TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - For generations, Americans saw movies in stately, single-screen theaters that were pillars of their towns and cities, 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.
It's been tried 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.
To rescue downtown movie houses, he says, run them as nonprofit ventures staffed mostly with volunteers, slashing costs and giving the community a stake in the theater's survival.
Moore plans to provide grants and training to theater operators who use that model. The money would come from a fund he is 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 said last week during the annual Traverse City Film Festival, which he helped launch six years ago. "Another is to save the art of cinema and encourage great films to be made."
Moore moved to Traverse City 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," he said.
His team made the State the primary venue for the initial film fest. Moore eventually persuaded the owner to hand over the $1.2 million facility for free so it could be operated full-time as a nonprofit.
It reopened in 2007 after a dramatic face-lift. Its high ceiling sparkles with tiny lights; heavy draperies adorn the walls; the 534 seats are 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 goes for $8; a large popcorn-and-soda combo is $7.
Because of a contractual hitch, the State can't show many first-run movies, so it mostly screens art-house fare - documentaries, foreign films, classics, second releases of newer films. Yet it's one of the nation's top-grossing theaters and acts as 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 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 first-run blockbusters in stadium-style seating.
But Moore says the State 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.
Michigan's film tax credit is one of the nation's most generous, refunding up to 42 percent of qualified expenditures. Moore said his $1 million would become seed money for his grant fund. He announced two $5,000 grants during the film festival.
"One theater is not the be-all and end-all to create an economic recovery," he 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."