Mike Sullivan feels like a football coach. “Are the plays we’re going to run this year going to work?” he wonders.
Sullivan organizes the musical acts at the Traverse City Film Festival; this year there will be around 100.
He’s been in charge – helped by a cadre of interns – since the festival’s third year.
He also plays a few festival gigs with one of his bands, the Wild Sullys, and performs one night with Song of the Lakes on board the tall ship Manitou.
One thing he doesn’t do much of is watch movies.
“I usually fall asleep,” he laughed. He and the interns line up willing musicians – of which there are plenty, Sullivan said – then try to pair them with appropriate movies.
“It’s like a wine and food pairing,” he said. There also are outdoor gigs, including Clinch Park, which this year will feature music from noon-10pm each day. Sullivan hopes to have daily themes, like a cappella or jazz. He’s also planning nightly jam sessions at the Workshop Brewing Co.
“Song of the Lakes has played the Montreux Jazz Festival three times and there are jazz clubs that went until 6am,” he said.
“It was so much fun. That’s the vibe that’s in my head.”
Sullivan especially enjoys the connections made at the festival, whether it’s last year’s intern coming back this year with his Asylum Quartet, or mandolinist Don Julin meeting his idol, David Grisman. Julin is now part of Grisman’s symposium.
There’s also been some discoveries. Sullivan heard Luke Winslow-King busking on the street one year and asked him to fill in when another group’s car broke down.
“He opened at the State Theatre and people rushed the stage. He sold all his CDs,” he said. “Then he killed at the Open Space and Lars (Hockstad Auditorium). Now he tours nationally. We’ve gotten him back every year since.”
The Accidentals, Billy Strings and the Bergamot also played at the film festival before going on to bigger gigs.
The musicians themselves are all volunteers, although this year there are sponsorships to help defray costs. A compilation features music from throughout the years, which helps increase exposure, hopefully leading to sales of music.
“It’s a feeling like there are five days you’re not going to sleep and just soak up the awesomeness.”
SID VAN SLYKE,
City Opera House venue manager
Sid Van Slyke likes to say he was at the very first Traverse City Film Festival meeting 10 years ago.
He was in Good Harbor Coffee where Michael Moore and Doug Stanton, cofounders of the festival, also were. They asked him if Fifth Third Bank, Van Slyke’s employer at the time, would be a sponsor if a film festival even came to fruition.
Eventually Fifth Third “begrudgingly” donated some money, which cost the bank some clients that didn’t like Moore, Van Slyke said.
That first year, he became the de facto banker for the festival, which involved carrying garbage bags full of cash home with him each night.
Happily, by the third or fourth day of the festival, he was needed elsewhere. He’s spent the last nine years as venue manager at the City Opera House – and hasn’t seen a single movie.
“I’ve seen pieces of hundreds of movies,” he laughed.
Van Slyke is now vice president of commercial lending at Northwestern Bank, a major sponsor of the film festival and the host and staff of the post-festival volunteer party.
The beginning years had “much more of a guerrilla mentality,” Van Slyke said. He brought a folding lawn chair and a blanket to the Opera House and slept in the unfinished balcony between introducing movies.
A typical day began at 7am – the Opera House hosts the morning panels – and ended at 2 or 3am, after a midnight screening.
Van Slyke now has a co-manager, Bryce Kennedy, and a contract with the Opera House ensures the film festival is out by midnight every night.
“It’s a well-oiled machine,” he said. But it’s still a busy week. The film festival begins getting the Opera House ready the Sunday before the festival, meaning 72 hours to put in new, donated chairs, build a projection booth and build a screen.
When the festival begins, Van Slyke oversees everything that goes on at the Opera House, from concessions to ticket sales to microphones to making sure things start and end on time.
Film festival staff and volunteers communicate via radios, texts and emails.
“I go offline to announce a film and, 15 minutes later, I’ll have 15 emails, a dozen texts and someone yelling at me to get on the radio,” he said.
After 10 years, though, it’s still a blast, Van Slyke says.
His favorite part is the panels, which have “interesting conversations that you don’t expect to hear in Traverse City.”
During the first Traverse City Film Festival, Bryn Lynch “just acted like I knew about the movies,” popped popcorn, swept the floors, whatever needed to be done.
She didn’t hesitate to volunteer because she was so excited to see movies Traverse City doesn’t normally see.
“That first year I went to a movie, then went to Amical for lunch,” she said. “Everyone was talking about movies. They’d all seen a different one. It was great.”
The second year, she managed the box office, selling tickets using Interlochen’s ticketing system out of its store (now Red Ginger restaurant.)
The year after that meant another new ticketing system – “that was the one that caught on fire” – and yet more kinks that had to be ironed out.
“I usually recruited students to help,” said Lynch, who teaches Spanish and French at Traverse City Central High School and Northwestern Michigan College. “Most people over 30 were stymied by the box office system, which had a few quirks.”
Teachers are a huge part of the festival’s volunteer base, Lynch said.
“If they’re not working a second job, they’re volunteering,” she said.
In 2012, when she found out a Cuban contingent was bringing movies to the festival, she offered her services as a translator. She has continued to drive, host, speak and shop with filmmakers from not only Cuba, but also Spain and France.
The visitors have a blast, she said, whether on the beach, going to Walmart, or going to movies.
“They’re laid back, yet giddy and excited to be in a random Northern Michigan town they’ve never heard of,” Lynch said.
Translating has gone smoothly, although some guests think they don’t need her services and Lynch cringes when she hears the missteps.
The panels can get tricky, if a movie maker or actor goes on and on without a break and Lynch not only has to translate but has to remember what the conversation was about.
She doesn’t get to see as many movies as she’d like – “this year I’m going to be smart and just not buy any tickets,” she said – but loves the film festival as much as she always has.
“It’s a feeling like there are five days you’re not going to sleep and just soak up the awesomeness,” she said.
Bob Brown’s warehouse crew isn’t in it for the glamour.
“We have a good team of volunteers who don’t need to be rubbing elbows at the venues,” said the veteran volunteer.
For the past four or five years, he’s been overseeing the festival’s warehouse, on Wellington St., in a city-owned building that used to house the Boys and Girls Club.
Most of the building is taken up by a gym, complete with basketball hoops, but filled with festival gear ranging from popcorn machines to signs to snow blowers. The collateral is organized by venue and stacked on pallets.
“We feel very fortunate if we get through the week without flooding,” Brown said.
A few years ago, during a rainstorm, he was concerned about a ceiling leak only to walk through “a lake” on the floor, but with only a few things damaged.
By building berms and such, future flood concerns have been alleviated.
“Every year there’s a problem,” he said, “but we figure it out.”
Brown works two part-time jobs, even during the week of the festival.
“I’m lucky because I have a lot of flexibility in my jobs, but I end up going in at odd hours, at night,” he said.
Work starts at least a month before the festival, ratchets up the Friday before the festival, goes into a frenzy until the start of the festival, gets somewhat calmer during the festival, then goes bananas the day after the festival ends.
“Breakdown is all in one day so we work with a moving company,” he said. Materials from a couple venues can come in at the same time and it’s up to Brown and his volunteers to sort and store it so it can be found again.
The building is also used to store technical equipment from the sound crews, projectionists and radio crews.
Several rooms are taken up by “revision,” where someone looks through every single film before it screens.
“You don’t see a lot of glitches at this festival,” he said. The system works, as proven when a volunteer comes in for signs several weeks before the festival opens. Brown walks right to the pile with the signs the volunteer needs, then has her check them out via email.
“It’s not rocket science,” said Brown.