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Deb Lake

Rick Coates - July 21st, 2008
If you read the headlines it is obvious the impact Michael Moore has personally had in making the Traverse City Film Festival (TCFF) one of the best in North America. His work on behalf of the Festival and the renovation of the State Theatre has resulted in a new vibe and economic stimulus in downtown Traverse City. But if you ask Moore, he will tell you he is a little uncomfortable for getting all the credit.
“I always feel a bit uneasy when people thank ‘the board’ of the film festival for doing so much good for the community. The record needs to be set straight,” said the Oscar-winning filmmaker and TCFF co-founder. “Nearly all of that ‘good’ is being done on a day in and day out basis by one person: Deborah Lake. While I spend a good chunk of my time each week on programming the festival and the State, coming up with new ideas and directions in which to take both projects, and securing the funds and the support of the Hollywood studios for our endeavors here in TC, the only way ANY of my ideas are moved forward is due to the smarts and the sweat of Deb Lake. And after that, the hundreds of volunteers who provide the fuel for the engine -- volunteers whom she has nurtured, organized and inspired.”



EARLY VOLUNTEER
Deb Lake has been with the TCCF almost since its inception, starting as a volunteer in its first year and evolving into the executive director, the only paid position within the organization. Lake, like Moore, is uncomfortable in taking credit for her contributions to the success of the Festival.
“I am getting paid for what I do, so I don’t deserve any credit. It is easy for me to do what I do because it is my job. The real credit belongs to the nearly 1,000 volunteers who give of their time to make this festival a success,” said Lake. “There are so many talented people who have professional jobs and work a lot of hours and then take on responsibilities at the Festival that other festivals pay those positions full time. So we have these amazingly talented people giving to make this Festival work–that is where the credit belongs.”
While Moore agrees with Lake’s point on the importance of all of the volunteers, he disagrees with her assessment of her own importance.
“There simply would be no Traverse City Film Festival at this point without Deb,” said Moore. She is the machine that makes it happen. She does the jobs of 10 people, and while that may be laudable, ultimately it isn’t fair that one person has to sacrifice so much so that thousands can enjoy the fruits of her labor. The success of the festival and the State will allow us to hire even more people to provide Deb with the support she deserves. I can’t imagine anyone in the community not agreeing with that and not helping me fund the staff that Deb needs. It will be one more example of creating more middle class jobs in Traverse City.”

DEB’S BACKGROUND
Lake grew up in Canton, MI as she puts it so her parents “could live near the Big House” (U-M football stadium). She spent her summers in Traverse City and headed off to Princeton obtaining an English degree with a film studies minor. She eventually moved back to Michigan and Traverse City to marry her childhood sweetheart.
She worked as web designer and had been laid off when she heard the news about a film festival starting up in Traverse City.
“I was so excited, because I love movies. So I called and called the number but never received a return call. So I figured they didn’t need me,” laughs Lake. “Then I am at a family function on July 4, just a few weeks from the Festival and the fundraising committee calls saying they needed help raising $100,000. So I built a back-end database to help them. Then the Festival office calls days before saying they needed to send out e-mail schedules to all the volunteers, and I ended up spearheading that.”
After the first festival ended Lake recalls everyone went back to their day jobs, something she was without, while she hung around, cleaning up and organizing files. She spent about three months working for free, getting the office organized, filling out reports before she was offered a full time job with another company.
“I went to the Festival board and made them a list of everything I had been working on and what needed to be done and told them I had taken a position that was going to pay a salary,” said Lake. “Well, when they looked over everything, they thought it was a good idea to hire someone and they offered me a job as a contract employee for a lot less than the job I was offered. But in my heart I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of.”

A MARVEL
With that type of loyalty, commitment and work ethic, Moore knew he had the right person for the job.
“I want the festivalgoers to know that much of what we are able to pull together for our schedule depends on the genius of Debbi Lake. I don’t use that word lightly. If you could spend a day with her your head would be spinning as you marvel at how she is able to find films that distributors say no longer exist, or to convince filmmakers to come to Traverse City or to answer 200 emails,” said Moore.
“Deb and I watch hundreds of movies every year in order to find the very best to bring to Traverse City. She has an encyclopedic mind for movies and she loves ones that are both obscure and ones that are meant for a broad audience.”
Lake is uncomfortable in the spotlight. She relishes her work behind the scenes. While she doesn’t get to enjoy the Festival on the same level as thousands who attend, she finds enjoyment in a different way.
“I enjoy watching everyone having a great time. The buzz about the films as people discuss them when they walk out of the theater,” said Lake. “I think I was able to watch 15 minutes of Borat before I was called out of the theater to resolve something. But that is my job. I get to watch these films before they come. I get to go to Sundance and other festivals and have my fun. But I am having fun being a part of something that is helping to make the town I live in become a really cool place to live.”

PLENTY OF PAPERWORK
In addition to overseeing the Festival, she is responsible for the State Theatre operation and the four fulltime employees, two projectionists and two house managers. She also has plenty of paperwork and administrative work to keep her busy with the festival year round.
“Most festivals of our size have three to five full time employees working year round to make it happen. Look at how many the Cherry Festival has,” said Lake. “But Michael, the board and I have spoken about this. We know we need more full time employees but we want to be careful. We have seen how other festivals that have grown and added staff have taken on a different personality. So much of the personality of this TCFF is a result of the committed and dedicated volunteer team we have.”
So what does Deb Lake think about Michael Moore?
“First of all, he is incredibly intelligent and very funny. He makes me laugh at least a handful of times a day. For me personally, I like helping him accomplish the million ideas he has,” said Lake. “I admire the fact that he really believes everything is possible. I have personally witnessed him accomplish several things that others said couldn’t happen. When you are around that type of person with that type of energy you can’t help but want to do better. I get bored easily and that is the reason I have never worked anywhere for more than a couple of years. I have never been bored one day on the job at the TCFF.”
Lake is excited about the future of the Festival and the big plans for the fifth anniversary next year. She is also pleased with all that the Festival has accomplished to date.
“I know how important tourism is to the area and the Festival is helping to attract visitors to the area year round, and the addition of the State has helped with that effort,” said Lake. “But I am also grateful for what the Festival has meant to all of us who live here year round. There are so many wonderful things about this area and there is no question that the TCFF has made this even a better place to live.”
As for great things, Deb says the greatest thing to happen to her was last October when she became a mother for the first time. But if you ask the 60 managers and the nearly 1,000 volunteers of the TCFF, Deb Lake has been the “mom” that has kept the Festival together for the past four years.
For a complete listing of all the parties, panel discussions and films at next week’s Traverse City Film Festival check out traversefilmfest.org.

 
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