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Controversial Vaccine Documentary Debuts in NYC, Plots Theatrical Expansion

A week after it was pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival,  “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” debuted at New York City’s Angelika Film Center to an estimated $22,000 in receipts.

In two weeks, the controversial documentary will open at the Laemmle in Santa Monica, and possibly one or two other Los Angeles locations. Distributor Cinema Libre Studio hopes to expand the film’s national footprint in the coming months, eventually screening “Vaxxed” in between 250 and 300 theaters before it debuts on home entertainment platforms in July.

The film raises questions about the link between vaccinations and autism — a potential connection that has been widely discredited in the scientific and medical communities. It was originally intended to debut in June, but Cinema Libre rushed the film into theaters in order to hit back at what it argues is misrepresentation in the media.

In an interview with Variety, Philippe Diaz, chairman of Cinema Libre, said the picture was not “anti-vaccination.”

“It would be a bit crazy to say that,” said Diaz. “We know vaccinations save the lives of children.”

Instead, he said “Vaxxed” alleges that a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employee, William Thompson, covered up research into vaccinations’ impact on autism and should be forced to testify to Congress.

“The movie doesn’t take a position on what creates autism or if a vaccine is safe,” said Diaz. “The only thing it is trying to do is to get this man to testify.”

The film also argues that vaccinations may be administered to children too early in their development and should potentially be given at a later age, said Diaz.

However, critics charge that “Vaxxed” director and co-writer Andrew Wakefield has emboldened the anti-vaccination movement with the publication of discredited research arguing there is a possible connection between a vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella and the appearance of autism. Wakefield’s paper was later retracted by its publisher, the British medical journal The Lancet, and his medical license was revoked over ethical issues. In recent years, the push against childhood vaccinations has led to a rise in preventible diseases such as measles.

Reviewers, for their part, appear to take issue with claims that “Vaxxed” is not staking out a position against vaccinations. IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, for instance, wrote, “In a statement leading up to the film’s release, Wakefield’s co-writer Del Bigtree claimed that ‘Vaxxed’ is ‘not an anti-vaccine movie,’ which is kind of like saying ‘Triumph of the Will’ is anti-Hitler.”

Despite the reviews, Diaz is pleased by the response from audiences. Wakefield has been appearing at two question and answer sessions a day, and Diaz said there have been a few pointed questioners, but no protests. It’s a debate, the distributor said he encourages. When Tribeca organizers called him to tell him that the film was being pulled, Diaz said he urged the festival to host screenings where Wakefield could face off with members of the medical community who disagreed with his position.

“We want people to come into theaters and have a discussion,” said Diaz.

The film will also be shown at the Houston Film Festival and the Manhattan Film Festival, and there are discussions to include the picture in other festival lineups, Diaz said. However, Tribeca’s decision still smarts.

“I got in heated discussions with the directors of Tribeca and told them that they were sending a message to the entire world that the movie is bad,” he said, adding, “They told us themselves that there was too much pressure from their sponsors.”

A spokeswoman for the festival declined to comment. In a statement announcing Tribeca’s decision not to screen the film, founder Robert De Niro, who has an autistic child, said, “My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family. But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”

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