If they had an Oscar for "Best Complaint From a Movie Patron That Blew Up Into an Internet Phenomenon," this would be a contender.

An unpleasant night at the movies has snowballed from an e-mail complaint, to a profanity-laced response from the movie theater company's vice president, and now to feuding Facebook pages that have drawn more than 3,300 people in just a matter of days.

It started when Sarah Kohl-Leaf of Taylors Falls, Minn., her husband and another couple headed to Saturday's 9:40 p.m. showing of "Shutter Island" at the St. Croix Falls Cinema 8 in St. Croix Falls, Wis.

The first problem, she said, was that the theater didn't accept debit or credit cards. They had brought cash for popcorn and sodas, but not enough to buy tickets. The lobby's ATM was out of cash, so their friends covered them by writing a check.

That was just the beginning.

"I would say within the first five or 10 minutes, a woman came into the theater and announced that eight people were in there who weren't supposed to be in there," she said. For about 20 minutes, she said, staff members flashed their lights, checking ticket stubs and being a distraction. "Once I got back into the movie, it was great," Kohl-Leaf said, but the first part of the night out had been marred.

Once home, she decided to e-mail the theater management to complain. Her note went to Evergreen Entertainment LLC of New Brighton, owners of St. Croix Falls Cinema 8 and five movie complexes in Minnesota.

"I did not pay 18.00 to have a distracted experience," she wrote. " ... I would rather drive to White Bear Lake, where they obviously know how to run a theater than have this experience again." The e-mailed response that greeted her the next morning left her stunned.

"Drive to White Bear Lake and also go [expletive] yourself," began the reply from Steve Payne, Evergreen's vice president. "If you don't have money for entertainment, get a better job, and don't pay for everything on your credit or check card." It also included a couple more expletives before ending.

"I was surprised -- I honestly didn't think it was the vice president who sent it," said Kohl-Leaf. She showed it to her friend, "and we were just like, 'What?' ... I've worked in retail, and I would never think to say something like that, or write it or anything."

Payne later sent a second, less-heated, message: "As vice president I should never have reacted that way, no matter how I felt about your e-mail." Repeated attempts to reach Payne and others at Evergreen Entertainment were unsuccessful.

But the wheels of social media-style justice were already in motion. Kohl-Leaf posted the e-mails on her Facebook page, then her friend followed, then her friend's cousin. Then the cousin's friend created a Facebook page: "BOYCOTT St. Croix Falls Cinema 8." By Wednesday evening, it had drawn about 3,300 fans -- 1,000 people more than the population of St. Croix Falls.

Kohl-Leaf said she is glad the page started to let people vent their complaints about the theater, which she said could be a community asset. But she also has been targeted for raising a ruckus. "I've definitely had to grow a thick skin," she said.

Payne has his supporters, as well, starting another Facebook page: "We Support Steve Payne -- VP of St. Croix Falls Cinema 8."

Response so far: 32 fans.

Jim Anderson • 612-673-7199