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Filmmaker's new crusade: Saving old theaters

Documentary director Michael Moore near a Traverse City, Mich., movie theater he helped save and renovate. He hopes to expand the effort to more downtown theaters nationwide.
Documentary director Michael Moore near a Traverse City, Mich., movie theater he helped save and renovate. He hopes to expand the effort to more downtown theaters nationwide.Keith King / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For generations, Americans viewed films in stately, single-screen theaters that were pillars of city business districts — an experience that faded with the rise of suburban multiplexes and the decline of downtowns.

Michael Moore wants to bring those theaters back. The Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker has a plan to refurbish or prop up downtown movie houses in his home state of Michigan — and eventually nationwide.

Such efforts have been made before. But Moore's approach has a twist, modeled on the successful resurrection of the State Theatre in Traverse City, his adopted hometown in northern Michigan.

The way to rescue downtown movie houses, Moore says, is to run them as nonprofit ventures staffed mostly with volunteers. That slashes costs and gives the community a stake in the theater's survival, he says.

Moore plans to provide grants and training to theater operators who use those methods. The money would come from a fund he's creating with his rebate from a state film tax credit earned by producing his documentary, "Capitalism: A Love Story," in Michigan. He expects the refund to total about $1 million.

"One of our goals is to create an economic boost, particularly in struggling downtown areas," he told The Associated Press this week during the annual Traverse City Film Festival, which he and others established six years ago. "Another is to save the art of cinema and encourage great films to be made."

The Flint native moved to the Traverse City area in 2003 and took an interest in the State Theatre on the resort town's main street. Opened in 1916, it had become a shuttered relic.

"I just felt bad every time I passed it," Moore said.

His team made the State the primary venue for the initial film fest. Moore eventually convinced the owner to hand over the $1.2 million facility for free so it could operate full-time as a nonprofit.

It began doing so in November 2007, after a dramatic facelift. Its high, blackened ceiling sparkles with tiny lights resembling a starry sky. Thick draperies adorn the walls. The 534 seats are wide and comfortable; the sound system is state-of-the-art; the screen is 50 feet wide. There's even an old-style organ.

The theater has paid employees, but volunteers handle the box office, concessions and ushering. An adult ticket for the typical movie costs $8; a large popcorn and soft drink combo is $7.

Because of a contractual hitch, the State can't show many first-run movies. Its screenings consist largely of art-house fare: documentaries, foreign films, classics, along with second releases of newer films.

Yet it's one of the nation's top-grossing theaters and something of a community center, with opera broadcasts and sporting events.

"The State Theatre, with its bright lights on the marquee, acts as a sort of beacon for the downtown area," said Steve Fairbanks, manager of Red Ginger, a restaurant next to the theater. "There's buzz and energy coming off that building."

Skeptics might question how aging, single-screen theaters can compete with glitzy multiplexes where audiences watch the "Transformers" and "Twilight Saga" films in stadium-style seating.

But Moore says the State Theatre experience shows there's a hunger for high-quality films viewed in pleasant surroundings with reasonable prices for admission and popcorn. The multiplexes, he says, put style over substance.

"This attitude that some in Hollywood have, that people in the flyover states don't want to see documentaries, they don't want to read subtitles, we're proving untrue," Moore said. "'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' is the State Theatre's top-grossing film for the first half of the year, despite being a foreign film, despite having a complicated plot and subtitles."

Michigan's film industry tax credit is one of the nation's most generous, refunding up to 42 percent of a company's qualified expenditures. Moore said the $1 million he expects to receive will become seed money for his grant fund and he hopes other filmmakers who shoot in Michigan will contribute.

During the festival this week, he announced $5,000 grants to operators of theaters in two nearby communities.

Michael Jahr, a commentator with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Midland that opposes Michigan's film tax incentive, said Moore should use his own money to revive downtown theaters.

"In effect, he's taking a windfall he's gotten from taxpayers in an economically depressed state and turning around and handing that out," Jahr said.

Moore said the Mackinac Center puts "out misleading and false statements to smear good people who do good things."

Ellen Elliott, manager of the nonprofit, volunteer-run Penn Theatre in the Detroit suburb of Plymouth, hopes it qualifies for help from Moore's project.

The Penn, which opened in 1941, was closed from late 2003 until volunteers stepped forward several years later. The theater is holding its own but needs periodic fundraisers.

"This idea (Moore) has for the money to stay here and help show the movies that these people are producing here is brilliant," Elliott said.

Moore said the 405-seat Penn is a "perfect example of what I'm talking about." He's also looking at troubled downtown theaters in Manistee, Muskegon and Flint.

"One theater is not the be-all and end-all to create an economic recovery," Moore said. "But our state is deep in the toilet and the rescue party is not coming and the only way we're going to work our way out of this is to essentially save ourselves."