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Guest Blog: Plug Me In. I’m Ready for the 10th!

Guest blog by Jennifer Sowle, 10-year film festival vet.

Every time I enter the State Theatre I feel six years old, when my cousin Kathy and I walked to the “show” and entered the cool darkness of the movie theater. We sat through the newsreel, cartoons, and the main feature—sometimes twice. Our small town had two theaters, both of them ornately appointed. Ushers escorted us to our seats, and the organist provided the sound track for our popcorn and Jujube feast.

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Grand Opening of the Lyric Theatre — July 4, 1916

Our own State Theatre is such a place. It first opened as the Lyric in 1916 when adults paid a quarter and kids paid a nickel to see the show. The State was destroyed by fire not once, but twice. Both times, it was resuscitated. But when multiplex theaters opened at the local malls in the late ’80s, the State closed its doors for good. Defeated by “progress,” the State sat empty on Front Street, its ghost haunting downtown Traverse City for over a decade. Then came a small group of visionaries with a penchant for a challenge, spearheaded by the founder of the Film Festival, Michael Moore.  The State was about to be reborn.  In November 2007, the grand opening of the State as a community-based art theater was celebrated by a premiere showing of The Kite Runner. Last year the State Theater was voted by USA Today as the best theater to “see a movie in splendor.” I love that!

I’m highlighting the State Theatre because truly it is the centerpiece around which the film festival has danced and continues to tango. I watched Christine Lahti and Jeff Daniels receive their awards out front, and Madonna and her daughter Lourdes getting out of a limo, walking the red carpet. I even had a selfie taken with one of my favorites, Susan Sarandon. So many talented and creative filmmakers, directors, producers, have allowed us to eavesdrop on their conversations at a morning panel, actors have been seen at our sidewalk sales or dining in a restaurant. We don’t bother them, other than a turned head or a stare and a whisper. (Okay, I probably had a glass of wine and asked Susan for that selfie with me.) I’m not ashamed to admit I have a twelve-year-old inner child who grew up in the days of movie idols, and she wants to see stars!

Indeed, Traverse City is the home of the fabulous film festival, but that’s still not the whole enchilada.  Not everyone in town sees 14 movies in 4 days (and I think my record is going to be 16 this year if I’m lucky). Some TC residents never have attended the film festival. There may even be a couple of people who haven’t been in the State Theatre. It’s hard to imagine since you can walk in and just look around, and on a really hot summer day (over 100 degrees) you can escape into a cool free movie.  Kids get really cheap or free movies all the time. I keep thinking of my cousin and me at six years old, and I’m thrilled Traverse City kids have an opportunity for the same magic.

The State Theatre packed for the 2014 World Cup.

The State Theatre packed for the 2014 World Cup.

I can name obvious reasons why the community is better for the TCFF (backlighted by our State Theatre). The Film Festival has
brought revenue to the city, culture, and good will and a sense of optimism. The Rotary Charities donated the State Theatre to the film festival, but we here in Traverse City view it as ours. TC folks have given time, sweat, and money; and our devotion has kept the State Theatre viable year round. At the same time, the Film Festival president, board, and managers have given back to our community by opening the doors of the State Theatre for things like the Martin Luther King Jr. Day, anti-bullying programs, holiday events, the Academy Awards Party, school events, and televised high school sports playoffs. People were lined up just a few weeks ago to see the World Cup on the big screen.

Let’s not forget, ten years ago eyes undoubtedly rolled when it was suggested that our small northern town could pull off a film festival. Now it’s gaining ground among the country’s best. Amazingly, this “all things are possible” attitude has created fertile ground for other dreams to grow and flourish. Now we have the winter Comedy Festival, New Year’s Eve Cherry Drop downtown, the Writer’s Series, another year-around venue, the Bijou by the Bay. The fact that our theaters and the film festival are run mostly by volunteers has brought people of all backgrounds together in a common cause. Street dining, food trucks, musicians and performers of all kinds are popping up everywhere. Concerts on the bay, film school for the kids, and who can forget the Metropolitan Opera telecasts—a night at the Met right here in northern Michigan. The Film Festival has generated a renaissance of downtown Traverse City. Heck, it even drew me out of the woods and brought me to the city. (It was also the 142 inches of snow we got that one winter.)

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The first day of ticketing for the 2014 Traverse City Film Festival. (Photo: Pamela Atsoff)

The most important thing about the film festival is the hardest thing to describe. Sparks from the film festival have fired up a “Hi Neighbor” sentiment reminiscent of a small Michigan town of years passed. We stand in line up here–at every film. For ticket-buying lines, you bring a lawn chair. Somebody asked me if my blog, TCFF-slug-lines was about the speed at which the movie lines moved. No, it isn’t. Actually, I’ve reframed the entire concept of lines. When you’re in TC you will stand out if you’re one of those arms-crossed, frowning, sighing, pain in the keister folks. The philosophy here is relax, eat a brown-bag lunch or a piece of cherry pie, review your itinerary, or discuss your favorite movies with your line neighbors.

Here’s where I’m coming from. Early in my 10-year festival fun, I got up very early on a beautiful Sunday morning and walked downtown to buy tickets. I was shocked to find hundreds of people winding down the street, around the corner, around another corner. When I got closer I heard them talking, laughing, apparently enjoying the wait. No kidding! I barely got there, rather bleary-eyed, when a woman ahead of me said she was running to the coffee shop and did I want something. I thought I needed coffee, but suddenly I felt wide awake. I’m telling you, the energy and camaraderie of the film festival has spread through our community like a bay breeze.

Since I moved north just as the film festival hatched, I don’t know if TC has always been this friendly. I mean, where else would people get to talk to strangers who share a similar passion? There’s just nothing quite like the high of popcorn served by your neighbor, your boss taking your tickets, and a shared laugh or cry with your bank teller. The film festival has fostered a sense of community pride.  It creates its own unique rhythms on the street. It’s like a current running through the city. Plug me in, I’m ready for the 10th Anniversary!