Rise of Small Town Theaters

REGION – The 95-year-old State Theatre in Traverse City is undeniably the "grand lady" of independent movie houses in northern Michigan. Its story of resurrection reads like a fairy tale. Filmmaker and Antrim-county resident Michael Moore creates a Traverse City film festival in 2005 that turns the lights back on at the rundown – yet still majestic – theater. Two years later, Rotary Charities donates the theater to the Traverse City Film Festival. Six weeks, hundreds of volunteers and thousands of volunteer hours later, the theater reopens in November 2007 and has shown movies daily ever since.

The success of the nonprofit State Theatre is leading a resurgence of small town theaters across Michigan – including a few in our own backyard. Earlier this year it was announced that The Vogue Theatre in Manistee, closed since 2005, is the first benefactor of Moore's new State Theatre Project (see sidebar).

The Vogue will be the second theater in the area to operate as a nonprofit. The Garden Theater in Frankfort, The Bay Theatre in Suttons Bay and the Elk Rapids Cinema are all for-profit operations, though small those profits may be. But profits or not, how do these small town theaters make it work?

"As a nonprofit theater, our mission is serve the community – it is very important that our doors are open to everyone," says the State's Deb Lake. "And because our mission is also to save the indigenous American art of cinema, we often show films we know will not fill the theater, because they are films that should be shown."

But what films can it show? The deed restriction on the building dictates that the State can only show films that open on 200 screens or less, says Lake, or they can ask Carmike (owners of Traverse City's only for-profit theaters) for permission to show films they wouldn't be able to otherwise. "However, we are free to show any film once it has been released on video," she says.

As for how long the theater has to hold a film, there are a lot of variables: the film itself, the film's distributor, and whether or not the theater is opening it "on the break" or, if not, how long it has been since the film opened.

Case in point: recent Best Picture Oscar winner, "The King's Speech," which brought the State its best holiday season ever, but also had some movie enthusiasts wondering if the film would ever leave.

"The Weinstein Company knew they had an Oscar winner on their hands, and they expected all theaters showing it to hold it through the Oscars," explains Lake. "We opened it with all of the other theaters across the country…but [the distributor] negotiates with each theater independently because some theaters, like us, are single screens. At seven weeks we had really held it as long as we possibly could, despite the fact that it was still doing great business."

That business is what allows theater leaders to show what it feels are other worthwhile movies, even though they know there will be empty seats in the house.

The State's net ticket sales in 2010 were upwards of $550,000 (down a bit from '09). However, the theater increased its partnerships with other nonprofits, Lake explains, offering more free events for the community. The State celebrated its 500,000 patron last November, the beginning of its fourth year. "To hit the half-million mark so soon in a town of less than 20,000 people ­- well, I think that says something about just how special this community is," says Michael Moore, president and founder of the TCFF and the State Theatre. Outside of ticket prices (which are lower than the for-profit theater in Traverse City), the State Theatre's income includes theater memberships and grants and donations from individuals and foundations. Some of that revenue is used for continuing renovations of the building, including a complete redo of the box office in 2010. No question: It's expensive to maintain a theater that was originally built in 1916, Lake says, and there are plenty of renovations and updates that remain.

"We insist on having the very best possible sound and picture, and some of our biggest expenses are in that area," she says. "It might surprise some people to know that a new bulb for one of our projectors costs over $2,000 and we go through several a year."

The theater only employs eight people (projectionists, house managers, building manager and volunteer coordinator). The largely volunteer-run operation means staff costs are much lower than they would be otherwise, Lake says, and is what makes the venture possible at all.

How many screens in TC?

The earlier incarnation of the State Theatre closed down in 1996. "There were too many screens and the State Theatre went out of business," Moore contends.

"We hope to add a second screen to the State Theatre, but even as a two-screen theater we will never be able to show every film that people want to see," says Lake.

But what about more screens downtown? Specifically, just a couple of blocks away. There have been discussions in the last couple of years about a multiplex being included in development plans of a vacant lot on Traverse City's west end. How such a development could impact the State Theatre remains to be seen.

The TCBN contacted local developer and current property owner Jerry Snowden but he declined to comment on any plans.

Just a few miles south of downtown, the Carmike-owned, for-profit Grand Traverse Cinemas at the Grand Traverse Mall has nine screens. The nearby Carmike Horizon Cinema has 10 screens. (Calls to Carmike's local management office for comments for this story were not returned.)

"It's an open question as to how many screens Traverse City can support," Lake says. BN

The Garden Theatre

The Garden Theatre in Frankfort, built in 1923, had been a summer-only operation since the early '90s – a failed heating system meant it could only be open during the warm months, explains Rick Schmitt, who purchased the theater in June 2008 with his wife, Jennie, and Blake and Marci Brooks. The principal owners sold shares to members of the community and the theater now has 13 investors, Schmitt says.

It shows first-run, independent, and foreign films, along with classic cinema at The Garden Greats series. It will also host the 3rd annual Frankfort Film Fest in October.

"Right now we lose money in the winter," says Schmitt, when the theater runs a limited schedule. Even so, business during the winter of 2011 was up about 10 percent compared to 2010 .

"The ownership group is committed to a year-round operation, but it will take time to make it flourish in the winter," says Schmitt. Come Memorial Day, it is open daily.

Schmitt says even though the theater is up and running (with heat, upgraded digital sound and new seats), "she still needs a lot of love."


The Elk Rapids Cinema

It first opened in the 1940s, but Joe Yuchasz has owned the Elk Rapids Cinema since 1972. For the last 10 or so years, he has been systematically redoing things as things failed – the light system for projector, the sound system, the roof. For the last couple of years, the focus has been on the "shiny stuff," such as all new seats, half of them rocking chairs. "Customers have told me it's the most comfortable place around to watch a movie," says Yuchasz. It's also home to the "world's largest black light ceiling mural."

The movie business is good in Elk Rapids, he says. "It's been up every year for the last three years," he adds. Attendance figures are up 5 percent over last year and revenue up 17 percent, but some of that is attributable to an increase in the ticket price – from $6 to $7. Even so, it's still one of the cheapest places to see a flick around.

The theater shows first-run films, but typically three weeks after they have first been released (a "moveover"). That way, he only has to play it for one week. Changing the movie every week is good for customer loyalty, Yuchasz says. "If you run something for three or four weeks, you've just told your customers to go somewhere else," he says. "I try not to do that." elkrapidscinema.com

The Bay Theatre

The 271-seat Bay Theatre in Suttons Bay remains the one and only place in Leelanau County to see a flick – it shows movies daily, year-round.

Theater manager Denise Sica says business has been holding "fairly steady." The theater is just wrapping up another season of its Bay Film Series this month, a subscriber series that brings a special release to The Bay for 3 days each month (September through April).

"It's a strong part of our winter attendance," says Sica.

The theatre is able to get first-run films, but it isn't always financial feasible, Sica explains. "Studios have requirements and don't make exceptions for small-town, independent, one-screen theatres," she says. "That certainly impacts our decision on what we show."

Those requirements may mean a summer blockbuster has to play at the theatre for four weeks or two weeks in the winter. The theatre pays high rental fees, Sica says, that are based on a percentage of ticket sales.

Sica says because of schedules and audience numbers, it isn't practical for The Bay to collaborate with the State on bringing films to the area, although it does often show many of the same shows. leelanau.com/thebay

The Vogue Theatre

Michael Moore is taking his theater power on the road. First stop? The landmark Vogue Theatre in downtown Manistee. Moore is championing a community-driven effort to restore and reopen the 72-year-old theatre, the first project of his State Theatre Project, a nonprofit endeavor he's funding to help replicate the success of the State Theatre in other Michigan towns.

Determining whether the new theater will be one screen or two will play a large role in the final yet-to-be-determined project costs, Moore says. The nonprofit venture will show first-run movies, plus documentaries, foreign films, classics and kids movies.

"No one else is going to make this happen unless the people of Manistee want it done," says Moore of the grassroots effort. "That's what I learned in Traverse City."

The City of Manistee's Main Street Program/Downtown Development Authority (DDA) owns the Vogue. It has partnered with the Alliance for Economic Success to form The Vogue Theatre Project nonprofit organization that will coordinate the restoration of the building. Moore will advise with fundraising to help guide the renovation. He will also volunteer his time for the first two years to be the theater's programmer.

The restoration project is slated to begin this month and the grand opening is set for August.

Companies/individuals interested in donating resources, time and expertise for the project should contact Jami Schneider, Alliance for Economic Success, at jami@allianceforeconomicsuccess.com.