Friday was a stressful day for Guild Cinema co-owner Peter Conheim. About two hours before adult film festival "Pornotopia" opened, a code enforcement officer showed up with a warning notice.
"If you conduct your business as an Adult Amusement Establishment, even on a temporary basis, you will be cited for violation of the law," wrote Matthew Conrad, a code enforcement manager. Potential penalties included a maximum $500 fine and 90 days in jail per adult film shown at the festival, Conheim says.
The Guild had UNM lawyers in the theater, who were viewing "SiCKO" for an unrelated event. They were able to contact George Bach, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union branch in New Mexico. Within the hour, the Guild was discussing its options with the ACLU. The question: Open the festival in spite of the threat or take the high ground and sue for lost revenue? At five minutes to 7 p.m., the start time of the first show, Conheim ran into the street and shouted that the porn festivities would continue as planned. The theater ushered in large and occasionally sold-out audiences Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
After a Monday meeting of zoning officials, the Guild was given no penalty for hosting the festival. Instead, the Guild will be issued a notice of violation, says City Attorney Bob White, and the city will request a meeting with the theater and Self Serve, the Nob Hill adult shop that curated the event. At the meeting, interpretations of the zoning code will be discussed, as will "ways to prevent this in the future," White says.
News accounts of the story have included reference to complaints about the festival. White says the complaint he received came from a local TV news station Thursday afternoon. When asked whether such TV stations usually file zoning complaints, he replied, "They're citizens just like everybody else."
White didn't remember which station called him, but station representatives asked "what the city was going to be doing about this?" says White, who then called the Planning and Zoning Department to inform them of the festival and find out if there was a zoning violation. The TV news inquiry was the only complaint White received, though he couldn't speak for the Zoning Department. Thursday afternoon was the first White heard of the festival, he says, and that's why the warning to the Guild wasn't delivered until hours before show time.
Conheim says neither he nor Self Serve co-owners Molly Adler and Matie Fricker checked into the zoning regulations as they prepared the festival. "I would say we were completely naive, for lack of a better word," he says. "To us as an exhibitor and to Self Serve—which is a zoned, licensed, legitimate store that has gone through many hoops to keep their store within the bounds of the zoning restrictions—it never even crossed our minds."
Adler says she and Fricker have considered the possibility that the negative city reaction to their festival may have come from the use of "porn" in the festival's title, though they were trying to reclaim the word. "It's a catch-22," Adler says. "It was the publicity that did it."
According to the warning issued to the Guild on Friday, an adult amusement establishment is a place that shows live or recorded images of genitals, buttocks or the "female breast below a point immediately above the tip of the areola to and including the bottom of the breast," among other things.
Adler says enforcement of that zoning code is inconsistent and unfair. "If they want to use archaic laws, enforce them on every theater in the city," she says. White says the language of the code will certainly be something he will discuss with the ACLU. The Guild has shown sexually explicit material in the past, including Shortbus, a hardcore art film that ran for weeks a few months ago. Additionally, the Guild was a porn theater in the early ’70s.
Three years ago, the city was rezoned for adult amusement areas, says former City Councilor Martin Heinrich, who until last month was the councilor for District 6, which includes Nob Hill. Adult amusement areas were established in districts that were not directly adjacent to residential areas, he says.
City Attorney White says there are adult establishments further up Central. But Adler says Self Serve wouldn't want to house its festival just anywhere. "We were showcasing a festival of independent film," she says. "So we of course would choose the only independent cinema in town." On top of that, Adler doesn't believe these films belong in a traditional adult establishment. "We want to bring out these movies from that sleazy pigeonhole and say, 'These don't belong there. They're different kinds of films.' "
ACLU Staff Attorney George Bach says the issue is one of free speech and the First Amendment. "The tension here is what puts you over the threshold under this ordinance and whether [that] is constitutional. That's what we need to hammer out," he says. "Showing one NC-17 movie doesn't make you an adult entertainment establishment."
Self Serve and the Guild both expressed interest in continuing the festival, perhaps on an annual basis, in spite of the controversy this time around. Similarly, the people behind Pornotopia say they're happy for the chance to discuss these things with the city. Adler says the Monday decision to hand out a violation but not penalties is the best-case scenario. "If they had said no violation, no discussion, nothing would change."