In 2005, Michael Moore launched the Traverse City Film Festival, along with his dream of creating a nonprofit that brought cultural events and film classes to the Michigan lakeside town of 15,000 residents. Key to that vision was exhibition expert Chapin Cutler and his company, Boston Light & Sound. In addition to restoring and installing over 100 projectors for Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan’s 70mm roadshows, Cutler also helped transform TCFF from asbestos-curtain movie screens to state-of-the-art cinemas.
Thirteen years later, with the festival in debt, two executive directors gone within five months, and struggling to find financial stability, Cutler is suing TCFF for an unpaid bill of more than $150,000. Meanwhile, TCFF dropped BL&S, with Moore suggesting at a recent public meeting that the company provided poor service to the industry.
Last month, Moore held a town hall-style Q&A in Traverse City to address community concerns about the state of the festival, promising greater transparency by publishing annual report. As for Cutler’s lawsuit, Moore inferred it was a “personal” grudge on the part of Cutler, adding “We may not owe (Boston Light & Sound) anything … they owe us,” Moore said, adding “those responsible on their end will regret that they [filed the lawsuit].”
In the cinephile and film-festival world, these criticisms verge on sacrilege. Long revered by top festivals like Telluride and Sundance, BL&S is renowned for its conversion of spaces like churches, abandoned banks, and high school gyms into quality movie theaters.
“We were called in before the first [TCFF] because [the festival] quickly realized that there was nobody that was part of the development of the festival that knew anything about projection,” said Cutler in an interview with IndieWire. “For example, at The State Theater they said, ‘Oh, we got a screen, we don’t need a screen.’ Well, what they were talking about was somebody had taken the asbestos fire curtain and lowered it down most of the way and painted it white and they called that a screen. So we had to come in at the last minute and take the State Theater, which at the time was a derelict building, and two other spaces and overnight turn into a place where they could run a film festival.”
Over the next two to three years, Cutler and Lake toured Traverse, looking for suitable buildings — everything from a municipal garage and skating rinks, to a large barn on the grounds of a mental hospital. Cutler then advised on everything from wiring to sound installation. According to sources associated with the festival, who requested anonymity, records show that whenever Moore pushed the festival in bigger and bolder directions like projecting movies from a catamaran in the middle of the lake, or opening the Bijou as a new year-round theater in 2013, Cutler slashed his pricing to keep a project on budget. Cutler said he viewed supporting the festival’s growth as smart business, as well it as an investment in the festival’s mission.
“Michael’s vision has taken a city that was not doing very well and basically turned it around, and that’s largely because of The State Theater,” he said. “Michael was a visionary in being able to take this broken-down, derelict cinema and turn it into a gem, which basically took a downtown that had no life in it and turned it into a place that had a lot of life. When I first went there, a third of the storefronts were empty. Now you couldn’t find one if your life was dependent on it.”
According to Cutler and others associated with the festival, Traverse paid many vendors late. In response, BL&S started giving TCFF a deep discount if it paid the tab before the festival began in late July. In 2017, then-executive director Deborah Lake approached Cutler with a problem: Another large vendor refused to do its job without being paid up front, and she needed payment flexibility. Cutler agreed to a $100,000 deposit, with an agreement that the balance would be paid by September.
Come fall 2017, the remaining $159,000 balance had not been paid, and Lake told Cutler TCFF was in debt and unable to pay. (Cutler said he later spoke with treasurer Penny Milliken, who told him TCFF was $450,000 in debt.) However, Cutler told IndieWire that as long as there were signs of a payment plan, and TCFF made small monthly payments, he was willing to work with the festival.
Lake and Cutler agreed that the remainder of the balance would be paid before 2017 accounting closed, and after the festival’s year-end fundraising drive. Cutler said Lake found a sponsor who agreed to pick up his remaining tab — and then, Lake left the festival in December under what initially seemed to be friendly circumstances. At the August meeting, Moore characterized her exit as a termination stemming from “ethical obligations, our legal obligations,” (Lake did not respond to a request for comment, but told TraverseTicker.com: “The implication that the board had an ethical or legal duty to terminate my employment with TCFF is also false, and I look forward to discussing the circumstances surrounding my departure from TCFF at a later date.”)
According to sources, by early 2018 it was clear that Moore was extremely angry with Cutler. Meanwhile, Moore recruited Sundance Institute veteran Joseph Beyer as Lake’s replacement, saying he offered “a unique combination of experience, creativity, and passion” and TCFF was “lucky” to hire him. In April, when Beyer officially took over, he was tasked with informing Cutler that not only would BL&S not be back in 2018, but the festival would only offer 50 cents on the dollar to settle its 2017 bill. Beyer would then quit TCFF three weeks after his start date, despite having moved to Michigan.
“I had known Joe for over 10 years because he was at Sundance, and he told me having to deal with our financial circumstances was the most difficult thing he had to do in his professional life,” said Cutler. “I would say that was a large part of why he didn’t last longer than 21 days, because they were expecting him to clean up things that were not of his doing.”
Cutler filed his lawsuit June 6. In a $25,000 countersuit, TCFF claimed that BL&S failed to render services in 2013 for TCFF’s then-new year-round theater, The Bijou. The suit lists undelivered equipment like dual cameras for Skype, but Cutler said records show the festival eliminated them from the final order to keep the project on budget.
That TFCC picked 2013 as the focus of its countersuit on was deeply offensive to Cutler. That summer, The State Theater faced a crisis when its D-Cinema projector broke down. This happened just as many theaters were making the switch from 35mm to digital projection, which meant a replacement would take three months to arrive. To keep the theater’s doors open, BL&S loaned TFCC $100,000 of equipment free of charge.
“If I wanted to cheat them out of something, I certainly could have put them over the barrel for three months they would have been closed,” said Cutler. “That’s going pretty well and beyond what reasonable would be, but for some reason Michael and a couple of his advisors had decided we had cheated them.”
Elizabeth M Tiffany
Moore declined to comment for this article, but in response to inquiries a spokesperson for Moore issued this statement from the festival: “TCFF disputes the amount that Boston Light and Sound claims it is owed because of Boston Light and Sound’s breaches of obligations to and agreements with TCFF, including: its incomplete technical installation at the Bijou by the Bay Theater; its failure to provide functioning equipment that TCFF paid for; and its failure to deliver equipment and other services that TCFF paid for … It is the fiduciary duty of the TCFF Board of Directors to ensure that TCFF has received the equipment and services that it paid for, and no less.”
Cutler friend Leonard Maltin made a video with his daughter Jessie, shared widely on social media, calling Cutler’s company “miracle workers” who did amazing work in helping Moore build his Traverse theaters, holding up a signed program in which Moore paid tribute to Cutler’s “genius.”
“I can’t sit silently. They are decent, hard-working people, who hire other decent, hard-working people and they do this as a labor of love,” said Maltin. “Michael Moore is man who has always stood up for the little guy and wants people to do the right thing — well, do the right thing is what I’m saying, and I hope he’ll hear.”
I’m extremely uncomfortable doing something like this. I have no desire to fight or argue with anyone—but I must stand up for my dear friends at Boston Light and Sound. #MichaelMoore is slandering them—and I can’t stand idly by while that happens. pic.twitter.com/Skw1saBSiW
— Leonard Maltin (@leonardmaltin) September 9, 2018
The BL&S lawsuit includes the claim that TCFF threatened “to distribute false and defamatory stories to harm BL&S’ good name and business relationships.” While Cutler’s attorney declined to comment, at the August town hall Moore implied that BL&S didn’t perform up to industry standards, which led TCFF and other festivals to drop the company.
However, while Moore said he fired BL&S, TCFF continues to work with the same people. For the last five years, Cutler groomed an employee as the point person during festivals like Sundance and Traverse. In August 2017, his mentee and other employees left the company and started targeting BL&S clients through New Box Solutions, offering services at a reduced rate.
One of those clients was the Sundance Film Festival, but a Sundance rep confirmed to IndieWire that poor service had nothing to do with Cutler losing the bid. Sources close the festival say the BL&S track record was spotless, and Sundance owed a debt of gratitude to Cutler for helping it expand over the years.
“The very same people who did the Traverse City Festival in 2017 actually did the festival in 2018, but it wasn’t Boston Light & Sound, it was a copycat company,” said Cutler. “It was capitalism, pure and simple.”
At the August Q&A, Moore made it clear that there was more to the story and that TCFF’s end-of-year report would clarify what “really happened” with Lake and Cutler’s terminations. In the meantime, Moore’s attacks on Cutler — a figure whom many regard as having helped make Moore’s Traverse City dreams become a reality — have left him unbowed.
“Instead of doing something honorable and saying we don’t have the money, this what we’re going to do, are you willing to work with us on this, which we were very willing to do,” said Cutler. “They started flailing around and looking under the rug and putting together a lot of nonsense that basically that was all made up, because they were trying to find a way to scare us out of dropping the suit. Well, we’re not scared.”