The Michigan Theater Foundation, weathering financial losses, looks back at historic restoration process
Two iconic local cinemas have been out of commission since mid-March. Both the Michigan Theater and State Theatre have been closed since March 16, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order temporarily restricting operations at entertainment venues to limit the spread of COVID-19. While restaurants across the state began to reopen in the summer, only theaters in select regions were permitted to resume showings.
Russ Collins, executive director and CEO of the Michigan Theater and State Theatre, said he was disappointed about not being able to screen films for the community.
“For the better part of 40 years, I’ve gone to work, and every day, there’s going to be an audience that came in,” Collins said. “So it’s very, very frustrating to know that the theater, from the community standpoint, sits dark and unavailable … a theater that isn’t used is a depressing space. But it’s a temporary thing.”
Whitmer announced on Sept. 25 that theaters will be allowed to reopen with reduced capacity starting on Oct. 9. Collins said the theater had developed operation plans to keep both patrons and employees safe, including a social distancing ticketing software that allows guests to sit with friends or family and improved air ventilation systems. The theaters will not be open every day or offer concessions at the beginning of the reopening process.
Collins said he anticipates a low initial turnout for screenings due to public health concerns.
“I’m sure that our attendance will be suppressed for a period of time, a period of months or a year or so, when people are just anxious about going out in public spaces,” Collins said. “There’s going to be some people that are quite anxious, and it will permanently affect their ability to go into public spaces, and some people are going to be particularly concerned about it, and I think most people are going to be somewhere in between.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the theaters have lost $1.5 million in program revenue, with $868,000 lost in film revenue, $340,000 in live event revenue and $298,000 in concessions. At the same time, contributed revenue has been on the rise, keeping the loss at around $1.35 million. Though the theaters have incurred financial losses while being closed, Collins said he was grateful for support from the community.
“Part of our revenue stream is from donations and memberships and sponsorships and things like that, and the community has continued to be supportive, even while we (are) closed,” Collins said. “And so although it’s a tremendous negative financial impact, we are so grateful to the folks who continue to support the theater or renew their memberships, even though the benefits that they get from it have been significantly reduced.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first crisis to threaten the theaters’ survival. The Michigan Theater Foundation was founded in 1979 when W.S. Butterfield Theatres, which had run the movie palace since its creation in 1928, shut down operations and there were plans to convert the building into a food court.
Henry Aldridge, professor emeritus of film at Eastern Michigan University, helped found The Michigan Theater Foundation to mobilize support for maintaining it.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Aldridge said he joined the effort to save the theater because he was passionate as an organ player about restoring the theater’s organ, which was designed to accompany silent films.
“When it became clear that the theater was going to close, nobody was willing to step up and say, ‘Let’s see what we can do about this,’” Aldridge said. “I was the advocate for saving the theater, but I did not have the financial or organizational knowledge to know how to do that … the challenge was just trying to get people interested. And it took a long time.”
When Aldridge presented to the Ann Arbor City Council and argued against turning the theater into a food court, Louis Belcher, then-mayor of Ann Arbor, became interested in the campaign.
According to Aldridge, Belcher provided financial support to help save the theater and founded the non-profit foundation because he was convinced the theaters were an economic center of the city.
“The Michigan and the State are economic anchors for Liberty Street,” Aldridge said. “In other words, if you took those two theaters out, you’d probably take out nights across the street and half the businesses around there.”
Collins, then a recent graduate from the University of Michigan, was hired to help manage the foundation and the Michigan Theater in 1982. The Michigan Theater Foundation began a capital campaign in 1985 to renovate and complete a historical restoration of the movie palace, according to Collins, and the theater reopened the following year.
The Michigan Theater soon became a cultural hub for both the city of Ann Arbor and for the University. The movie palace was host to a variety of entertainment, serving as a performing arts center for symphony concerts and dance shows while also screening blockbuster movies and independent films. The Ann Arbor Film Festival hosted its screenings at the theater shortly after the foundation was formed.
Collins said the theater continued the legacy of independent filmmaking and film screenings among the University’s campus film societies.
“The campus film societies receded as the internet became broadly available … and it became the primary means of distribution of alternative media,” Collins said. “There’s a certain kind of alternative media dynamic to independent cinema. There’s a lot of documentaries that happen. But it really is the aesthetic role for cinema that is left these days.”
Frank Uhle, head projectionist at the Michigan and State theaters and University alum, was a member of one of the student film societies.
“The Michigan and the State in particular, in some ways, carried on a tradition of these film societies where they show art films and premieres and one-off projects and interesting things that major multiplex theaters can’t make enough money on,” Uhle said. “We show something for maybe just one showing or just a week, and it provides a forum for art and basically, it’s not strictly a business to make money.”
The Michigan Theater Foundation purchased the State Theatre in 2014 when there was a plan to repurpose the space. The foundation enacted a campaign to renovate the building, and after closing in 2016 to finish renovations, the theater reopened in 2017.
The foundation began offering independent documentaries and films through a “Virtual Movie Palace” that can be viewed on their website, and the theater also offers curbside concessions. While these alternatives are not highly profitable, Collins said they provide a small stream of revenue while giving back to subscribers and supporters of the theaters.
LSA senior Drew Agley has worked at the State Theatre on and off since she was a freshman. Agley said she is looking forward to seeing the theaters open again.
“As someone who really enjoys working there, I’m really excited with the thought of going back to work, but then like most everyone else, a little bit nervous with what it’s going to look like considering the state of things,” Agley said. “Not being able to go in has been a little bit disappointing, so just the fact that we’re going to be able to get back to that makes me happy.”
Daily Staff Reporter Arjun Thakkar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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