Almost 14 years ago I asked for your help in bringing to life an idea I had — something I was calling “The Traverse City Film Festival.” Many, many of you answered the call and joined me in what has become, for filmmakers and audiences, one of the most beloved film festivals in the country.
Eleven years ago, I came to you wanting to restore and reopen the long-shuttered State Theatre — and you mobilized around this project with a resounding “YES!,” leading to the State Theatre, only six years later, being declared by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to be the #1 place “in the world to see a movie.”
Seven years ago, the State’s exterior was crumbling, but you collectively stepped forward and ensured it would shine for another century by helping me replace it.
Five years ago, we built the Bijou together, the first new movie theater inside city limits since the 1940s!
And then a couple of years ago, you heard our plea for a massive new boiler system at the State. That new energy-efficient system is now silently humming away — and the climate inside the State is consistently perfect for the first time since, well, ever!
Today, I’m not coming to you with a grand new idea, or an urgently needed repair. I am here, though, to tell you, quite frankly that there’s never been a more critical time to support the State and Bijou theaters and the Traverse City Film Festival than right now.
Citizen funding for arts organizations like TCFF is essential to a robust and democratic society. And in these, dare I say, “challenging times,” we need the arts — art that stands for free speech, for creativity, and serves the public interest — more than ever.
So many things we enjoy and used to take for granted are disappearing or are now gone. The basic things that used to make life wonderful have now become commodities, a means for someone to make a profit. A big profit. And it better make a bigger profit next year and the next year and every year after that — otherwise it has no “value.”
We don’t run these theaters and this festival to make a profit — we run them to make our community a better place in which to live. To be the anchor of a now thriving downtown. To run weekly 25¢ matinees that make the movies available to all. To host free educational student screenings. To offer over 300 free or low cost community events annually. And the festival alone brings in an estimated $15 million+ to the local economy each summer.
Thanks to all of our volunteers and the sponsorships from local families and small businesses, we have built this organization together. But we have a long way to go to ensure our viability for the next 15 years.
Anyone who simply takes for granted that the State and the Bijou will continue year-round because they are cherished by the community need look no further than 15 miles north to Suttons Bay where the beloved Bay Theatre has announced it can no longer continue to operate under the current circumstances that now face many single-screen small town movie theaters. Please don’t think that this sort of thing can’t happen here in Traverse City.
The Bay Theatre is the canary in the coal mine. The movie industry has changed radically in the past decade. The studios are now owned by even larger conglomerates who could care less about the ways in which you “consume” a movie. In fact, they’d actually prefer you keep buying the latest devices and watch your movies on a phone, on a tablet, on a computers screen, or, better yet, or your 100-inch Samsung. They want you to subscribe not just to cable but to three or five or ten monthly subscription streaming services. Buy! Spend! Subscribe! And stay home! No need to go out and be around people, strangers, “others.” Just stick to yourself and those close to you. It’s a scary world! Your devices will keep you happy and comfortable. Just click the box and tell us which card you’re using!
The artists, the filmmakers — we are fighting to preserve something different. Yes, we live on our devices, too. But we sincerely prefer that you come together and sit with your friends and neighbors and watch these movies we make in the way they were meant to be seen! We believe in these theaters as a sort of public town square — a location where we can gather with each other to experience stories and the lives of others, to sit in the dark with a hundred or more souls and laugh or cry or think or feel the rage, the joy, the complexity of this world — and be entertained at the same time.
Funding for the arts has decreased over the past two decades. We have felt the impact at TCFF. Because we receive no tax dollars, we have had to rely on the generosity of a handful of large donors. But over the years, a number of them have sadly passed away or moved to other parts of the world or have simply had to cut back due to their own circumstances. We’ve learned that going back again and again to the same few generous supporters is probably not the best business model for long-term security.
So we need the support of each and every one of you to pitch in. I will continue to do my part, but I’m counting on all of you right now to stand strong with me and contribute what you can to the Traverse City Film Festival.
At the end of last year, the Board of Directors discovered that our organization owed large sums of money in unpaid invoices from the 2017 festival (the first summer that I wasn’t here as I spent it in New York on Broadway). This was shocking news to us and the reasons for this were unacceptable. Decisions had been made that were not in the best interests of TCFF. Action was taken. Personnel changes occurred.
We are not the first nonprofit to encounter this and we won’t be the last. What I can tell you now is that the ship has been righted, the 2018 Traverse City Film Festival was one of our best ever, and we are well into planning next summer’s incredible event.
With our longtime employee and new Managing Director, Susan Fisher, working with the Board, we have come up with a plan to put the organization back on solid financial ground. We are no longer going to keep squeaking by, year after year. I’m sure you have already noticed some of the changes we have made:
- We increased film festival ticket prices for the first time in 4 years; and just that little change made all the difference;
- We made slight increases to concession prices for the first time in 10 years;
- We removed costly film festival venues (Kirkbride Hall, Dutmers Theater) and temporarily suspended “Movies on a Boat.” If the venue loses money, it can no longer be a venue;
- We began the search for a “Big Sponsor” for the Open Space to underwrite the $100,000+ cost of the free outdoor screenings at the festival.
Thanks to these and other measures, we increased our revenue this year by $250,000 — and cut costs by more than $100,000. But we’re not out of the woods yet.
>We are still operating in the red. We have spent months creating our new long-term plan that we believe will have us back in the black in two years. But none of this will happen on its own.
With the very survival of the festival and these theaters at stake, I need to ask you a somewhat blunt but necessary question: I need to know, are you still with me in this endeavor? If your answer is yes, I need to ask each and every one of you to please donate to the Traverse City Film Festival and our theaters today.
You have supported the vision and dream of the film festival and its theaters and have turned it into a shining reality because of your love of — and belief in — “just great movies.” Not to mention your love for the community, this state, and it’s people. Your continued support for this project will ensure that the Traverse City Film Festival, the State and the Bijou, will be here for many years to come, benefiting the community many call home and inspiring those who come here to visit.
I wish you all a very happy holiday and new year filled with health, laughter, and love.
P.S. In addition to making your tax deductible donation, consider giving the gift of film to your friends and loved ones this holiday season. State and Bijou gift cards are perfect presents for friends and family. They come in any amount and can be used to buy tickets, concessions, and merchandise. Best of all, they never expire!