Traverse City News and Events

What Is The State Of The State, Film Fest?

By Luke Haase | April 12, 2021

Due to financial instability and COVID-19, the short-term future of the State and Bijou theaters and the 2021 Traverse City Film Festival are very much in doubt. And while their leader, filmmaker Michael Moore, proceeds with caution, many in downtown Traverse City want their theaters open now -- for both symbolic and economic reasons. Expect final decisions on both the theater openings and the festival by the end of April.

“Our hope is that there will be some version of a festival this year,” Moore tells The Ticker, adding that theaters will reopen “as soon as we get out of debt, get the virus under control, and get the river [persistent flooding] out of the [State Theater] basement.”

In “normal” years, Moore and a full staff are planning the films and logistics around the weeklong summer festival a full year in advance. This year, the realities COVID-19 and debt have resulted in no full-time staff and little advance festival planning. Full-time festival directors Susan Fisher and Meg Weichman have not been employed for a year, while Moore says the festival remains more than $150,000 in debt. He adds that most of the planning and work being done today is handled by him and a volunteer board and committees.

Last August, Moore told supporters the organization had lost $1 million from not hosting a 2020 festival and not having theater doors open.

In December, his update noted the festival had been raising money, but remained more than $100,000 in debt, while also facing persistent flooding in the State Theater basement, which could add an additional $100,000-$200,000 expense.

Moore now says the debt was “$100,000 back then, and then our auditor came in and discovered a whole bunch of other bills that had not been entered, as well as some other bills that people had not even submitted to us.”

The organization did receive a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan in August for $84,000, which Moore said was spent on payroll, rent, and utilities, though neither Fisher nor Weichman were brought back to work. Instead, Moore says he’s focused on staff who can directly help the finances of the festival, so the staff doing some work include fundraiser Debbie Hershey, a bookkeeper, and former State of Michigan Department of Treasury employee Joyce Peiffer, whom Moore says has been hired to audit the festival’s books. Moore says the festival is in the process of applying for a second PPP loan.

But how bad the debt is and the details of how the festival got there remain largely unclear.

Back in August 2018, Moore told a festival audience, “Beginning in a few months, at the end of 2018, we’re going to begin issuing annual reports. We’re going to actually publish on the website not only the 990s [nonprofit IRS statements], but also the quarterly financial statements. You’ll be able to look at what the bank has, and what we have, and you’ll be able to see everything. That’s the way it’s going to be from now on.”

The festival web site still links to a 2017 tax filing, and no detailed reports have been made public.

When asked about the promise made 32 months ago, Moore says, “The plan is to do exactly that. We’ve had to wait until we had it all together -- the right audit, the right CPA, the right people. And we’ve had a pandemic. And so I can say, when we get through this, when we reopen, that’s exactly what we will do.”

And as some worry about the lingering dangers of COVID and crowds, does Traverse City actually want a Traverse City Film Festival in 2021?

Says Mayor Jim Carruthers, “If you had asked me this two seasons ago, I’d say bring it on. Sadly with the latest spike in Michigan…I can’t say that any large gathering would be wise move at this time…It pains me to say this and I’m hopeful we will see positive changes in the months to come but at this time, and until we see significant numbers of people vaccinated, any large draw of crowds to the area could be counterproductive.”

Downtown TC Director Jean Derenzy says, “I know the festival brings in thousands of visitors, but this summer should be busy regardless.”

“I’ve been talking to people at the city,” Moore says, “and just asking: ‘Do you want people coming from all over the world, or would you rather just have people locally and regionally?’”

The result will likely be a downsized festival or a hybrid combining a few in-person screenings with virtual films, though Moore insists “there are several options, and they are all on the table being considered.” Expect consideration of a winter film festival this year as another option.

Moore tells The Ticker he will make an announcement at the end of April about the 2021 festival plan.

As for the State and Bijou theaters, the issues are more straightforward: COVID-related closures and concerns, along with flooding in the State basement -- have kept the theaters shuttered. Many were frustrated when Moore decided to cover the prominent State Theater doors with plywood when the pandemic hit. But now there’s artwork along the front doors and the lights of the marquee shine.

Still, there’s no timeline for a return to live film screenings. Moore says he hopes films will return soon, “but we will have to COVID-proof the theaters, and make sure people are safe,” noting that one option could be to require moviegoers provide proof of vaccination prior to admittance.

Meanwhile, Derenzy says, “We want the theaters open now,” speaking for many downtown Traverse City businesses. “That’s what I’ve talked to Michael about -- how can we get the theater open. It just brings a whole different dynamic to downtown.”

And what if Moore decides to keep theaters closed through the summer?

“We have no choice,” Derenzy responds. “We have asked what we can do to help get the theaters open."

Moore is sympathetic, and insists that when the State reopens, he will work with nearby businesses to offer “dinner and a movie-type promotions,” though he is quick to add that he will not succumb to any outside pressure.

“We are not a business. We don’t need to make a dime to please any investors or shareholders. Once we have a good plan to operate safely, we will open. I can’t wait to get back.”

Moore adds that the Bijou Theater, though not experiencing flooding, might open even later than the State because its heating/cooling/air filtration system is actually older and less advanced than the State’s, bringing added health concerns.

In the meantime, the organization continues to generate some revenue from its Virtual State online film offerings, and fundraising efforts continue. Moore added that private theater rentals are another option being considered to help offset costs.

“We have a $12,000-$15,000 nut each month to cover the basics, rent, insurance, and security,” he says. “Our goal was to try to keep these theaters turnkey ready, able to open the doors at a moment’s notice. And as soon as we are out of debt, beat the virus, and get river out of the basement, we will open.”


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