Traverse City News and Events

Film Festival Lands Grant; Theater Openings On The Way; Moore Talks Staffing

By Craig Manning | June 30, 2021

The Traverse City Film Festival (TCFF) announced on Tuesday afternoon that it had received a $933,000 grant “as part of a $16.5 billion relief bill passed by Congress to help thousands of shuttered movie theaters, playhouses, museums, and music venues across the country.” TCFF Founder Michael Moore called the grant “the best news we’ve received in the last year and a half” and tells The Ticker it should enable TCFF to bring the State Theatre and the Bijou by the Bay back online this year – with a miniature version of the film festival a possibility for this winter.

Moore says that top priorities include “COVID-proofing our theaters” – particularly with ventilation and air circulation systems “where the air doesn’t circulate in the theater for hours” – and fixing or upgrading theater equipment that has been dormant during the pandemic, addressing flooding issues in the basement of the State Theatre, and hiring staff.

On the subject of flooding, Moore says he’s been “back and forth with a series of different civil engineers and architects” and has “finally landed on a team that we believe is going to do the right thing [for our building].”

“We just had our third meeting with them [Tuesday] morning,” Moore says of the contractors. “We’ve got to get permits and do a number of things, but listening to them today, if I were to guess and if everything goes right, we should have this ready to go by Labor Day.”

Cost projections for the project, Moore continues, have so far “been all over the map, anywhere from $40,000 to $300,000” to save the basement and the foundation of the building. “It’s because there's like three different ways to do this,” he explains, including shorter-term and longer-term solutions. One of Moore’s key hopes for the grant money is that it will give TCFF the option of picking a more expensive – but more permanent – repair.

“Don’t kick the can down the road, but fix it now so that in the year 2050 they're not having to deal with it in the way we're having to deal with it,” he says. “If that means spending another month of work and another $100,000, I think responsible people in the community would support doing it that way.”

With the American box office coming off its biggest weekend since the start of the pandemic, Moore says it’s clear that people “want to get out of the house and go to the movies.” He expects he’ll be sharing news about the reopening of the State and the Bijou sooner rather than later. And as for a return of the film festival itself? That might be coming soon, too.

“I would say in July, once we have a handle from the contractors and everybody on their schedules, we'll be able to get a good idea as to when the theaters will reopen,” Moore says. “The Bijou might open before the State, only because of the water problem. And with this money, maybe we won't wait until next summer [to bring the film festival back]. Maybe we'll have a mini festival in the winter. That's a possibility.”

When the theaters do reopen, Moore is adamant that vaccines will be required: “We will have it just like the first concert at Madison Square Garden last week with the Foo Fighters, and just like the first Broadway show that opened on Sunday night with Bruce Springsteen. If you haven't been vaccinated, you're going to have to find something else to do with your time.”

One of the bigger question marks around the return of TCFF and its theaters is the organization’s staffing situation. TCFF laid off its paid staff at the start of the pandemic, and Moore has previously declined to answer questions about whether key employees – including Managing Director Susan Fisher and Artistic Director Meg Weichman – would be rehired when the organization rebooted.

On June 21, TCFF publicly posted a new job opening, seeking a general manager for the State and the Bijou – an action that only further clouded the situation for four key pre-pandemic staffers. State Theatre General Manager Louis Dickinson, who held the title up until the closing of the pandemic, confirms he was never told his job was terminated, nor was he asked to “reapply or welcomed back to the organization.” Dickinson learned a new general manager would be hired when Moore publicly posted about launching the job search.

Both Fisher and Weichman report similar situations.

“None of the full-time staff was contacted by Michael or the board about returning to their jobs held before their furlough in March 2020, nor were we told that we were permanently let go from the organization,” Fisher says.

"I can confirm that what Susan said is accurate,” Weichman adds. “We were never formally let go, and no one told us anything. We were under the impression we were furloughed.”

Kristen Messner, previously the events director and volunteer coordinator for TCFF, echoes the comments of her former colleagues, noting that she has received no communication from the organization and thought she was furloughed.

Moore confirms that he did not communicate with Dickinson or other former staffers before posting the general manager job, saying he assumed most former employees had moved on and would apply for the job if they were interested in rejoining the organization.

“Nobody gets laid off for a year and a half and says that they’re laid off,” he says. “I can cite the ones of the eight full-time employees who’ve already gone and gotten other jobs. I will say this: That [job posting] has been up for over a week, and the former staff from a year and a half ago, no one has applied for the job. I don’t know what that means; maybe they still will, maybe they won’t. But, of course, it’s open to them, and it’s open to everyone.”

He continues: “The people that were working at the theaters and the festival when we were forced to shut down, these are really good, salt-of-the-earth people. You won't find anybody that loves theaters more than Louis. Susan and Meg saved the festival in 2018 and 2019. The gratitude towards them is immense. But I’m for letting people decide what they need to do and what they want to do, with no pressure.”

Moore also says TCFF will be reorganizing going forward, “in terms of how we structured things in running the theaters,” and that certain jobs that existed with the organization pre-pandemic – such as the full-time volunteer coordinator position – won’t exist anymore. Another priority for the grant money, he notes, is making sure the organization can resume operations debt-free; Moore felt the pre-pandemic organizational structure wasn’t the right way to keep TCFF’s finances in the black.

“What did we end up with, half a million dollars of debt?” he asks. “We have to be responsible to the community, and we can never let that happen again. Now, that's not the fault of the paid employees. That buck stops with me. But we have a new board and a whole new operation, and I and the new board, we have been working very hard on how to structure this so that we do not find ourselves in the financial situation that we found ourselves in. We've done a lot of talking with and listening to the community, in terms of what's the best thing to make sure that we always have these theaters and always have the festival, and that's more important than any one individual. And that includes me.”

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