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Michael Moore hopes to revive old theaters

June 25, 2010

TRAVERSE CITY Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore has a new project on tap revitalizing derelict, depressed downtown theaters in communities across Michigan.

Moore, who founded the Traverse City Film Festival in 2005 and two years later orchestrated the full-time reopening of the boarded-up downtown movie house, plans to launch the "State Theatre/Michigan Downtowns Project" as a way to offer start-up funding for new nonprofit theaters.

He will use state film tax credit money he expects to receive from his Traverse City-based production "Capitalism: A Love Story" estimated at $650,000 to $1 million to create a project he hopes will help revitalize battered Michigan communities.

"We want to turn on the marquee lights, bring in some jobs, pump money into the local economy," Moore said. "This is just my effort to think of ways to do more."

The project would give grants, to be used as seed money, for three main purposes: to reopen theaters that sit vacant, to sustain those that are open but struggling, and to start downtown movie theaters where there are none.

Moore said theaters that receive project grants would have to become nonprofit theaters. Owners and operators would come here to learn about the State's volunteer-based model.

He's spoken to officials in Flint and his hometown of Davison about the project, and was in Manistee on Saturday to scout a long-shuttered downtown movie theater.

The idea excites those who live in towns with theater infrastructure but without the resources to make them vibrant.

When it opened in 1938, the Vogue Theater's red-brick, Art Deco exterior was hailed as a modern luxury compared to the dated buildings that lined River Street in downtown Manistee.

That's not the case today, as the Vogue once celebrated for its sleek design is beginning to crumble. Water has leaked through the roof. Stucco needs patching.

"It's this big white elephant building in our downtown," said Travis Alden, executive director of the Main Street Downtown Development Authority. "Everybody says something needs to happen with it."

Moore and theater advocates say their restoration can fuel new interest in downtowns, extend business hours and generate new revenue.

He expects to start with six theaters and expand to a dozen within the first year. He plans to offer additional details this week during the film festival.

The State Theatre alone brings in about $5 million annually to the local economy, he said, and the Traverse City Film Festival spurs an estimated $10 million in economic activity each year.

His project could help movie houses like the Harbor Theatre in Muskegon stay afloat.

This winter, Brendan Pelto and his wife, Jen, considered quitting. The couple reopened the 1918 theater in April 2008 to play independent and foreign films.

A number of tenants had leased the building for short terms before the Peltos took over. But business could be slow, and they had an infant son.

"We've lasted longer than most," said Pelto, 28. "We just decided we can't keep pumping our own money into the theater like we had been."

Filmmaker friends held a fundraiser, and Pelto said Moore contributed. In all, between $20,000 and $30,000 was raised enough, he said, "to pay off all of our debts and commit to another year."

The Harbor is nonprofit and offers memberships, much like the State does in Traverse City.

Moore said he negotiated with his studios Paramount and Overture the right to funnel into the project all money received from state tax credits for "Capitalism" and any other Michigan-based films he makes.

He hopes other film productions in the state will follow suit.

"We want to say to the people in the Muskegons, the Manistees, the Gladwins: 'Come here, and we'll show you how to do this,'" Moore said.

There already seems to be interest.

The Manistee downtown authority offered to buy the shuttered Vogue out of bankruptcy for $50,000, Alden said, in order to protect it for future use.

A study the DDA ordered mostly explored for-profit development, but Alden said residents seem to support the idea of a community grassroots effort.

"A lot of people look at the State Theatre as kind of the holy grail of what a successful downtown theater revitalization could look like," Alden said. "Getting the place open is ultimately what we want to see happen."

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