When Michael Moore launched the Traverse City Film Festival two summers ago, many locals were skeptical.
It was bad enough that the aggressively liberal filmmaker, an Oscar-winner for 2002’s “Bowling for Columbine,” had a home in their traditionally Republican enclave.
Now he was using their town to scream his anti-Bush messages from the rooftops.
Today, even those who wouldn’t be caught dead at Moore’s new film, “Sicko,” agree about the good that he’s done for the area. Last year’s festival sold more than 72,000 tickets and brought an estimated $5 million into the community. (This year’s event opens Tuesday and runs through Aug. 5.)
And Moore recently announced that downtown’s usually shuttered State Theatre, a regular festival venue, will soon screen movies year-round.
Sure, there was initial distrust, Moore says by phone from New York, “but these were people who had never even seen my films,” he says. “This person that they had heard about was a fictional character fashioned by my political opponents. Then they met me and saw how much I cared about the community ...”
Moreover, Moore has mostly kept his promise about selecting a wide variety of quality films, no matter what their political leanings.
He points to the documentary “I Am an American Soldier” as “a movie that doesn’t come with an-anti war point of view ... it’s something that I wouldn’t make, but it’s first and foremost a quality film.”
Moore is no stranger to film programming. In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, he scheduled films in Flint, Mich., at what is now Mott Community College. The weekend program showcased foreign, independent and classic films. Moore would book the movies, haul in a popcorn machine, sell tickets and even run the projector. Among his proudest accomplishments was giving Flint its first look at “Annie Hall.”
Things aren’t that different at the Traverse City festival, except for the scale. Last year attendees could spot Moore introducing screenings, handing out bottled water to people in line on a hot day and jumping between venues to ensure that the prints were in focus and brightly lit.
“I treat each film as if it’s my work being projected on screen,” Moore says.
The festival also hosts free outdoor screenings. Selections like “Grease” and “North by Northwest ” are expected to attract at least 5,000 people per night.
For local resident Eric Kurt, 35, seeing movies like this meant using Netflix or making a 20-minute drive to Sutton s Bay, whose downtown theater, the Bay, sometimes shows art house fare. This year the insurance agent took three days off to catch at least 15 films. Because 77 of 88 screenings sold out last year, he advises not waiting to buy tickets at the door.
“For the last few weeks, the big question among my friends has been, ` Did you get your tickets to this or that film?’” he says.
Kurt, who lives a block from downtown, considers the film festival an antidote of sorts to the city’s Cherry Festival, which brings hordes from downstate earlier in the summer.
“A lot of the locals, at least the ones I know, go into hiding during the Cherry Festival but show up for this. It’s about feeding minds rather than stomachs.”
Last year, Kurt was among those who stood outside the Opera House at midnight, waiting for director Larry Charles to show up with a rough cut of “Borat” weeks before its official premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. “I laughed a lot,” he says, “but didn’t realize it would become this national phenomenon.”
So Kurt will definitely be in-house during Charles’ return this week with never-before-seen outtakes from “Borat” and scenes from a new project with Bill Maher about organized religion across America.
Moore is heralding it as “one of the most controversial films of 2008.”
Charles also will be part of “Humor in Dark Times,” one of the morning panel discussions at the Opera House.
While Moore won’t screen “Sicko” at the festival, he will talk about its creation during the Saturday morning session.
Moore, who started the festival with photographer John Robert Williams and author Doug Stanton, is determined not to see the event grow too fast.
“I am a conservative, an old-style conservative, not like the title is used today. We operate in the black. I don’t believe in spending money that I don’t have,” he says.
And while he has added jury prizes this year, don’t expect the festival to compete with Sundance or Cannes anytime soon.
“No glitz. No glamour,” he promises. “We want to keep it very small town.”
For more information on the festival, go to www.traversecityfilmfest.org.