Here's something I haven't spoken much about outside of Michigan, mainly because I live here and I like what modicum of privacy I have in this place I call home and where I try to live a "normal" life. For instance, not a day goes by here where a Republican doesn't stop and shake my hand. Seriously.
But I think it's time you guys come here and hang out with me! So consider this your invite to make your way to Traverse City, Michigan, where each summer I hold a film festival that is a favorite for filmmakers all over the world. More on this in a bit.
For the past seven years, in addition to my day job of making movies and writing books, I have spent a significant amount of my time volunteering in the town where I live in northern Michigan. Our state, as you know, has been in a long-term depression (say the word "recession" around here and someone is likely to punch you).
So I decided to devote my time (and resources) to help the area I now call home by getting its long-closed downtown movie palace restored and reopened. Downtown Traverse City was doing better than most Michigan cities – which means that there were "only" five or six stores on our block that were boarded up (or "bombed out"), and the nearby elementary school had "only" 70% of its students qualifying for the federal free lunch program (i.e., they lived near or in poverty).
The local Rotary foundation owned the large, ornate empty theater, which had not shown movies in 20 or so years (a theater has stood on this site for nearly a hundred years). I would often pass by it and think, "What a shame this isn't open" – but it was no different than any of the hundreds of other downtowns I've seen all over America. The locally-owned independent movie theaters were abandoned years ago (how I wish some of you younger than me could have seen a movie in one of these grand rooms!) in favor of corporate chains and indifferent, cookie-cutter multiplexes where one low-paid projectionist runs the projectors for all 14 screens. You can bet that really improves the sound and picture quality of the films being slammed onto those screens – and the pleasurable experience of "goin' to the movies" has now become just another way to kill some time in between texting and talking to your girlfriend during the show.
The $10 popcorn helped make things better, too.
So I had this epiphany. What would a movie theater look like if it were designed, built and run by the people who actually make the movies? Why are we, the filmmakers, never consulted about what the movie-going experience should be like? After all, that's our art, our creative work, up there on those screens. In no other art form does the artist NOT have a say in how their art is presented to the public.
I asked the Rotary group to give me the theater for a dollar, and we eventually settled on a dollar. I set up a community-based non-profit organization that would own the theater. Four others and I donated all the money needed to bring the theater back to life. I promised that we'd complete the entire rebuild in six weeks. And we did. Hundreds of people pitched in to hammer nails and make curtains – and the new "Historic State Theatre of Traverse City" was opened in 2007 with its 584 brand new made-in-Michigan seats, the biggest screen within 150 miles, a state-of-the-art sound system, a big new balcony built from scratch, a complete restoration of the 1940s art deco décor, and a concession stand where you could get drinks and popcorn for just $2.00. I, as the theater's chair and volunteer programmer, promised to bring "just great movies," especially those movies that never make it to areas like northern Michigan.
Since our grand reopening, the State Theatre has been one of the largest-grossing independent art houses in North America. We have landed in the top 10 highest-grossing theaters for a total now of 138 weeks. And, get this – for 62 of those weeks, we were the #1 theater in the country for the film we were showing during each of those weeks. This success has happened while movie attendance nationwide has dropped in the last decade – and with us, it has happened in a depressed state and in a rural, somewhat politically conservative area where the nearest four-year college is 100 miles away.
I am going to make an audacious (but true) claim: You will not walk into a nicer, friendlier, better movie theater anywhere in the U.S. than the State Theatre of Traverse City. I'm not kidding. When you leave you'll want to know why every movie-going experience can't be like this one.
How have we done it?
1. We have no desire to make a profit (e.g., you will never see a commercial before a movie). All decisions are based on what's best for the patrons and the community and the art of cinema. We do not share the cynical attitude of the cineplex owners when they say, "We make our real money on the popcorn!" We, instead, make the money we need to run the State by simply showing only good movies. We've spent every day in the black for our entire five years.
2. We are a mostly volunteer-run operation. Hundreds of people work a shift or two a month to ensure the nonprofit theater's existence. This theater is essentially owned and run by its stakeholders – the citizens of the area. Everyone has a vested interest in its success.
3. If we catch you texting, checking your email, or talking on your cell phone during the movie, you will be banned from the theater for life.
Now, back to the reason I want you to come to Traverse City in a few weeks. Two years before my neighbors and I got the State re-opened, I started a film festival in Traverse City called, naturally, the "Traverse City Film Festival." It is now in its eighth year – and I would like to invite you to come here this summer and experience It. It will be unlike anything else you've done. During the six days of the festival I'll be showing a great mix of fiction, nonfiction and foreign films I've discovered in the past year – 91 of them in all. In 2011, the combined attendance at all of our festival movies was 128,000! The whole event takes place in this small town that sits on a beautiful bay that's part of Lake Michigan. Tickets are cheap, and many events – like the nightly outdoor films we show on a 100-foot screen by the water – are free. You can park your car and walk (or take the free shuttle bus) to any of the 5 indoor venues. This includes the State Theatre and the four other historic buildings that we turn into first-class movie houses. Over half of the films will have their director or stars appearing in person. This year, we are proud to have with us Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon and the legendary German director Wim Wenders, among many others.
This summer's festival runs from Tuesday, July 31st through Sunday, August 5th. Tickets to the public go on sale next Saturday (but if you join the "Friends of the Festival" you can buy your tickets starting today [Sunday]).
So, come see me in Traverse City! I promise, you won't regret it, you'll have a great time, you'll see some fantastic movies, and you'll meet a lot of good people.
And you'll see what an old-school movie theater and a popular film festival have done to pump millions of dollars into the local economy. There are no more boarded-up stores on our block, and we now are helping and advising other Michigan cities about re-opening their historic movie palaces.
It's a little story I've wanted to share with you for some time, and now I have.