Just Great Movies: the Traverse City Film Festival turns 10

July 22, 2014

Traverse City Film Festival 2005

2005 Traverse City Film Festival, photo by John Robert Williams

There were hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of materials that were donated by the community. It was a miraculous, Herculean feat. So cool to be a part of that. We had three meals a day for 35 to 40 people, donated from area restaurants for six weeks, every single day. And they’d drop it off. That’s how supported this thing was. The air was bristling with excitement for this thing and it was really, really cool. It was really cool to be a part of it.
~first-year volunteer Timothy “The Phantom of the State” Grey

I’ve been helping the Traverse City Film Festival (TCFF) with their online media since my offer of assistance to festival co-founder Michael Moore after a film at the State Theatre that first year. The State was where I saw Star Wars, and the theater we all grew up with in Traverse City. It had lain empty for years, but Michael and company led a community effort that got the State open for that first festival and ultimately opened it for real. The transformation that this has wrought on downtown Traverse City can’t be overstated. As one of the most successful theaters of its kind in the nation, the State draws thousands of people downtown for movies every week. They stay to shop & dine and these film patrons are arguably the single greatest factor in Traverse City’s renaissance.

The State is also the home of TCFF which will draw tens of thousands of people to Traverse City for the 10th annual Traverse City Film Festival July 29 – August 3rd and sell over 100,000 tickets to 200+ films. As any TC business owner can attest, it’s a beautiful thing. The Northern Express has a feature this week titled A Traverse City Film Festival Oral History that tells the story of the founding through the memories of the people who were there. Despite the fact that Michael Moore was involved, it’s not a story of politics, but rather of a community working together to realize a dream. Here’s a few highlights:

Co-founder Michael Moore: The lunch began with deciding, ‘Let’s do this.’ And, ‘How are we going to do it?’ And I said, ‘You know, we could start out very small, like really just do it in somebody’s backyard. Or we could do it in a barn. I’m doing it for whatever you guys think we can do.’ By the end of the lunch we all got kind of excited about the possibilities of it all… By the end of it I think we decided that we would try to get like two or three venues — we talked about the Old Town Playhouse; we talked about the Opera House. We brought up the State Theatre but we were told that was not possible … I walked out of there and I was crossing the street, crossing Front Street there by Amical, and I turned and I looked at the State Theatre and I said, ‘Why can’t we use the State Theatre?’ and then I think John said, ‘Well, Rotary owns it now. It’s all closed up and it hasn’t been functioning in years and there’s no real projector there or anything. It’s just an empty building.’

Co-founder Doug Stanton: The defining image for me of the founding of the Traverse City Film Festival is a mason who showed up on his own, without being asked by anyone, to help restore the theater. I wish I could remember his name. His first name was Delbert. He was down on his hands and knees with a toothpick restoring the destroyed tile floor of the State Theatre lobby. He loved the the idea of this new festival so much. That embodied for me the community-driven heart of the whole enterprise. Its founding values to me are not driven by one person at all, but by a community.

Co-founder John Robert Williams: The night that we got the big screw-in fuses and the big push-in fuses from the ‘40s, the night we got through the breakers and made the marquee light up, and only half the neon came on — it’s actually an electrical motor that spins to make those chasers all blink around — we got that thing spinning, and we’re standing out there on a hot, early July night, it was just after the Cherry Festival, we got the lights going on the State Theatre and the cars were honking and people were jumping out of their cars taking pictures. It was like, ‘Oh my God, the lights are on at the State Theatre!’ Because they hadn’t been on in years. That was the pivotal moment for downtown Traverse City.

Williams: Our opening night was a movie called Mad Hot Ballroom. We had this movie about these fifth graders ballroom dancing and learning this in New York City. Mike came up with this little plan… When the credit crawl started rolling at the end of the movie, we were going to switch over to this hot salsa music. We got the approval from the director to switch into some dance music, and so when Michael comes popping up out of the corner at the State Theatre, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, from P.S. 136,’ and he starts naming the kids’ names, and we switch over to the salsa music and here are the cast calls in black background and white type, and these kids come out and dance the winning dance, right in front of the audience. They convulsed. This entire audience came out of their seats as one. I mean the air pressure changed in the room. Whoomp. After Mad Hot Ballroom on that Wednesday night, ticket sales went nuts the next morning because everybody in town was talking to everybody else saying, ‘You can’t believe what these guys did.’

Lots more at the Express with Part 2 coming next week.

View John’s photo from the first TCFF bigger, see his work at his website and definitely check out the Traverse City Film Festival on Flickr for a ton more photos!

PS: Here’s my favorite piece of media we’ve ever created at TCFF, Song to Cinema. It’s well worth your time…

One Response to “Just Great Movies: the Traverse City Film Festival turns 10”


  1. […] the TC Film Fest yesterday and today’s post, it appears that it’s “me time” on Michigan in […]


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