Oscar-nominated provocateur Michael Moore (Sicko) announced earlier this week on the Creative Screenwriting podcast his plans in the next few months to establish a foundation that will subsidize major theater chains in cities across America to dedicate one screen per location to a low-budget documentary or foreign film.
He goes on to explain that earlier this year he established a non-profit to restore a historical "movie palace"* in Traverse City, MI. The State Theater now screens documentaries and art films, including 3 of the 4 films that are Oscar-nominated beside his film Sicko for Best Documentary. He also helped establish the Traverse City Film Festival in 2004.
I think this sounds like an amazing opportunity to give lesser known films a chance in an increasingly competitive market. But I wonder if there isn't a potential "pay to play" conflict here. If Moore will be underwriting the screenings (in a for-profit enterprise this would probably be organized as paid advertisements) would larger studios who want to see Jumper on more screens chafe at the reduced number of screens available to them? Studios and large distributors hold almost all of the bargaining chips in their relationships with exhibitors if Moore's organization plans to combat their influence it's going to require a lot of cash up-front. A plea to Moore's hefty mailing list could potentially raise many thousands of dollars, but how long could that momentum sustain itself in the face of six multi-billion dollar film studios who are but small pieces in their parent corporations pies?
And surely, Moore's organization wouldn't be negotiating on behalf of just one distributor or production company, but if you boil down "independent film" or "art film" down to a pure definition there's a very small number of groups that qualify. If he plans to only be championing on behalf of ten or so distributors it's not going to take long for feelings to get hurt and the well to become poison.
Moore will make an official announcement about the details of his plans in the coming months.
*Technically a "movie palace" is defined as a theater that holds 1,000+ people and Moore mentioned that his theater seats just 560. Thank you, History Detectives!
UPDATE: AJ Schnack reports that Moore provided some further details at a recent International Documentary Association gala. That possibly instead of committing one screen full time to the cause, he would try to compel theater owners to devote Monday nights (historically the worst night for movie theaters) to show documentaries and call it "Doc Night in America".
UPDATE #2: Agnes Varnum at Doc It Out examines concerns that documentary film-makers will become 'ghettoized' as a result of being shunted to the least popular night to go to the movies.