By Marta Hepler Drahos
TRAVERSE CITY — Michael Moore welcomed visitors to the eighth annual Traverse City Film Festival in uncharacteristic style.
”I do this out of respect for all of you,” the filmmaker and festival founder told the audience at the first screening of Tuesday’s Opening Night Movie at the State Theatre, indicating his suit and tie and a recent haircut. “Or maybe I lost a bet.”
Moore, who is known for his casual attire, opened the festival with a brief history of the event, a reminder of why people come to the movies — to leave reality behind in a place where they should feel safe — and a plea to the audience to continue supporting community theaters like the State.
Susan Sarandon, this year’s most anticipated guest, also quipped with the audience before accepting the key to the city and the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award, asking which is the city’s best pie, revealing her beauty secrets — not smoking and Sicilian genes — and joking that she wouldn’t be cooking at today’s Filmmaker Dinner fundraiser.
“What a treat to be in this wonderful theater with such a fabulous story,” said the actress, who arrived from New York and will speak at Wednesday’s film festival panel at the City Opera House as well as screenings of her movies “Robot and Frank” and "Thelma and Louise” there and at the State. “I just love what you’re doing with this theater so this award means so much.”
Festival volunteer Lisa Danto bought tickets for 19 films this year including the Opening Night Movie, “Searching for Sugar Man.” She said she originally planned to see the movie at the City Opera House but changed her mind when she learned Sarandon would appear at the State.
“It’s my 50th birthday Sunday,” said Danto, of Suttons Bay, as she chatted with a friend near the concessions line. “I decided to go big.”
Moore also presented the festival’s 2012 Michigan Filmmaker Award to the grandson of the late Winsor McCay, a Spring Lake native who created the first animated film about a dinosaur named “Gertie.” Winsor Robert McCay, of California, will speak before Wednesday’s animated children’s film at Lars Hockstad Auditorium.
Getting perhaps the night’s biggest ovation, an 8-year-old Manistee boy told the audience how he helped that community raise nearly $1 million to reopen the long-shuttered Vogue theater by operating a lemonade stand this summer. Moore, who is on the board of that fundraising effort, said Manistee’s efforts mirror those of Traverse City’s to open the State, now the anchor venue for the festival.
Guests at the Opening Night Party on Front Street sipped wine from film festival tumblers and nibbled on appetizers like Parmesan cookies topped with mortadella mousse and watermelon salad with balsamic glaze, goat cheese, sea salt and arugula leaves as the Irish band Slide played.
“I love the party and all the local foods,” said Lisa Rutledge, of Taylor, who comes to the festival every year and plans to see 26 films this time around. “I only come up a couple times a year so I don’t get to visit all the restaurants. It’s a good way to taste them.”
All three screenings of the Opening Night Movie were sold out and drew long stand-by lines. Retired Florida teachers Wendy Buckley and Judy Brown were first for seats at the City Opera House.
“We bought a little house in Traverse City entirely because of the film festival and the bike trail,” said Buckley, adding that the women waited five hours in line for tickets the day they went on sale.
“We love Michael Moore,” Brown added. “The first movie we ask for is ‘Mike’s Surprise.’ That’s why we stand in line. We like to go to anything Michael Moore might go to.”
The film festival continues through Sunday.