Indiewire‘s Anne Thompson (Thompson on Hollywood) visited the 2016 Traverse City Film Festival and sat down with our Founder, President, and Programmer Michael Moore. Read the interview and about her experience at this year’s festival below (originally published on August 4, 2016).
Michael Moore’s 12-Year Project: How His Film Festival Changed a City
We sit down with the filmmaker, who has turned a sleepy resort town into a cultural oasis for sophisticated cinema.
By Anne Thompson
Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival is a welcome reminder of the power of film. Since 2005, he has slowly turned a conservative small town in Northwest Michigan — a four-hour drive away from any major city — into a community of ardent film enthusiasts. Not only that, but they are no longer quite as narrow-minded. Now there are decent restaurants on the main drag. Tourists flock in for the six-day summer festival (which this year ran July 26-31), which sells 130,000 tickets and generates more than $5 million dollars in commerce every year.
Over time, Moore has won over the residents of Traverse City, building their involvement in running his year-round arthouse the State Theatre, plus the mainstream Bijou (built in an old WPA building) and the annual festival, all of which are staffed by volunteers led by resident Deb Lake. They feed Traverse City audiences a steady diet of films foreign and domestic, gay and straight, feature and doc, long and short.
This year, Moore used TCFF XII to celebrate women filmmakers. Thirty-six women directed the U.S. narrative and documentary competition films. (Award-winners here.) And more women filmmakers turned up in other sections, from foreign to shorts to six films shown on the 65-foot screen at the nightly outdoor cinema the Open Space on Grand Traverse Bay, where you could also watch breezy night screenings on a slow-circling catamaran.
Flint, Michigan native Moore lives where his movies take him; he maintains apartments in New York and Traverse City, where the family of his ex-wife and one-time producer Kathleen Glynn summered for years. Moore, Glynn, and her daughter, now 36, continued the tradition.
On opening night Moore called me up to the State stage to introduce Maya Forbes’ “Infinitely Polar Bear,” which he insisted on showcasing over the protests of his staff, who reminded him that the Mark Ruffalo dysfunctional family drama was already two years old and available on Netflix. But it’s his festival and local celebrity Moore can do what he wants.
Moore and I talked in the basement green room of the State Theatre as a film was in progress. Our conversation is on the next page.
Anne Thompson: How have you changed Traverse City?
Michael Moore: When I first got here it was a Republican town in a Republican county that voted for Bush. And when the Republicans in town heard I wanted to start a film festival here, they went ballistic and tried to get the City Commission to stop it. When they couldn’t, they organized an anti-Michael Moore film festival with about a dozen docs about me like “Michael Moore Hates America.” They rented a hotel here and had it run concurrently with my film fest. I said, “I don’t need this, why am I here?”
How did you start the festival?
I had a lunch meeting with friends next door to the State Theatre in 2005 and unveiled the idea of doing a festival. I walked out of the lunch and looked at the boarded up theater: “We should do the festival here, who’s got a key?” Someone let me in, and right away I noticed there was no mold; it had been closed a decade or so.
So I found out the Rotary Club owned it here in town and planned a $9 million renovation: “You don’t need to spend that, give this to me. I’ll renovate it, I don’t want money, I’ll pay for it and get others to write checks. ” I called Deluxe in LA who paid for projectors, I consulted George Lucas, where I was doing a sound mix at Skywalker in Marin.
But it took a year and half for the Rotary to let me do it. They were convinced I’d be flying Fidel Castro in here. It took a while, I went to a lot of meetings here, sang songs and pledged allegiance. They got used to me, then they gave it to me to renovate. I set it up as a nonprofit that the community would own. We gutted the building, it had no balcony, no projection booth, no screen, the ratty old seats were thrown out. I went around and begged, borrowed, and stole and did it for $800,000 in six weeks. We opened in 2007.
We have sold a million and half tickets to a million and a half people. It’s 100 years old. It’s an arthouse theater because Carmike Theatres had the deed restriction on it that no film can be shown here, only live theatre. So [WME chief] Ari [Emmanuel] and I met with the people at Carmike, and modified it so that we can show anything opening on less than 200 screens. If “Lincoln” opens in NY and LA, I can show it. “X-Men?” No. That’s the Bijou.
You perform well for an arthouse.
In the lobby is a list of films where we came in the box office top 10 of films that week. We would get these large crowds. After the festival was already going two years I started a film literacy program to get people to try indies, docs, foreign films, which you could never see here. You’d have to drive four hours to Ann Arbor or Detroit. We’re in the middle of nowhere. How is it that in this flyover area that so many hundreds of thousands of people come to the movie theater?
You’re the programmer, the master curator?
I don’t let them down. I don’t show any crap. Every Thursday I write them a letter, why they should take a chance on it, and you can see the results the next day. You’re always taking a chance with a 600-seat theatre. I wanted to show the film “King Corn,” a documentary that follows a corn seed from when it’s put in the ground. So I sent the letter out, there was a February blizzard: “Should we cancel?” This theater sits 600 and 700 people showed up in a snowstorm to see this. We had to turn 100 people away who risked their lives in the snow to come here. There’s no exposure for the film, NPR hasn’t done a story, no front page Arts & Leisure, they came only on my word, and they were not disappointed.
Why the volunteers-only policy?
We have a volunteer staff. We pay the house manager and the projectionist and that’s it, not the person popping your corn and selling your ticket, not because we can’t afford to pay them, it’d be easy to pay minimum wage. But I figure the only way the theater and festival would survive is if the community truly felt like stake holders. They fight to sponsor things. And we have some 2000 volunteers, you can see it’s their festival, this is the community’s festival. Now they have a say, they own it, they can talk to me about ideas to make the festival cooler than Sundance.
Over the years I’ve been going to a lot of festivals, and filmmakers sometimes feel a bit like chattel. Ask a filmmaker how often they’ve asked for two tickets for their parents and can’t get them. Our policy is you stay as long as you want, come opening night, stay all week, bring the kids.
Well, it’s a vacation paradise.
They don’t know that ’til they get here. Nobody thinks about vacationing in Michigan. It’s a filmmakers’ festival run by a filmmaker. If I start my own festival, here’s all the things I wouldn’t do and would do. I learned from experience.
Why open with “Infinitely Polar Bear”?
From Sundance 2014. That’s the way I roll. I saw it. I was seriously moved as a filmmaker and a human being. Maya did something I did each season on my TV shows “The Awful Truth” and “TV Nation,” and try to do in my movies:”What are all the taboo subjects we can’t use humor with? Make the list, let’s figure out the stories.”
She makes fun of mental illness; the bipolar father played by Mark Ruffalo raises his kids.
I thought, “You know what? Let’s make a statement by making it the opening night film. This week we have all these films by women here, this is why there’s a problem — point made.” We want them to think about what else they’re missing out on. And those are the ones they got to make: screenplays don’t get funding and there’s all the other struggles to make a movie.
What were some of the popular hits this year?
“The Last Reel,” the Cambodian film, the documentaries “Equal Means Equal,” “Disturbing the Peace,” and “The C Word,” about cancer.
How do you program?
Some are films we didn’t see at a theatre or festival. We call up the Norwegian Film Institute: “Send everything.” Two may have made a festival, the rest haven’t. We’ve found incredible films this way, and this year the mission was to look for films by women.
What made you come to that decision?
I was sitting here at last year’s festival that was 80% films by men and I’m reading an early article about the number of films directed by women. In Sweden 40% of the films are made by women. At 14% Britain is the worst in Western Europe, triple the U.S.
You’ve been pushing diversity and rule changes at the Academy.
I was on the Academy board from 2010-2013, on the executive committee of my branch until right now—I’m giving up my seat, I’ve been pushing rule changes that the branch executive committee term of 9 years is too long. No wonder things don’t change. I’ve been pushing for reduced term limits of six years. It was done, I’m happy to go off for a year and get voted back on.
How many African Americans were in my branch? None. Zero. How could that be? I raised a stink. Now we have Roger Ross Williams, Stanley Nelson, Sam Pollard, Woody Richmond, these guys I recommended. Now after 3-4 years of pushing this in our branch, we have more African Americans, more women.
You seem to be enjoying the role of exhibitor, curator and showman, connecting to people.
I do enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun for me get to live here and do this. The people here are so wonderful, it’s basic midwestern people, who live close to Canada. From Burlington to Seattle, the closer you get to Canada, things get a little nicer. It helps me as filmmaker and writer. If I just lived in LA I wouldn’t have written a piece about Trump winning, the fear of that is legitimate if you spend time here. We have to take it seriously, not like Reagan.
“Don’t boo, vote!”
It’s all about five in the morning on Election Day, who’s the most rabid — I believe if we could all vote on a remote control X-box that Hillary wins. No doubt. It’s about the get-out-the-vote, which people are inspired to get out there for Barack or Bernie. The overall Democrats voting in primaries was down, it wasn’t up.
So they’ll be motivated to vote against Trump.
It’s a risky thing to vote on hate, to motivate you to get out and vote.
You’ve set a high standard for success on a doc. Times have changed since “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which grossed $221 million worldwide. Was festival hit “Where to Invade Next?” a disappointment, topping out at $4.3 million?
With the two-hour documentary film you don’t judge success on box office, not theatrically any more, it’s a new animal. In our 4th month of multi-platform release, on iTunes this week we are still number one on the indie list and number 6 on the overall.
So what’s next?
I’ve been trying to think whether or not to put together an election special to air on TV or Netflix in October. I’m in the process of thinking that out. I had three wonderful meetings on the phone last week, perfect places for it. For my next film I have been writing a fiction screenplay. I did one [“Canadian Bacon”] and the star [John Candy] died. I wish I’d made a doc called “Sophomore Jinx,” as everything went wrong. So I went back to the pleasant job of making documentaries. I think that’s what I’m going to do.
I’m writing a play. I did a one-man show in London for 5 weeks 10 years ago, I loved it, great reviews, it sold out every night. And Ari’s wanted me to do it on or off Broadway for a long time, so I’m going to do it. I’m waiting to see which one I should do first.