Chapin Cutler calls filmmaker Michael Moore, the driving force behind Michigan’s Traverse City Film Festival, a “visionary.”
“We loved what the festival is and still love what the festival is doing for the town, and what it’s done for the community as a whole,” Culter says.
Only he’s less enamored with the way the festival pays its bills.
His company, Boston Light & Sound, is suing TCFF for unpaid debts. It’s not the first economic struggle he’s had with the festival, though. He’s eager to defend his company’s record against the filmmaker, who publically called his company out during the 2018 TCFF, which wrapped Aug. 4.
“There has never been anything that has happened in the 12 years of our doing the TCFF that would have warranted our dismissal,” he says, adding he’s proud to say no technical glitch prevented a film from showing in toto.
Boston Light & Sound supplied the bulk of the technical infrastructure through every TCFF until this year, providing:
- Facility design
- Sight lines
- Acoustic litigation
- Screen size
Cutler says the Oscar-winning filmmaker who founded the festival kept close tabs on his creation.
“I had direct contact with him more so early on,” Culter says. “He’s a visionary and had a vision of what he wanted to do … I was happy to be a part of that vision.”
Cutler’s company had the resume for the gig.
Boston Light & Sound previously orchestrated a screening of “The Town” at Fenway Park, along with helping major movie events like the TCM Classic Film Festival, The Sundance Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival.
Most recently, they produced the World Premiere of “A Star is Born” at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
Cutler says Moore’s presence on the festival diminished at times due to the filmmaker’s workload. As recently as 2017, Moore made himself available via Skype. The filmmaker had turned his attention to Broadway and was polishing up his one-man show, “The Terms of My Surrender.”
The past 10 years, though, Cutler’s company asked for payment before the TCFF started due. He cites the Festival’s tardiness in paying in a timely manner.
“In one case we didn’t get fully paid for the previous festival until June of the next year,” he says. So his company offered the festival a “fairly good-sized” discounted rate if they could pay for their services up front each year.
The festival’s then-executive director, Deb Lake, asked Cutler if he could take partial payment with the promise he’d be paid in full the following September.
“By September 30 they didn’t have the money,” he says. So he arranged with her to accept a monthly payment plan. That ended when Lake left the festival, purportedly on amicable terms.
“When we started to pursue getting paid in 2018 I was told they didn’t have the money, they were $450,000 in debt. They offered me a pittance of a payoff. I had to turn it down.“
The new executive director hired to replace Lake, he says, offered his company 50 cents on the dollar on the remaining money owed along with a tax certificate for the balance.
“It became apparent we were not going to get paid. We filed a lawsuit to get their attention,” he says insisting as soon as the debt is paid the lawsuit will vanish.
The festival did not return a message seeking its side of the story.
That’s when Moore used his considerable clout to weigh in on the matter. He dubbed the lawsuit “personal” during this year’s TCFF.
Moore said an ongoing internal probe of the festival’s finances made board members concerned that “we may not owe (Boston Light & Sound) anything…they owe us.” He added that “those responsible on their end will regret that they did this,” referring to the company’s filing of the lawsuit.
It’s the same pugnacious approach Moore took to critics of his 2004 smash “Fahrenheit 9/11,” where he vowed to sue anyone for libel who claimed the film wasn’t factually accurate
Cutler isn’t the only festival employee who left under a cloud.
Lake left the festival after a 13-year run. At first media outlets reportedly the split in neutral terms. Later, Moore used his TCFF perch to share his side of the story. He told the audience she was terminated by the board for “ethical and legal” reasons. He also promised to share more about the situation by the end of 2018.
Lake fired back in the media, saying Moore was lying. She blamed him directly for the dismissal, adding his insinuations against her are “false.” She, too, vowed to explain more at a future date.
Moore previously had praised Lake’s contributions to the festival.
Lake’s replacement at the festival, Joseph Beyer, left after just 21 days on the job. His farewell message teemed with praise for the festival and its mission. He said he didn’t think he had the best skill set to steer the festival at this moment.
“Joe had spent the last 22 years in Los Angeles, and three weeks in Traverse City. I’m sad to report I believe LA won.”
Moore’s treatment of his workers flared up recently when both Leonard and Jessie Maltin took a public stance on Culter’s behalf with the lawsuit.
Folks. We chose to speak up because we wanted to help our friends protect and defend their reputation. This is not about our president or politics. Please stop attacking each other, stop the name calling, stop the viciousness. Don’t lose sight of the actual issue at hand. https://t.co/NNUSxATf8E
— Leonard Maltin (@leonardmaltin) September 11, 2018
Jessie Maltin took it further, sharing on Twitter that she’s spoken directly to people who have worked with Moore of his ugly demeanor, which included yelling at employees.
Cutler says he’s not personally aware of the issue, but he’s “heard the same rumors” Jessie Maltin shared on Twitter after the lawsuit hit social media. Moore did not respond to an early request from this site for comment on the Maltin’s messages.
Like Lake, Cutler also heard plenty of early praise from the festival’s founder, noting he has emails from Moore extolling his company’s handiwork for his film festival.
“He expressed great pride in what we did for the festival,” he says.
Cutler’s lawsuit is expected to go to trial in the first quarter of 2019.