This summer marked the 11th annual Traverse City Film Festival, which — for those of you not in the know — was started by Michael Moore (yes, that Michael Moore) and some other movers and shakers in our region. There’s no question that TCFF has really done great things for our local economy, and it’s a hit with both tourists and locals alike, which is sometimes hard for festivals to achieve. (For instance, my family has always avoided the Cherry Festival like the plague.)
Every year, TCFF takes place during the last week of July and the first week of August. From Tuesday through Sunday, you can watch “just great films” at 10 different venues around Traverse City, including the beautifully renovated State Theatre, City Opera House, and Bijou by the Bay theater, most of which were renovated largely because of and thanks to TCFF. Additional venues include the Lars Hockstead Auditorium at Central Grade School and the Milliken Auditorium at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC). All in all, pretty awesome, but also pretty spread out, if you know your T.C. geography. (Fortunately, they have shuttle services that are dedicated to running people around the city to get to movies on time.)
For four years straight, from the 6th festival of 2010 to the 9th festival of 2013, we went religiously. Part of that was because we got a ton of free tickets… well, they weren’t so much ‘free’ as bartered. You see, Jordan used to work for our friend Andy McFarlane’s web-publishing company, Leelanau Communications Inc. Every year, they would build the TCFF website and get paid in tickets, thus they were considered “sponsors” of the film fest. This meant lots and lots of tickets. We would get first dibs on whatever we wanted to see, before the tickets even went on sale to “friends of the film festival,” let alone the mass general public.
Some years, we tried to pack it all in to two to three days, watching movie after movie, sometimes as many as four or five in one day, from 10 a.m. to the midnight showing — gah, long day! Other years, we tried spreading it out, with only one to three movies per day, but then we’d be driving close to an hour one way with traffic to Traverse City, every single day for six days straight. That got old, too.
Most years, regardless of how we tried to divvy things up, we’d get burnt out by week’s end. It was just really hard for us to drive all the way up there, have to figure out who was going to watch our dog during that time and let her out to go potty, find a place to eat out (and spend time and money doing so), drive all over town to get to the movies and try to make it there a half an hour early because Jordan is crazy about getting to movies extra extra extra early, and then either drive all the way back home and then all the way back up again the next day, or stay at my parents’ house which is about halfway home, but then we’re not sleeping in our own beds and thus not entirely rested, and again, then who’s watching the dog?
If it sounds like I’m whining about taking a whole week off of work to watch movies and getting lots of free tickets, it’s because I am. And it’s not that I wasn’t appreciative, because I was. I even got the chance to blog for the 8th festival in 2012 and get my writing and photos out to a new audience; another thing that I’m appreciative for.
I think part of what people love about the TCFF is the fact that it’s close to home. At least, that’s what the folks who live, work, and play in Traverse City like about it. And/or it’s what the people who go up for only one or two days like about it. But if you’re going to be a die-hard movie geek (not to be confused with a Die Hard movie geek) for a whole week, you really gotta reside in the town where the festival is going on.
And that’s precisely what I like about our own Frankfort Film Festival, which just celebrated its 7th anniversary at the renovated Garden Theater last weekend. The F3 always takes place Thursday through Sunday of the second to last weekend of October, after the major tourist season but still in time for those on a fall color tour. (Another thing that I like about it: it’s after the busy season and seems to be more catered to locals, but more on that in a bit.)
Sponsoring the F3
For the past two years since we restarted The Betsie Current — a full-color local newspaper that is a labor of threesome love between me, Jordan, and his high school friend and college roomie, Jacob Wheeler — we’ve been sponsors of the Frankfort Film Festival. (I’ve written before about my love for The Betsie Current here.)
In our 10th issue last year and our 10th issue this year, both of which came out in early/mid-October, we dedicated two whole pages in the center of the paper to the movie titles, times, descriptions, and awards. That equates to about $1,200 or more in advertising dollars. In exchange for “sponsoring” the festival, the F3 gives us four transferable, all-access movie passes that are good for the private pre-party in September (at which time, all sponsors are invited to eat appetizers, drink wine, and watch the trailers of all the films) and the opening night party on the first night of the festival (again with food and drink provided), not to mention any and all of the movies for the whole four-day event. Oh, and we get a tote bag with swag and goodies from all the other sponsors.
Last year, I think that I attended something like seven or eight movies over the course of four days. This year, I went to 10 in three days (I skipped one entire day because we had other plans already). And what I realized this year was that I needed to put into words what I’d felt last year and what I was definitely feeling this year about F3: for our family, F3 is so much better than TCFF for so many reasons! Let me count the ways:
- I can leave my house at the time that the movie is supposed to begin and walk to the theater, getting there just three minutes into the film. (I did this on three occasions this year. Oops.)
- Moreover, if I want to go to a film but Jordan doesn’t, I can just go by myself because it is literally a three-minute walk from our house as opposed to a 60-minute drive one way. If we go to a film together, and then he doesnt want to watch the second film but I do, he can either walk himself home or he can go next door to Stormcloud Brewing Company for a beer and meet me for the third film later. (If we were in Traverse City, we’d have to arrange who was taking the car and who was going where and meeting back up when, etc.)
- I can come home between movies, grab a snack, feed the dog, let her out, and be back before the next movie begins. Even check my email. This means that we spend less time and money on food, travel, and doggy daycare. It also means that we get to sleep in our own beds.
- The sponsor passes are transferable, which means that if we can’t go to a film or if Jacob can’t make it to a film, we can give the pass to our friends and family to use. This is also good for F3, because it gets someone in the door who maybe wouldn’t have come to the festival otherwise. (This year, more than a dozen people used our passes, which makes me feel warm and fuzzy on the inside… I love sharing good things with good people.)
- There’s only one venue, which not only means less travel time but also absolutely no time is spent trying to schedule what to see and when to see it and then getting disappointed when two good films are on at the same time; this just doesn’t happen at F3! And if I want to watch four movies in a row, I just stay right in my seat.
- As mentioned earlier, since the festival is in the fall, it’s catered more toward locals. However, every year they give a prize to the person who traveled the longest to get to the festival; this year, that person came all the way from North Carolina. F3 is able to do this because the announcer literally ask everyone who is in the theater just before the film, “Who has traveled more than 100 miles to get here? Put your hands up if you traveled more than 200 miles… keep your hand up if you traveled more than 250 miles.” etc. until he finds a “winner.”
- Again, the pre-party and the opening night parties for sponsors are catered with local food and wine, as well as beer from Stormcloud. But not only that — in addition to the normal popcorn and candy fare, you can buy a Stormcloud charcuterie plate or a hummus and veggie plate at the concession stand or even a custom F3 doughnut from the local Crescent Bakery. They also will give you a free cup for free tap water if you ask politely.
- There aren’t a whole lot of movie directors that show up at our small festival, but every effort is made to try to get at least one or two. This includes, as of this year, Facetiming Mo Scarpelli, one of the directors of the documentary Frame by Frame, onto the big screen from her hotel room at another film festival in Missouri. (It took a little while to figure out how to get her audio to come through the speaker system, but then it worked out great! She could see and hear us, we could see and hear her. Neat.)
- Speaking of tech-y advances, it’s humbling when the tech fails. No, I’m serious. It reminds us just how much goes into the film festival weekend as a whole when we get a chance to see behind the curtain, to have a few small hiccups that in the end don’t dramatically alter the overall experience. To have the mic batteries go out when a film is being presented and then have new batteries brought promptly up by the staff. To have the lights flicker and the movie screen go out for a second when the ‘gales of November come early’ to our small city on the coast of Lake Michigan, and then to have a voice call from the projector room that he’ll have it back on in a jiffy. “You think this kind of thing happens at Sundance?” Rick Schmitt, one of the co-owners of The Garden Theater asked the crowd in jest. “Oh, it does,” responds someone from the crowd. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but both of these instances made me smile and appreciate everyone who has a hand, big or small, in putting on F3.
- If you don’t know, our beautiful Garden Theater was originally built in 1923, but it has been slowly renovated since 2008. A new projector, then a new screen. A new sound system, then a new bathroom. And most recently, back-lit movie posters. Not bad for a theater that was completely shut down for more than a decade! Many of these renovations have come from private citizens, either donating their time or their money or both. The theater is technically owned by Rick and Jennie Schmitt and Blake and Marci Brooks, plus a couple dozen investors who are residents of the community. Rick says that the theater operates more or less like a nonprofit, though it doesn’t have that tax delegation. “Virtually every cent goes back into the theater,” he says. “And the community really feels like they have ownership of this theater. They call it ‘our theater’ as if they are the owners, because they really are.” One great example of this is the art deco paint restoration on the walls and the ceiling, work which was done by volunteers. Another example is the John P. Vinkemulder Audience Award, dedicated to my friend Vink who has donated countless hours to helping with everything from fundraising to installing light bulbs. Throughout the weekend, people vote on each movie they watch, and the winner gets its name on Vink’s plaque, complete with a hand-drawn caricature of Vink, drawn by another friend and local, Chris Bigelow. (Of note: The Garden Theater received a $5,000 grant from a program to restore Michigan theaters that was presented at the 2012 TCFF, when I was blogging. Michael Moore also donated $5,000 of his own money to the theater last summer, an event which I was asked to photograph for The Betsie Current.)
- Before the last film of each night of the festival, they play a short film from the Interlochen Arts Academy. These films are written, directed, filmed, edited, produced, and acted by talented kids just a half hour away — what a great way to make the big world feel small by putting up these small films alongside the big ones! Again, supporting the local community is so integral to the heart of F3.
- For $85, you can buy a weekend pass to all the movies (as compared with $10 per ticket). But for just a little bit more ($115 for a single, or $200 for a double), you can become a “directing sponsor.” This year, there were 176 directing sponsors of the F3. Depending on how many films that these individuals see, they may or may not get their money’s worth. However, this is crucial to making these individuals feel like they are an integral part of the festival — there’s no need to spend $25 each year to “become a member” of the festival, with the only advantage being that you get to buy tickets before the mass general public, but even then you still have to wait in line and you’re not assured that you will get tickets to what you want to see. There’s not a $50 cover to get into the opening night party. There’s no hassle of waiting in will-call to pick up tickets. Nope, nothing like that. You just buy your weekend pass which is a laminated card on a lanyard, and then you show up with it around your neck. And on top of that, you get your name on the sponsor list that plays before the films. Wahoo!
- As for the bigger business sponsors, they aren’t just names on a screen. Each of us is assigned a film that we are sponsoring, and we then get the opportunity to introduce that film. This year, we sponsored Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, which has been named one of the top 15 movies of 2015. I got to stand up front and introduce the film to a theater full of people, but I also got to introduce The Betsie Current, to talk a little about what it is that we do, why we do it, where people can find copies of the paper, and why we feel adamant about sponsoring F3 and helping to get the word out through our publication. This is an incredible opportunity for us as business owners, and it’s also fun to hear from the other business owners as well!
- Not only is the festival good for us sponsors, it’s also good for the local businesses that stay open. And that is in turn good for the (local) people who wish to patronize these businesses in the off-season. You see, in our breezy coastal town, many of the storefronts close up after the majority of the summer tourists have left and the cheap workforce (high school and college kids) dries up. It used to be that most places would close up after Labor Day, and many still do. But having the Frankfort Film Festival in mid-October means that many more businesses are staying open later in the year, getting us closer to being a real year-round place to live — something we’ll all be grateful for if and when it ever happens.
Below you’ll find my favorite photos of the 7th annual Frankfort Film Festival 2015. I do hope that you’ll join us there next year… one thing that we do need to work on — as you’ll be able to see in the photos — is getting a younger audience through the doors!