woman, he contacted me. When I called Jones' office, I was told she was out till next week, but a spokesman for The Weinstein Company, the producer of the movie, called back and promised to look into the matter.

Within a couple of hours, the Weinstein spokesman, Matthew Frankel, got in touch with Touhey and promised to set up a special screening for the D.C. students excluded from the Monday showing. "There's no debate about this mix-up," Frankel says. "The kids should see this film and that's why we're setting up this special screening."

The movie company contends that its invitation to the D.C. students contained language noting that seats are not guaranteed, and those words indeed appear in tiny print at the bottom of the invitation Frankel sent me.

But Touhey says he never received that invitation. Rather, he was guided by the emails from the PR person, who used the term "seats" rather than "passes" in her emails and who never offered any warning that the list of invited students represented anything other than a real and valid invitation rather than a promotional come-on.

The organizers of the event contend the students didn't show up until a few minutes before the movie started, but Touhey and others who were there say they arrived fully 40 minutes ahead, only to learn that their seats did not exist. To the credit of the students--who attend Roosevelt and McKinley high schools and Hyde Leadership, Washington Math, Science and Technology, and KIMA charter schools--"they were totally understanding and behaved magnificently," Touhey says, even though many students had to arrange to be picked up from downtown or had to pool their money to head home earlier than expected.

As of last night, Touhey, who welcomed Weinstein's offer to make things right, was trying to work out arrangements for his students to see the movie, which he has already seen and considers "incredibly inspirational."

By Marc Fisher |  December 20, 2007; 6:52 AM ET
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Comments

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In 1987 I worked on a free preview show at a movie theater where none of the pass winners showed up and the PR Rep literally had a panic attack in the empty theater- a sweating, palpitating, lying on the floor panic attack.

It's generally known that only about 25% of people who receive movie passes for a particular showing actually use them. It's a shame that this incident occurred, but I know the last time I got preview passes I arrived 30 minutes early and the theater was about a quarter full until the last 5 minutes. I wonder if the industry representatives can name the teachers they talked to who promised a crowd (who would tell all their friends about this great movie) and never bothered to show up. Because there would have been at least one teacher who did that.

While it's a shame, trust me, these companies have reason not to trust these groups at their word.

Posted by: DCer | December 20, 2007 10:19 AM

"The movie company contends that its invitation to the D.C. students contained language noting that seats are not guaranteed" --- WTF? What kind of an "invitation" is this? What a disgrace!

Posted by: Maryland | December 26, 2007 12:54 PM

The students should get several private screenings at the Washington's Historic Linclon Theatre along with an apology from the PR company.

For now several screenings of the film at the Historic Lincoln Theatre will do. Call (202) 328-6000 ask for Janice Hill or Star Brown. IMMEDIATELY!!!

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