July 27, 2008

Festival Praised for Attracting New Tourists

By Melissa Domsic, The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.

Jul. 27--TRAVERSE CITY -- About 200,000 paid and free admissions to the Traverse City Film Festival prove its popularity the past three years, but festival founder Michael Moore hopes to position the area as more than a quick stop for movie buffs and popcorn-munching visitors.

"Now we're finding people are actually coming the weekend before and stay through the next weekend," Moore said. "They get here early and just spend time enjoying the area."

Local residents and visitors will pack six venues to see more than 70 flicks, some with multiple screenings, from Tuesday through Aug. 3.

It's the first festival to be held since the State Theatre reopened last November after a near-total renovation. The State shows movies year-round with a focus on independent, documentary, foreign, classic and children's films.

The festival has grown in size and popularity since Moore and co-founders John Robert Williams and Doug Stanton launched the first event in 2005.

That year the Traverse Bay Freedom FilmFest was held as a conservative alternative to the "extremist" movies shown at the State Theatre, according to Freedom FilmFest coordinators at the time. It hasn't returned since.

It took a leap of faith to sponsor a film the first year, said David Denison, owner of Amical restaurant next to the State Theatre.

"The very first year people were leery about what was going to happen," he said. "Now, it's been totally embraced."

It's certainly helped that the State Theatre is run by the film festival, he said.

A slow day at the movie house brings in a couple hundred people who otherwise might not come downtown, Moore said. But it can attract a couple thousand visitors on a big day.

Moore plans to announce another project in the coming days that would expand on the film venue's success.

"Things like the State Theatre and film festival aren't so much to bring tourists to town, but rather to attract good jobs to this town, to attract businesses, and employers who will bring smart jobs for the 21st century here and will employ people and pay them a middle-class wage," he said.

Moore said he's heard from real estate agents who get calls from interested festival-goers.

"I think people leave here thinking, 'Wow, wouldn't this be a nice place to live,'" he said.

He also wants the event to trigger filmmakers to bring their work here, a move that's already gaining speed with the state's incentive program for movie and television productions.

In the mean time, local businesses are taking advantage of more traffic.

This time of year is already busy for downtown merchants, but the festival brings in visitors who otherwise might not have come to the area, said Peter Schmitz, owner of American Spoon Foods on Front Street and member of the Downtown Development Authority's board of directors.

"It's creating a new fan base of people who fall in love with Traverse City," he said. "Business-wise, it's helpful, but the key is, I think about what it does as an introduction for the rest of the year."

A different crowd comes out for the film festival compared to the National Cherry Festival or regular tourist season. The Cherry Festival tends to bring more families, while the film attracts more young adults, couples and retirees.

"It's great we have all these different events to cater to different groups," said Jamie Roster, owner of the downtown store Cherry Stop.

Williamsburg resident Paige Wiard has never attended a film festival movie, but said she'd like to see one.

"It's a nice boost to the community," she said. "It brings people from other areas into Traverse City to see what we have to offer."


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