It pains me to say this, but the best idea I’ve heard lately for preserving the American movie-going experience isn’t a very good idea. Oscar-winning documentarian/provocateur Michael Moore recently announced plans to disseminate his experimental business model of nonprofit movie theaters, which he has tested with apparent success in Traverse City, Michigan. I’ve spent so much time bemoaning the decline of the movie-going experience that I should be thrilled about someone with Moore’s notoriety fighting the good fight, but I think the nonprofit approach might cause as many problems as it solves.
For those just joining our broadcast, the situation into which Moore has plunged himself is dire. Movie theater attendance is down, the movie experience has been irrevocably damaged by generational changes in comportment that make chatting and texting in theaters acceptable, the onslaught of in-theater advertising has tarnished the purity of movie palaces, and Hollywood’s slavish devotion to one-size-fits-all product has made the pictures unspooling in today’s theaters as unattractive as the experience of actually going to those theaters.
Making matters much worse, the trends toward handheld entertainment and mega-screen home viewing have further deteriorated audience desire to see first-run flicks in cinemas. And if it seems as if big movies are still making big money, don’t be fooled; between outsized everyday admission prices and ginormous costs for IMAX tickets, movies can now hit record-breaking grosses while attracting smaller audiences than even a decade before.
If you’re someone to whom the ritual of getting lost in story while sitting in a dark room with hundreds of strangers means is meaningful, this is a bleak time. So it would seem that someone of Moore’s stature shining a light into the cinematic darkness would be good news. And maybe it is — but I have significant doubts.
First, here’s what I know about the business model Moore wants to replicate. In Traverse City, an attractive town near the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, Moore and his people have built a small cinematic shrine comprising an extremely selective annual film festival and a restored cinema called the State Theater, which shows art movies year-round (current attraction: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). Moore’s economic experiment centers on the theater, which is run as a nonprofit and staffed largely by volunteers. Moore has offered to share this business model, and to provide seed money and training, for folks who want to emulate the Traverse City formula in their markets.
And that’s where Moore loses me. I live in Los Angeles, the movie capital of the world, and L.A.-based nonprofit cinema organizations struggle constantly. The American Cinematheque, which presents new and vintage movies nearly every night at two separate theaters in L.A., relies on donations from boosters and on glossy special events, rather than just regular nightly admissions, to survive. Even the New Beverly Cinema, a venerable for-profit repertory house, subsists on the kindness of a well-heeled benefactor, Quentin Tarantino. So if movie houses catering to specialized tastes have difficulty paying the rent here in L.A., which is ground zero for film buffs, then I find it very hard to believe that such movie houses would do better elsewhere. I would wager, for instance, that the lights at the State Theater would dim pretty quickly if Moore pulled his support.
I don’t believe Moore’s business model accounts for the fact that some sort of moneyed 800-pound gorilla seems necessary to sustain any given specialty house. That being the case, what happens if some well-intentioned soul tries to start (or restart) a theater in a market that can’t claim a wealthy cinema fan among its citizenry? In that circumstance, presumably, the source of operating income would have to be that of for-profit cinemas: ticket sales.
Which brings me to my second concern: Can movie theaters really occupy the sort of place in modern America that other nonprofit entertainment venues, like opera theaters, do? I don’t think so, for a very specific reason. If administrators ask well-off people to support, say, the last standing opera house in Spokane, Washington, the administrators are actually asking benefactors to support the continued existence of a particular art form in a particular market. In other words, short of touring productions making quick stops in venues designed for pop concerts or sporting events, if the last opera house disappears from Spokane, Washington, then opera itself disappears from Spokane, Washington. That’s a powerful incentive to donate.
Conversely, movies aren’t going anywhere –or, more to the point, they’re going into people’s homes and into their handheld devices. I could expound on my theory that the feature film itself is endangered in the era of the short attention span, but for purposes of argument, let’s say the feature film is alive and well, and that only the movie-going experience is endangered. In that context, how can nonprofit administrators get benefactors to write checks? If theaters are dying because people would rather watch movies on their iPads and plasma screens, then what evidence suggests that people are dying to rediscover the movie-going experience?
Sad as this is to say, if you build it, they won’t necessarily come.
A host of other issues enter this argument as well. How can nonprofit theater administrators sustain a volunteer workforce, given that the incentive for working as an usher at nonprofit entertainment venues is free access to events? Is a free ticket to a movie enough to make someone give up his or her nights and weekends, the way a ticket to a ballet or an opera motivates volunteers in those arenas? And who pays for the programming at a nonprofit movie theater? Filmmakers and studios often donate screenings to nonprofits like the American Cinematheque in order to ensure the continued existence of those venues (and, more often than not, to generate word of mouth among the venue’s well-established audience).
If suddenly a slew of nonprofit movie theaters emerge, will filmmakers and studios react kindly to an onslaught of requests for freebies? And if they don’t respond kindly, how can those nonprofits pay for rental fees, shipping, and promotional expenses? More troublingly, if the nonprofit theaters generate income that’s shared with exhibitors, then why would anyone volunteer to do the exact same work, for the exact same business model, as an usher at a for-profit multiplex? More than anything else, I see the volunteerism factor dooming this experiment to failure.
So if it’s this easy for me to foresee problems getting audiences, content, and workers for nonprofit movie theaters, then what exactly is the genius idea Moore hopes to disseminate? Saving the movie-going experience sounds great in principle, but is the emperor wearing no clothes? I fear that Moore, and especially those who take the bait by emulating his work in Traverse City, are probably about to discover the same frustration that Robert Redford and his people encountered when they tried to wade into exhibition with a chain of Sundance-branded theaters a few years back, a plan that never really got off the ground.
To put a finer point on it, I fear that Moore is about to discover that, bleak and despairing a thought as it is, the American public — and the mainstream American film industry — has already made the bed in which it wants to sleep. I’d love to believe that people in this country are clamoring for a return to the communal cinematic joys of yesteryear, but in reality I think we’ve crawled so far into our personal cybertainment universes that we’re never coming out again, no matter who comes up with the next great idea for righting the cinematic ship.