The filmmaker Michael Moore’s movie “Fahrenheit 9/11,” about the presidency of Donald Trump, is scheduled to open in September. His nonfiction show, “Michael Moore TV Nation,” will have its premiere on TBS in October.
But first there’s the 14th annual Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan, from July 31 to Aug. 5. Mr. Moore founded the festival and movies, and honorees have his imprint. For the 2016 festival, all of the selections from the United States were directed by women. (“I just wanted to make the statement that 2 to 4 percent of the films made by Hollywood are made by women,” he said. “That’s just wrong.”) In 2017, the festival showcased work by filmmakers from countries affected by the Trump administration’s travel ban. The documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple won a “Mid-Life Achievement” award in 2014; this year, Jane Fonda will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. (Mr. Moore won an Academy Award for best documentary feature in 2003 for “Bowling for Columbine.”)
Many of the films are shown at the State Theater and the theater Bijou by the Bay, both renovated under Mr. Moore’s direction and run by the festival. Both show first-run features and the State offers 25-cent morning movies (classics like “The Band Wagon” and “Anatomy of a Murder”). The popcorn recipe is Mr. Moore’s.
He lives within walking distance of the theaters and seems to be everywhere during the festival (I was in the audience one summer for a late-night showing of “The Shining,” for which his introduction was both scholarly and hilarious.)
Here, edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Moore.
What inspired you to renovate the State movie theater and start a film festival in Traverse City?
My family had vacationed up there every summer; we’d rent a cabin somewhere, and then we decided to build a cabin and live there full time. I had been there for about three years and was constantly going by this boarded-up movie theater. They had kept it climate-controlled, they had patched the roof. There was no leaking, there was no mold; it was in pretty decent shape for a 100-year old theater. I said this thing shouldn’t be closed, this should be open.
At the same time some friends and I were like, we should do a film festival here. I said, I’ll get filmmakers to come, I know the studios, I can call the studios. And so in July of 2005 we had the first film festival and I got the city and Rotary Charities, which was the actual deed owner of the theater, to let me put in some projectors to use it as a theater for the film festival. It was such a hit that right afterward I began making my appeal to Rotary and to the city to let me restore the theater: ‘I’ll do it, it won’t cost a dime of taxpayers’ money and it will be a property that is owned by the people who support the theater.’ They eventually said yes and within two months I had the theater restored.
The city had told me they had checked into prices of how to refurbish it; they said it would cost $3 to $6 million. I did it for $800,000. And it became a lesson in how to spend money properly and do things conservatively. And to not spend taxpayers’ money for it.
Attendance at the festival has continued to increase. Does that kind of favorable response surprise you?
I’m not surprised because I think people want to go to the movies and they want to go out and it’s one of the few things now they can afford. They can’t afford going to a concert, they can’t afford going to major league sports. I kept the prices affordable, at $8, $8.50, $6 or $6.50 if you’re a member, that’s all it costs to go to a movie on a Friday night at one of my two theaters.
Is there something about the region that you think helped the festival work as well as it did?
We live on a peninsula, not just the peninsula that Traverse City is on, but also the peninsula that the state of Michigan is — nobody ever goes through Michigan. In a weird way we’re kind of separated from America.
It has probably been hurt but I think mostly helped by the fact that we are left to kind of our own resources. On the one hand it’s good to have contact with the outside world [laughs]. On the other hand by being separated, you don’t have a lot of people saying to you that you’re crazy for thinking you can create a carriage that doesn’t have a horse in front of it. A Berry Gordy who’s a used-car salesman can believe he can be a record company founder and executive. If we were part of the rest of the U.S., I think somebody would say, you can’t really do that in Detroit — you’ve got to be in New York or Los Angeles.
What sort of impact do you think the festival and theaters have had on Traverse City?
In the 14 years of the film festival and in the 11 years of the State Theater being open the town has changed. Other people have started other festivals — there’s a writers’ festival [the National Writers Series, co-founded by the nonfiction author Doug Stanton], there’s lots of things that people on their own have started that have had the domino effect of what we began. At the beginning I just started telling people downstate that Traverse City was the Ann Arbor of the north. It wasn’t really that yet — that was more like a fantasy in my mind.
There’s two or three things I want to have in Traverse City that we don’t have yet, and helping it be a college town is one thing but I want rail service from downstate and Chicago to go there. That I’m working on.
I love for people to come. They see in Traverse City the possibility of what this country could be — especially in a small town. A small town doesn’t have to be cut off, a small town can have what a New York or Boston or L.A. can have.
You seem to really like northern Michigan’s attitude about life.
There’s a somewhat popular indie group, the Accidentals, and I love that phrase in the song “Michigan and Again” referring to us as Canada’s daughter: “Home of the water/Canada’s daughter.” And I thought, yeah, that sort of describes it. Being a Michicanadian. [Laughs.] I just invented that right now.