Celebrity sightings. Movie premieres. Panels with acclaimed directors. The stuff of established film festivals became commonplace here in northern Michigan once the Traverse City Film Festival settled in as a summer institution.
After the success of that first TCFF in 2005, organizers decided to try for a second act. And — critical for downtown Traverse City — they set their sights on taking over the State Theatre, a classic American movie house that had fallen on hard times.
The 2005 film festival had heralded the first screening at the historic State since GKC Theaters shuttered it in 1995 in favor of mall multiplexes.
In the meantime, there had been an attempt to turn the State into a Broadway-style performance theater. That failed and the project’s main creditor, Rotary Charities, wound up in control of the property.
Rotary was a reluctant steward — they wanted to unload the State, but also wanted to secure its future. Interlochen had its eye on it as a performing arts center, but their plan needed $9 million.
Into this mix stepped Michael Moore and the TCFF, which by 2008 had established itself and scored a visit by its biggest celebrity yet -- Madonna.
RETURN OF THE STATE THEATRE II: THE TAKEOVER
TCFF founder; Oscar-winning filmmaker The [State Theatre] looked great by the time we were done with it. And when the festival was over, I said to the people at Rotary, ‘If you will let me do this, I will do this for the city. I don’t want a dime. I just believe this movie theater should be open on a year round basis.’ … They were like, ‘OK, look, we let you use it for the film festival, but Rotary giving this to Michael Moore? Uh, I don’t think so.’
JOHN ROBERT WILLIAMS
TCFF co-founder; photographer Barry Cole owned the theater and he did ensemble theater at the State. So he took out the screen and did all of that stuff. And they did Forever Plaid in the summertime and it bombed. There were more people on the stage than were in the audience. And there were only four guys in Forever Plaid. … And so it closed and soon there was this nonprofit group called the State Theatre Group in Traverse City and they were trying to turn the State Theatre and the building next to it, what was Kurtz music building and now Red Ginger, into a performing arts center.
Best-selling author; TCFF co-founder That first year, there was no real articulated plan to hold a second festival. The energy came from planning this first one and reopening the State Theatre, if even for a week, before it became a performing arts center owned by Interlochen. We met, I believe, Aug. 16, 2005, with Rotary and Interlochen reps and at this meeting learned that the State was going to transfer from Rotary’s receivership to Interlochen and be completely remodeled as a music hall. It would not be a movie theater any longer. The fall and winter of 2005-2006 were devoted to getting the theater and figuring out how to run a film festival.
I said to the Interlochen people, ‘With all due respect, I don’t think you’re going to raise $9 million. Not in this economy. Not in Michigan.’ … Look, take me out of this, right? This was an Academy Award winner that was offering to do this for you. And he was going to put his own money in. And I told [Rotary], ‘I’m not going to do a big community-wide fundraising thing like you’re planning for the $9 million.’ I said, ‘I will do this for under a million, not $9 million. This should not cost $9 million. That’s nonsense and crazy. I’m going to do it for under a million and I’m going to ask five people to join me in putting the money in there. And that will be that. And I’ll get this done in months.’ I mean, I had just come off setting the record for the largest grossing documentary of all time. … If they could just put aside the Fox News version of me and actually look at the real me.
That white paper that I wrote — that’s the original and first-ever written document outlining the mission of both the film festival group acquiring the theater and what it was the film festival might be. It was the website content for about a year. John supplied the pictures and I wrote the copy.
That was the document that I created in response to the Interlochen ultimatum in October to explain exactly what it was the film festival wanted to do with the theater. … Until then there had been no articulated plan. There was a lot of talking back and forth. And as
I said, Mike had left Traverse City in August and was either in New York or gone through that fall. We were communicating through email.
For 26 years I was in the Rotary club and I had to exit from the Rotary Charities board, I had to walk myself off, because I couldn’t negotiate the sale between myself as the film festival and myself as the [Rotary trustee]. … So I left as a trustee and people, the Rotarians in this town were like, ‘I can’t believe you’ve sided with Michael Moore over Rotary Charities. What’s wrong with you?’ I said, ‘I can’t do both,’ and I said, ‘I’m going to make more things happen with the State Theatre than you’re going to make happen in Rotary.’
It got testy at one point. They had an offer, as I was told, from a downstate developer. And by the way, those two words, whenever their spoken in Traverse City, red flags should fly up and down Front Street [laughs] — when you hear the words downstate developer. … I was told that there was a downstate developer who had made a significant financial offer to Rotary Charities to buy the building, to buy the State Theatre, tear it down, and build condos. It would be a building with, I don’t know, 10 to 20 condos with a great view of the bay.
TCFF executive director Rotary Charities had had that building since the State Theatre Group dissolved. I mean, they’re heroes. They kept that building in such amazing shape. This community is so lucky and owes Rotary Charities such a debt for doing that. We now work through the State Theatre Project with many, many theaters around Michigan and around the country — they are communities like ours that have abandoned theaters and they’re trying to bring them back and resurrect them. … So many of them have to deal with mold and water damage and all kinds of stuff that we just didn’t have thanks to Rotary Charities. The building itself was dry and it was secure and it was sound. There were some birds living in there, but, you know.
They also told me at a number of meetings, ‘You’re a big Hollywood guy, you’ve done really well, you live on Torch Lake, you’ve got the money. If you want the State Theatre that bad, why don’t you buy it? And then these meetings will be over. And we’ll sell it to you for a million dollars. And you know you can write a million dollar check in about 10 seconds.’ I was so offended by that. I said, ‘Well, I have to tell you, the only check that I am going to write you for is this: it will have a one on it, followed by no zeros. Because I’m doing this for the greater good of the community.’ … To Rotary’s credit, the vast majority of people I met at Rotary Charities were smart people who had nothing but the community’s best interest in their hearts, and that’s what won over the day, that after talking to me for a year and a half, they were comfortable that I was not taking my orders from Castro and that I love this town; I love the movies.
Film and television producer; Moore’s former wife Everyone always says, ‘Well, the State Theatre was built in six weeks. The State Theatre was rehabbed in six weeks.’ And it wasn’t. In my opinion, it wasn’t. It took two years. And it’s just that nobody saw those two years of the heartbreaking, really tough, tough road of trying to, I don’t want to say exactly satisfy the community, but it was work. Michael went to, I want to say, dozens of meetings. Because you have people that are just embracing it, and then you have one naysayer, and that naysayer, everybody’s trying to placate.
SID VAN SLYKE
City Opera House venue manager; vice president Northwestern Bank Michael’s got a million ideas in his head that he’s implementing in real-time. To this day I’ve never met anybody in my life that imposes his will on something that he wants to see happen and, hell or high water, it’s going to happen. I just think he won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. And it’s just the mentality: when it was said, ‘Oh, it would be amazing to open the State, but it can’t happen. It literally cannot be done.’ It did.
THERE WERE CELEBRITIES. THEN THERE WAS MADONNA
Mike called Doug Stanton and myself, he called us over to my studio, and he says, ‘I have a secret.’ He says, ‘I’ve always wanted to have an A-plus-lister in here, so,’ he said, ‘we’re going to get Madonna here with this new movie,’ [her documentary, I Am Because We Are].
TCFF filmmaker logistics; actor She came in on a private plane and wanted three brand-new black SUVs to pick her up at the airport and then escort her in front of the State Theatre. And I had very specific demands, even down to the angle the cars were parked at. Like they had to be parked at a certain angle so that when she exited the car she could take no more than three steps before shaking Michael’s hand for a photo in front of the marquee next to a bullpen with 12 photographers personally selected by me from the national press. And then the theater had to be empty when she entered it with just Michael. So there was a line of everybody waiting outside who had tickets, and there were also just thousands of other people that just wanted to see her. Then she went down to the green room and we had to load 550 people in 15 minutes and do bag checks. It was incredibly, incredibly hard. And somehow, this all worked.
Operations manager; Cordia executive director The year of Madonna was the most surreal. Her level of celebrity is so high. People lost their minds. They forgot where they were... I’m working with everybody and there were certain things we had to follow the night of the event and everybody’s in line and I’m like, ‘Check, check, check. You know your place? OK, everybody, go,’ and we’ve got security there and I’m on the radio with everybody. And as soon as she arrives, ten people completely forget what they’re supposed to do. And they’re doing all the wrong things. Instead of being security for the crowd, they’re yelling, ‘Madonna! Madonna!’ [laughs] I’m like, ‘Oh my God. Please get back in your spot. This is where I need you. Can you please do that for me right now?’ I mean, I said after, ‘That was amazing. I learned so much. But do we have to do that again? Because I’d really prefer that we don’t.’
When we brought her, just the advance stuff, I mean it took 40 advance people from Madonna’s staff to get things ready before she shows up. And just meeting with them, that’s when it was like, ‘Oh my God.’ [laughs] That’s another level, because every one of her employees are buff and beautiful and dressed like they’re off a New York fashion runway. … She got into town probably around 4:30 or 5, had to have all the cars waiting for her, they drove her downtown and the police escort and the whole bit, like it was President Obama. And we had all of these barricades up and there were only a few people who were allowed to be at the door. They took her in, they gave her a quick tour of the theater, took her down to the green room and then we loaded in for the show. She and Mike spoke down there and they did handprints in the concrete, a few different things, and then came out and sat down.
I got a text from Michael’s assistant who was stuck up near the stage with him, ‘Can you make sure there’s a Coke and a popcorn for Michael and Madonna in their seats?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, fine, I’ll take care of it. It’s almost over.’ I had a large popcorn and I had a Coke. I went and I tried to get to their seats, but in front of them were Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes, and a man who was helping take care of them named Guy, and I asked, ‘Can you put these in front of their seats?’ And Guy was just waving at me, ‘No, no, step over me.’ He was videotaping it all on his cell phone even though there were 12 videographers right next to him. I said, ‘OK. I don’t know.’ And I started stepping over them and a videographer came and hit my elbow and I dumped a large buttered popcorn all over Madonna’s 12-year-old daughter. [Laughs] And then I went out to the lobby and I said, ‘Someone please go out and clean up my mess because I can never go back into that theater again.’ … Madonna didn’t say anything. Lourdes just looked incredibly shocked, as I think any 12-year-old who had popcorn dumped all over them while they were wearing a dress would be. I apologized to them at the airport and they seemed fine with it.
STARSTRUCK AT ONE TURN AMUSED THE NEXT
As Opera House manager, I always intro the panel discussions, one of my favorite things at the festival and probably why I’ve stayed at the Opera House. There was a film a few years back called Body of War that was a documentary made by Phil Donahue. We were lucky enough to have Phil come. Of course he had Marlo [Thomas] with him. It was very cool — we had Phil Donahue host the panel that day. How cool is it to have Phil Donahue host your film fest panel? If you’re old enough to remember Phil Donahue, he just had this unique cadence to his voice, and the way he delivered things, the pauses. It took me back to my parents’ living room floor, listening to Phil Donahue. It was just the strangest thing.
For me, I was star-struck by Michael Moore. I’ve been a big fan forever. And the first time, when I talked to him in 2005, that was an interesting moment. But the other celebrities when they come, I try not to talk to them. Sometimes it’s my job and I have to greet them and say, ‘Hi,’ but I try to let the other people deal with that. I just prefer to be behind the scenes. But when [film director] Wim Wenders came here, I did want to meet Wim Wenders. And so I did. And I said hello. And then I ran away. He doesn’t need to talk to me. But that’s very exciting that he was here.
I remember sitting in the green room at the Opera House and it had to be 2:30 in the morning and there’s Michael and Malcolm McDowell and they’re telling stories about hosting Saturday Night Live and I’m sitting there going, ‘I’m a banker in Traverse City. This can’t be real.’ It was just very strange.
TCFF merchandise manager; JenTees Custom Logo Gear owner We were down at the State Theatre. There was a function going on there. [Actor and comedian] Jeff Garlin was here. He was kind of new; a new board member. Jeff comes out of the theater and one of the volunteers, Margaret, says, ‘Hey you, come over here and help me carry this table!’ [laughs] I just thought it was hilarious. Jeff grabs the end of the table, ‘Where am I going?’ That was good.
His assistant — the real celebrities come with assistants — his assistant would show up every morning about five minutes ahead of Malcolm [McDowell] and if this kid couldn’t get his hands on, I might not be right on this, a vanilla soy latte, something along those lines, you could tell on his face that his livelihood hung on whether he had this vanilla soy latte ready to go when Malcolm walked in and this kid was just a piece of work. He ran about a thousand miles an hour and I don’t think he ever slept.
OUTTAKES FROM THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR
When we got to screen Borat, I don’t know if it was really the world premiere, but we weren’t supposed to be allowed to show it because it was supposed to be premiering in Toronto. But we already had the print. And this is what I heard: I heard that 20th Century Fox, I think they tried to get us to send the print back. And we were just like, ‘No, we have the print and we’re showing this movie.’
So they sent — and they did this a couple other times, but this was the first time, with Borat — they sent men with night vision goggles to sit inside the theater while it was screening, to watch the audience, in case anyone was going to take pictures with their phones. And they said if anyone took any pictures with their phones then they would immediately stop the movie and they’d send the print back. It was just crazy.
TCFF volunteer; Spanish and French teacher It was I think the third year [during prefestival ticket sales], right as we were getting going, we’d been selling tickets for an hour and they had a massive fire in the warehouse where one of the computer mainframes was out in Vancouver. … We were shut down for the rest of the day. That was it. We were done. We couldn’t run it. They didn’t have any Internet so we couldn’t do anything. People were so upset and there was nothing we could do about it. There’s a group of people who are very understanding, and they realize that we’re all volunteers, and they’re like, ‘OK.’ And then you get a group of really obnoxious people who act like it’s the end of the world if they don’t get to see that movie right then when they want.
There was one year where we moved it back to opening night being on Monday. We added one day. It was too much for everyone. It was too much for the volunteers. It was too much for the community. It was too much.
Michael and I would get a room in Traverse City and one year our room was at the Holiday Inn. So we were in those rooms there, we have a room, and at a certain point, I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ We had assistants and we had interns that ran the film festival, and our room became the place. They all had keys. At a certain point I’m going, ‘You know what? We have to do something about this. I can’t handle it.’ Posters are coming in and I’d go back to my room and I’d think, ‘Why is my stuff over in the corner? How’d my stuff get there? Don’t we have the money to do it?’ We were running the film festival out of our room. And whoever gave offices.
The second year I was in charge of taking care of all the filmmaker guests that came. It’s different now than it was then. At that point it entailed me being the primary contact for every single guest that came. That is not the way it is now. But back then, that year, I would be awoken by Malcolm McDowell at 5:30 in the morning with a phone call saying, [affects an English accent] ‘Charlie, good morning, I’d like to play a round of golf with Bob Sloan this afternoon. Do you think you could set that up?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know who Bob Sloan is but I’m sure I can figure it out and make it happen.’ I didn’t know how I was going to do it. They gave me a Blackberry and I had my phone. I gave half the people one number, half the people the other number. And I was just getting calls on both phones all day. And some of the people had drivers, but back then, we gave a lot of people rental cars, so they didn’t have drivers. Now, every guest has a driver, and that’s their primary contact person.
WHAT THE FESTIVAL MEANS FOR FILMMAKERS
Not all of these festivals, for the filmmaker, are necessarily pleasant experiences. After 20 years of these festivals, I knew what worked and what didn’t work, and how this festival would become very popular amongst filmmakers if it was essentially being run by a filmmaker first. I mean it’s petty stuff usually at these festivals. Things like, you want to get tickets for your parents for your opening night. And they go, ‘No, we’ll give you two tickets, for you and your spouse, but you don’t get four.’ [laughs] But it’s your movie! It’s kind of like, it’s just crazy stuff like that. I remember one film festival, they were so great, they picked me up at the airport, took care of me and all of this, and after the film was over, I couldn’t get a car to the airport. They wouldn’t provide anybody to get me to the airport. I mean they were done with me. The film had been shown and I’d done my shtick with them and that was that. So years of that — this is why you’ll hear from filmmakers that this is their favorite festival to come to.
TCFF co-founder; filmmaker I was able to come back with a film I directed and wrote in 2008. And I was able to have my premiere at the State Theatre. And that was one of the most special moments for me — to be able to start this amazing festival with Mike and then be able to return a few years later, with my own film to have it screened in this grand theater. He had by then renovated it in an amazing way. It’s just literally one of the greatest theaters in America now. To think that we just got it reopened 10 years ago and everything that’s happened. It’s just been incredible.
We don’t have a film market, but so much film business happens at the Traverse City Film Festival, it’s mind-blowing. The public doesn’t really know about that. But you have people that end up working together. Somebody’s looking for a crew. People have given money to films, substantial amounts of money, to help a filmmaker. After they see films, people sit and they talk to a director. Everybody’s accessible here. Even when Susan Sarandon was here, here we’re talking about one of the leading American actresses, and she’s just in town walking her little doggy around. Just enjoying how pretty it is and going back to her room at the Park Place. So it is a really, really friendly festival.
Larry Charles is a great example. … The first year he was here, the year he brought Borat, he was just shocked how he walked around and even if you knew who he was nobody bothered him. Even if he was sitting over at Green House having breakfast on the sidewalk, nobody hounded him for an autograph. It’s just kind of the way our community operates. It’s not a big deal. And I think everybody appreciates it. They can come and enjoy their time and not be swarmed. And our volunteer crew just does an amazing job of taking care of folks.
Different filmmakers are constantly trying to get their film into the festival. It’s obviously very tricky to get it into the festival because there’s not really a submission process. So people are constantly trying to contact me. Big directors now. It’s weird, every year bigger and bigger directors in Hollywood are saying, ‘Hey, I see that you’re one of the founders of the Traverse City Film Festival. You want to try to send my film over there?’
Just about everybody who comes here who’s in the film industry has never even heard of Traverse City. It was like, ‘I’m going where?’ … So they get here and since I’m one of the ambassadors that meets people and moves people around and helps, and just does whatever has to happen, I get one constant complaint from everybody who comes here, especially from L.A. — ‘I have to leave on Sunday.’
WHAT THE FESTIVAL MEANS FOR TRAVERSE CITY
Film festival photographer; Traverse City commissioner During my campaign [for city commissioner], walking door-to-door, I met someone who moved here three years ago, four years ago. It was kind of tongue-and-cheek, but at the same time, I was like, ‘Why did you move here?’ and she was like, ‘The film festival.’ ‘Really? You came for a festival?’ Really, her point was they’d come for the film festival once or twice, started getting to know the town a little better because of the festival, and thought, ‘Oh, this is a great place. So let’s move here.’ That’s kind of fascinating. People move here because of the festival. And they bring a different energy than perhaps what was here 20 or 30 years ago.
You’ve got to have that pivotal attraction, because downtown wasn’t open at night. And it’s really easy to forget just how different it was downtown here before that happened. What it comes down to is, imagine downtown if those lights weren’t flashing and that neon wasn’t on. It’s changed so much. My studio’s next-door here [on State Street]. On a Friday night, if I stay in here and work late, my parking lot and everything — it is date night in TC every Friday night, year-round. You used to be able to shoot a canon down here on a Friday night and not hit anything. And now it’s like, ‘Look at this joint! Six o’clock, seven o’clock on a Friday night downtown and you can’t get a parking place.’ It’s amazing.
Filmmaker; first-year TCFF volunteer It came together. There were people that became overwhelmed by the amount of work and the delegation of work and allowing people to do their jobs and stuff. But it exists today, and differing opinions aside, I couldn’t be more proud to be one of the parents of that, and I feel like the community as a whole the parent of what has happened. It’s not just one individual. It wouldn’t have happened without the community. I just would not have happened. The theater wouldn’t be there without the community.
I remember being out on Front Street, and somebody drives by and, can I say this on this? ‘F—you Michael Moore.’ You know, I mean, you’re standing there, it’s like, wow. And when you’re out there it’s freaky. I think one of the things I’ve enjoyed seeing is, you get the feel of our community here, I think those days are pretty much gone. I think there’s still some people that feel that way, but they aren’t going to yell it anymore. They know that the State Theatre has been a great benefit. The film festival has been a great benefit. Rehabbed, the State Theatre, we now have a vibrant theater and really, I don’t want to give all of the credit to one source, but that end of downtown, we had an empty lot there since I moved up here. I mean it was terrible. It revitalized that end of downtown. Amical. Red Ginger. Everything just started popping and really moving.
It’s nice to see how everyone has embraced it and how it’s really changed the city. I think having the State Theatre downtown has been so wonderful for the whole atmosphere, all the other stores and the surrounding area. And it feels like such a cool destination to come downtown. As somebody who has come and visited Traverse City since I was a kid, in the early mid-90s, you know, my family is up in Lake Leelanau, we would never come to Traverse City for anything other than occasional shopping. But now you want to be down here.
Go backwards in time and imagine that there’s really only one thing happening here during the summer —it’s the Cherry Festival. There are no music festivals, there’s no other renting of the Open Space. And then the film festival comes along and says, ‘Well, in order so that we can thrive and we can grow, we want the same treatment as the film festival.’ Unfortunately that’s evolved, I think, into the Cherry Festival and the film festival get a certain kind of treatment, because each claim to be big players, and everyone else kind of has to take second fiddle.... I don’t think it’s fair that other festivals might get shut out because the film festival is grandfathered into something. Because when we asked for that, we went there asking in the spirit of fairness, not in the spirit of exclusivity.
It’s always funny to me when I hear now, I mean, probably a day doesn’t go by now when I’m in Traverse City that a Republican doesn’t stop me on the street and shake my hand. They’ll say something to the effect of, ‘You know, I disagree with your politics, but I love what you have done for Traverse City.’ [laughs] I will say to them, ‘Well, you know, it’s because of my politics that I’ve done this for Traverse City. This sat here for these 20 years like this because the only thinking was, “How could I make money?” And it would take a socialist to come along, somebody who believes in sharing the pie with everybody and who wasn’t interested in making a profit, to come up with this idea and to do this.’
Detroit-area attorney; TCFF co-founder I think maybe that first year we got more people from Chicago than we got from Detroit. Since then, it’s a thing down here, you know, people plan their vacations. People who didn’t usually go to Traverse City plan their vacations to go up there. It’s funny, every time I see those little bumper stickers that just say ‘TCFF,’ the little oval-type things. … I see them all over the place in some of the more artsy suburbs of Detroit like Royal Oak and Ferndale and in Ann Arbor. So there are clearly devotees of the festival down here. I have to admit that I brag on some occasions. People will say, “Did you ever hear of the Traverse City Film Festival?’ I’m like, ‘Actually I was the operations director the first year. Yes. I have. Do you like it?’
[Note: Quotations have been edited for length and clarity]