State Theatre

Since its rehabilitation and relaunch in 2007, the State Theatre has become not only the focal point of the Traverse City Film Festival, but is a year-round destination bringing thousands to main street Traverse City and helping a retail and commercial revival.

Like many cities, Traverse City saw its downtown grow darker with business, activity, and foot traffic moving to the periphery of the city where new malls and car-oriented commercial centers were being developed. Maybe Traverse City’s most prominent symbol of downtown decline was the once-grand State Theatre on East Front Street. Originally built in 1918 as the Lyric in the golden age of silent films, the grandiose movie house was also an active community center, providing a local venue to host weddings and other community events. Its brightly lit marquee had served as a familiar beacon to a much-loved gathering place for generations of local residents.

By the ’60s and ’70s, as development and activity moved away from downtown, the theatre became less utilized and struggled to compete with the modern movies complexes. The theatre added a second screen in the early ’80s to compete, but still struggled to stay afloat. The State Theatre closed down for good in 1991 when the modern multiplex cinema opened at Grand Traverse Mall.

Recognizing the idea that movies are made to be a communal experience—and a really good place to see really good movies can become a community’s vital core—recent transplant Michael Moore started the Traverse City Film Festival. With the success of the film festival, Moore and partners recognized the potential positive impacts of a year-round movie and entertainment destination in downtown Traverse City.

In 2007, Rotary Charities who had previously acquired the theatre in order to save it, officially sold the building for $1 to the Traverse City Film Festival, a community-based nonprofit set up to own and operate both the theatre and annual festival as community assets. Moore and then-wife Kathleen Glynn, a couple prominent families, and a small handful of other benefactors kicked in the bulk of the restoration money out of their own pockets, bolstered by countless smaller donations from the community at large. Over the next six weeks, hundreds of local volunteers hung curtains and hammered nails in a massive restoration of the 1940s art deco décor, complete with a new balcony, 584 new made-in-Michigan seats, state-of-the-art sound and projection, and the biggest screen within 150 miles.

The theatre and year-round activity it brings to downtown Traverse City has been a key player in the areas commercial revival with retail vacancy rate now below 4 percent. All along Front Street to either side, and for blocks in every direction, downtown Traverse City is thriving. Eclectic art shops and restaurants, locally owned eateries, coffee shops and bars, new and renovated homes and office buildings now cozy up against each other in and around a colorful urban hub that combines the best of classic small town Americana with a trendy, vibrant feel that rivals any resort town on the continent. 

Accomplishments: 
  • Has increased foot traffic in downtown and helped bring retail vacancy rate below 4 percent.
  • The year-round movie house has acted as a catalyst to transform the downtown into a thriving regional center for arts and culture.
  • One million people have passed through the doors of the State Theatre since it opened 5 1/2 years ago. For a town of 16,000 year-round residents, this is nothing short of incredible.
  • Film festival draws over 100,000 attendees to downtown Traverse City.
  • The Theatre has consistently been one of the top-grossing independent art houses in North America, managing to stay in the black even as movie attendance continues to drop nationwide.
  • In 2013, was named the #1 movie theatre in the world by TheCredits.org, a website of the Motion Picture Association of America.
  • All of this success is despite an old deed restriction that prohibits showing any movies at the State that opens on more than 200 screens across the country, which includes most big films released by Hollywood.
Funding: 
Four families contributed $200,000 a piece to make up the bulk of the million dollars raised to rehab the theatre. Ongoing funding of the theatre is largely through tickets, which are $8 for adults, $6 for students, with frequent specials including .25 cent matinees to keep it affordable.
Budget: 
The budget for the operation of the theatre alone, outside of the festival, is $1,000,000 with approximately 10 percent of that dedication to maintenance.
Organization: 
Owned by Traverse City Film Festival, a 501c nonprofit. The board of the nonprofit is made up of international players in the film world. The nonprofit also has a local advisory group to help with planning, visioning, and volunteer recruitment.
Participants: 

Two full-time staff who work on both the theatre and film festival, splitting their time between the two projects evenly over the course of the year. The theatre also employs two full-time managers, two projectionists, a full-time maintenance person, and a part-time volunteer coordinator. The volunteer coordinator helps with organizing, training, and scheduling of over 500 volunteers each year, who are essential to the operation and success of the organization.

Lessons Learned: 

How to Utilize a Historic Theatre to Make the Greatest Impact on the Surrounding Community:

Listen to What the Community Wants: It’s essential to listen to your community to understand what they want to best ensure you are servicing their needs and tastes.

Must Be Nonprofit and Volunteer Based: The economics of maintaining these historic structures and the cost of showing first-run movies people want to see, makes it imperative to have a nonprofit, volunteer-driven business model.

Be Strategic About Fundraising: When possible, avoid a community fundraising drive for the renovation. Instead look for five wealthy citizens who love their city, see its potential, and are capable of writing big checks that will cover the bulk of restoration costs.

Don’t Drag out the Restoration: The renovations should not take longer than three months and use local contractors who support the project and will be advocates for the project.

Don’t Be Afraid to Expose Audiences to New Things: The State Theatre’s live from the Met Opera series has been one of the biggest hits the theatre has ever had and regularly sells out.

Make the Theatre Financially Accessible: Be community minded by keeping prices low, below typical multiplex prices. The State Theatre offers specials like free popcorn on Tuesdays, matinees for only a quarter, and even free admission when temperatures top 100 degrees to give people a respite from the heat.

Make it a Quality Experience: It is important that visitors have a quality experience each time they visit. Seating must be “outrageously comfortable” with sight lines and leg room that accommodates all sizes of people. The projection and sound must be perfect and the screen must be gigantic.

Treat Your Volunteers Right: Your volunteers are the most crucial aspect of the successful operation of the theatre. Be sure to reward them with free tickets to special screenings and volunteer appreciation nights. Treating your volunteers the right way is the best volunteer recruitment tool you can have.

Use Your Volunteers: Make sure to utilize your volunteers as ambassadors. Make sure they are aware of what is going on at the theatre because they are zealots who will share your message throughout the community.

Be a Beacon on Your Main Street: You must have a huge 1940s style marquee with a few thousand lights. This not only draws attention to your venue, but also echoes back to classic cinema and the positive role it played in communities on main street. It is also an important means of advertising