News Column

Film Festival: 10 Seasons and Counting

July 27, 2014

By Nathan Payne, The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.

July 27--TRAVERSE CITY -- The future of the Traverse City Film Festival was cemented the moment the curtain rose at the end of the first screening, at least that's how festival co-founder Michael Moore sees it.

"The future of the film festival was solidified on it's first night," Moore said. "From that point on, it was like a rocket ship. The people spoke and they voted with their feet and their dollars."

Moore remembers he stood to address the festival's first audience after the credits rolled on "Mad Hot Ballroom," a 2005 documentary about New York City elementary school students learning to dance. The fledgling festival -- it would show 31 films in 54 screenings -- became the subject of some controversy when an opposing group staged its own festival to protest Moore's involvement.

Three festival co-founders -- Moore, Doug Stanton and John Robert Williams -- worked for 70 days with dozens of volunteers to prepare four venues for the festival.

About 500 film fans sat that first evening on worn 1960s-era theater seats and stood on temporary carpet inside the State Theatre, when Moore introduced a stage full of young ballroom dancers -- the same children featured in the film. There was no balcony inside the theater and the projection equipment was trucked in special for the festival.

"There was no question, that was the touchstone moment for the Traverse City Film Festival," said festival co-founder and Traverse City native John Robert Williams. "The audience just convulsed when Michael Moore jumped up on the stage and introduced these kids. They came out of their seats as one. One thousand people had the show of their lives that night."

On July 29, 2005, the historic State Theatre opened for the first time in more than 15 years. The 500 movie goers inside the building for the first of two shows that evening cheered so loud that people waiting outside for the second show began to wonder what was happening inside, Williams said.

"It was so hot that night that we had the doors open," Williams said. "They were wondering what the hell was going on in there. Until that point the ticket sales for the Film Fest were not that good. We weren't selling tickets."

That night was the catalyst that drove the festival to 50,000 admissions in its first year. It also helped win over skeptics in the community, Moore said.

"At the end of the first week, when Fidel Castro didn't show up, people were in," Moore said with a chuckle.

The second year of the festival brought more surprises and more growth, as did the third. But the fourth season brought the most significant change to Traverse City. That's the first festival after the Film Fest took ownership of the theater. Drastic renovations completed the now year-round downtown movie theater by Nov. 17, 2007.

"Once we opened the State Theatre and got the marquee going ... that was the light switch that turned on Traverse City," Williams said. "I used to walk out of here on a Friday night and the streets were empty."

"In the years prior to that, you had one-third of downtown empty, either boarded or papered-up," Moore said. "The people who opposed me 10 years ago were right, I was up to something. It wasn't just about going to the movies. It's because of my politics I have done this for Traverse City."

The State Theatre has held its place as the highest-grossing movie theater in the United States for the past 70 weeks and the Film Fest now is the fourth largest in North America, Williams said.

The festival -- in nine years and 10 editions -- expanded from four original venues to 10 screens this year. The 2014 lineup features more than 120 films. The budget for the self-sustaining festival also grew from about $350,000 the first year to about $1.5 million this year, according to Deb Lake, the festival's executive director.

Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made the festival the last one each year when a film can receive nominations for Academy Awards.

The next big issue facing the festival is growing to meet demand, yet not moving too quickly.

"Right now there's just not enough tickets for the people who want to buy them," Lake said. "We want to stay grass roots, we want to stay small, we want to stay downtown."

Organizers spent the past week touring the Grand Traverse region screening films at other small-town movie houses in a sort of kickoff for the festival. One of the stops was the newly-renovated Vogue Theatre in Manistee.

"Traverse City was empty," said Betsy Ray, a long-time festival volunteer. "You could drive downtown at 5 p.m. and there was nothing open. It was kind of like what Manistee was like a year ago."

Moore touts the State Theatre's success in catalyzing downtown rebirth in Traverse City to other small towns across the region. He points to the scene he saw a week ago in Manistee during a screening of "Bachelor Weekend."

"It was like a new coat of paint from beginning to end on (River Street)," Moore said. "It felt alive."

Nine years of success in Traverse City isn't enough for Moore and Williams, either. Both men pointed to a need for the festival to continually improve and change.

"Every year we start again and have to prove ourselves," Moore said.

The 10th Traverse City Film Festival begins Tuesday night, nine years to the day from that first sweltering night in the State Theatre.

Michael Moore's film recommendations "Batchelor Weekend" -- An Irish comedy called "'The Hangover' for the discerning movie goer. "Stations of the Cross" -- A German film split into 14 chapters, each one named for a station of the cross. "Print the Legend" -- A documentary about new 3D printing technology and future uses.


(c)2014 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

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Source: Record-Eagle, The (Traverse City, MI)

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