This is a difficult post for me to write. For the past several years, I’ve been a dedicated volunteer at two major event organizations in Traverse City - the Traverse City Film Festival (which also produces the Traverse City Comedy Arts Festival) and Porterhouse Productions. I’ve worked with both organizations since their inception. For TCFF, I’ve written the official blog for Film Fest, Comedy Fest and the State Theatre since the second year of the film festival - a job I was personally approved for by Michael Moore. I’ve interviewed countless filmmakers and comedians for the organization, covered TCFF news and events, and reviewed innumerable films. For Porterhouse Productions, I’ve worked both as a volunteer and as an occasional contractor managing PR, media relations and marketing for the company’s festivals and events since it began in Traverse City in 2008.
Last year, I had an unusually busy weekend in February when these organizations overlapped and held anchor festivals on the same weekend (the Traverse City Comedy Arts Festival and the Winter Microbrew & Music Festival). It was a challenge covering both events in one weekend, but a fun one - I got to bounce back and forth between listening to great music and sampling craft microbrews and hearing some of the country’s best stand-up acts. It was a pairing that seemed to go well together, and judging by the reports I heard from attendees and media partners and performers, many people agreed.
However, there was also a significant amount of drama that occurred behind the scenes because of the festival overlap. The Comedy Fest, which had changed weekends and was now on the same weekend as the Microbrew Fest, was unhappy about the Microbrew Fest taking place on the same dates and in the same approximate vicinity (downtown TC). The crux of Comedy Fest’s concern wasn’t about potential loss of turnout or competition for dollars; it was that “drunken” attendees from Microbrew Fest would crash or disrupt Comedy Fest events. Comments were made to the press implying that this was the modus operandi of Microbrew Fest: getting people drunk and then setting them loose on the community to potentially cause problems.
As someone who worked closely with the Microbrew Fest and with Porterhouse Productions, these implications deeply troubled me. I knew this representation was not accurate, and also that the founders of Porterhouse, Sam and Abby Porter, are compassionate, community-minded people whose focus with events has always been to raise the cultural standard and celebrate the music, food, craft beverages and art that make our region unique. As such, I emailed Michael and expressed my support for both events, and also my concern about the perceived competitiveness. Here is the email I sent:
Beth to Michael, 12/20/10
Hey Michael -
I’m working with Sam on some beer fest planning, and wanted to touch base on the comedy/beer fest overlap. I know Sam’s been working with Deb on this, and from what I can gather, it sounds like there may be some perceived competitiveness due to being on the same weekend. I plan to be involved with both events again this year, and am concerned about any conflict arising between the festivals. I can just say from talking to people my own age - who are a primary demographic for comedy and beer - there’s a lot of excitement about the possibility of both being downtown this year, and the ease of attendees being able to park in one spot for the night and jump from one to the other. It’s also made talking to downstate press and markets much easier, as they’re more interested in promoting a “package” weekend in TC with multiple events than a one-off.
I think both festivals have enough branding and following to be successful alone, but I’ve never seen a situation like this in a town this size where both parties didn’t benefit from collaborating. I’m obviously vested in seeing both events work, as I work/volunteer for both, so I hope no matter the outcome it can remain friendly and successful for everyone. I’ll let Deb and Sam continue their conversation, but since I’m involved with both events, I just wanted to connect with you personally and share my thoughts.
Hope all is well,
Michael’s response, which I’ll paraphrase here since he didn’t know he’d be publicly quoted when writing to me, was that they were considering canceling Comedy Fest because they’d already had issues in the past with drunk attendees at their events, but that he “loved the idea” of a microbrew & music festival. He ended by asking why everyone couldn’t just get along and “work together for the greater good,” and that when he first moved to Traverse City, that was something he hoped to be a leader on.
OK - so far, so good. We agree that we should all work together for the greater good, and that the concepts behind both festivals are good ones. But shortly thereafter, Comedy Fest continued to make remarks to the press implying that Microbrew Fest was only going to cause trouble and send drunk people over to interrupt Comedy Fest events. When I again voiced my concerns to Comedy Fest about the way Microbrew Fest was being characterized in the media, I got a much different response than the first time around; essentially, I was told that my blogging services would no longer be needed at Comedy Fest. As I had several interviews with comedians already scheduled, I responded that I was disappointed in and didn’t understand that response, but that I’d be completing the interviews I scheduled regardless because it wouldn’t reflect well on either myself or Comedy Fest to suddenly cancel them without cause. This was (reluctantly) accepted by Comedy Fest. I did complete those interviews, and continued to blog last summer for the Film Fest, and everything appeared to go back to normal.
Move forward to this year. After the conflicts of last year’s events, the DDA had called a meeting with Porterhouse and TCFF to see if a solution could be found for future years to avoid the festivals being on the same weekend. Porterhouse was pressured to move to the first weekend in February, which is also Superbowl weekend, and allow Comedy Fest to keep the second weekend. Porterhouse agreed to consider this move, but did not confirm they would move dates; market research was needed to confirm if the change would be economically viable. An email was sent out shortly after the meeting by the DDA with the proposed schedule, which put Porterhouse on the first weekend in February and Comedy Fest on the second. As Porterhouse still needed to confirm whether the date move was viable, the assumption was that these were proposed and not confirmed dates, and Porterhouse (as requested) would still be granted time to conduct market research on the weekend. As it turns out, market research strongly suggested the festival would not be viable on the first weekend in February. Superbowl weekend would be a monster to compete with on a marketing level for a beer-themed festival that draws strongly on a downstate audience, and moving dates to other weekends put Porterhouse in either close or direct competition with other regional and state beer festivals (this was why the second weekend in February was originally chosen in the first place). Porterhouse kept its originally planned dates, and offered to collaborate or partner with Comedy Fest if they wanted to remain on the second weekend again to help ensure both events would be a success.
If you’re reading this post, it’s because you’re interested in this story, which means you likely read Michael Moore’s letter this morning. As evidenced by the announcement Comedy Fest is canceling, the news that Porterhouse would be keeping its dates clearly was not well received. What has shocked me about this turn of events - and the behind-the-scenes process that lead up to it - is how badly the facts have been misrepresented to the public of what has taken place. This has occurred on two fronts: One, the basic details of what occurred, and two, the spirit in which they occurred. Since both organizations are so tightly woven into the fabric of the community, it seems important that the full story be fairly and accurately presented to the public.
I’d like to address the basic details of what occurred first. Here are some important things to know about this situation.
Dates - A major component of Comedy Fest’s argument is that Porterhouse moved onto or “stole” Comedy Fest’s weekend. Michael writes that he learned last year Porterhouse was going to hold its event downtown and “on the same weekend” TCCAF had “reserved for the second Comedy Fest.” He later mentions that Porterhouse was planning in 2012 to repeat what they “did last year” and “piggyback off” the Comedy Fest. The problem with this argument is that it simply isn’t true. Furthermore, the reverse is actually the case; Comedy Fest moved onto Porterhouse’s weekend. Here are the dates:
2010 - Microbrew Fest = February 12. Comedy Fest = February 19-21.
2011 - Microbrew Fest = February 11-12. Comedy Fest = February 10-12.
2012 (as originally planned) - Microbrew Fest = February 10-11. Comedy Fest = February 9-11.
My guess is that the date conflict began as an honest mistake. Microbrew Fest was on the same weekend as Winter WOW Fest in 2010, and when Winter WOW Fest moved to the third weekend in February in 2011, Comedy Fest switched to the second weekend to avoid conflicting with them. They likely assumed Microbrew Fest would be moving with Winter WOW Fest to the third weekend, and they’d have the second weekend to themselves. The Microbrew Fest had also taken place at Grand Traverse Resort & Spa its first year, so Comedy Fest may have assumed that would be the case again the second year. These are both understandable mistakes to make. What’s not understandable, however, is how those mistakes have morphed into the narrative that Microbrew Fest stole Comedy Fest’s weekend and/or has been attempting to piggyback off Comedy Fest. I was part of the planning process for the Microbrew Fest, so I know that isn’t so. Anyone entertaining the idea that Microbrew Fest stole or deliberately infringed on Comedy Fest’s weekend need only look at the dates above to realize that wasn’t the case.
Alcohol - Another factor Comedy Fest has cited as a major argument against Porterhouse is their concern that drunken attendees from Microbrew Fest will crash Comedy Fest or cause problems at their events. In his email, Michael stated that last year “a number of shows were interrupted by drunks who had been to the beer fest and decided to visit the Comedy Fest for some yucks.” He also stated that he will not ask his volunteers to act as bouncers. Some points to consider on this front:
- Veracity of occurrences - I attended both the Microbrew Fest and Comedy Fest last year. I was at numerous Comedy Fest events over the weekend, and while I did see many signs on the venue windows warning drinkers to stay away (some specifically mentioning microbrew drinkers), I never witnessed firsthand or even heard about secondhand any drunken incidents at Comedy Fest taking place on days the Microbrew Fest was also going on. (I did, however, witness some drunken heckling at the opening night event with Bob Saget - see below). That’s not to say that none occurred, but as someone who was writing the official blog for Comedy Fest and hearing most of the behind-the-scenes gossip from attendees, volunteers and venue managers, this was never a topic that came up or was mentioned by anyone associated with the festival. I’m checking with the TCPD to see if any official complaints were filed, but to my knowledge, none were. Furthermore, in three years and six festivals, Porterhouse has never had a reported drunken disturbance resulting from Microbrew Fest. Their track record is stellar, as their relationship with the TCPD and MLLC will attest. This accusation by Comedy Fest is one that’s easy to level, but difficult to prove.
- Source of occurrences - Let’s entertain the possibility drunken revelers did in fact crash one or more Comedy Fest events last year. I’m sure this would be a terrible shock to a comedian’s system, as no one in the history of stand-up comedy has ever performed before a drunk audience member before. But let’s say this did occur. Michael’s assertion that every one of these drunken hecklers came from Microbrew Fest is dubious at best. How is this provable? Was every person asked at the door whether they were coming from Microbrew Fest? Was every restaurant, brewery, winery, bar, liquor store and grocery store in the greater Grand Traverse area closed on the second weekend in February last year? The idea that the ideal audience member for Comedy Fest is someone who doesn’t ingest a drop of alcohol before attending - not a glass of wine, not a cocktail, not a beer with friends at the pub - is a wishful, if not downright puritanical, one. Also, the idea that Microbrew Fest is the sole location in Traverse City at which people could procure alcohol is also a wishful - well no, that’s just foolish. But, if that is indeed the case, on either front, that raises another issue: On opening night last year, Comedy Fest hosted a party at the City Opera House directly before its opening night shows. At that party was a bar - and not just any bar, but an open bar. Anyone going to the Comedy Fest opening night party could knock back alcohol as fast as they could ask for it, before proceeding directly to Comedy Fest events. This was the night before Microbrew Fest began, so any incidents then would have been solely the result of drinking at Comedy Fest’s own party, and/or other locations. (Case in point: Bob Saget experienced a fair amount of drunken heckling at his event, which took place at the City Opera House on opening night…directly after the opening night party. Microbrew Fest, which was often blamed as the source of these particular drunken hecklers, did not even kick off until 24 hours after Saget performed.) Also, as Michael mentioned in his email to me, Comedy Fest had problems with drunken attendees before Microbrew Fest was even on the same weekend, so clearly there’s something inherent in the nature of comedy events that causes people to want to enjoy alcoholic beverages before attending them.
- The nature of Microbrew Fest: Michael has often stated that he is not a drinker and never has been. As such, it’s probably safe to assume that he’s never attended a microbrew festival. This may account for the characterization of Microbrew Fest attendees as revelers on par with drunken college students on spring break. Admission to the Microbrew Fest includes (5) 7-oz pours - the total equivalent of two pints. The emphasis at the festival is on microbrew sampling, along with food, education and local, state and national music acts. If I were one of the average 3,000+ attendees of the Microbrew Fest - many of them older, upscale microbrew lovers, foodies and music appreciators - I would find the Comedy Fest’s characterization of attendeees highly offensive, in addition to highly inaccurate.
Non-Profit Versus For-Profit - In Michael’s letter, he makes the strong implication that Porterhouse is only interested in its bottom line, because it is a for-profit organization, unlike the non-profit Comedy Fest. He states the following: “Unlike the for-profit beer fest, the Comedy Fest is a non-profit, community-based and community-run project of the Traverse City Film Festival. Our only mission in putting on the Comedy Fest is to improve the quality of life in TC and help the local economy.” The problem is, this paradigm as described by Michael is a misnomer. Being a for-profit organization does not mean you are not a community-run or community-based organization. It also does not mean you don’t improve the quality of life in TC, or help the local economy. There are numerous for-profit organizations in TC - and I would easily count Porterhouse among them - who are community-minded, who improve the quality of life in the city, and who help the local economy. Furthermore, what this statement fails to acknowledge is that every single Microbrew Fest (both winter and summer versions) has had a non-profit partner who benefited from the festival proceeds, as has Paella in the Park (another Porterhouse festival). Thousands of dollars from each festival have gone to community organizations including Little Artshram, the Munson Regional Healthcare Foundation and the Cherry T-Ball Drop (coming up this New Year’s Eve, which collects food for local pantries). This summer at the festival, a new program was instituted whereby 10% of every food vendor’s profits was donated to the local non-profit organization of their choice.
When I go into an event planning meeting at Porterhouse, the first question Sam will often ask is: “What non-profits can we get involved? How can we support the community with this event?” He and Abby will often give to the point where they’ll break even or even take a loss on their events, simply so they can benefit the community as much as possible. Whether it’s giving away tickets to a Halloween festival to dozens of organizations that work with at-risk or disadvantaged youth, or sharing their venue space, event resources and equipment with area organizations in need (ironically, including fencing with the Traverse City Film Festival), Porterhouse Productions has been an exemplary model of what it means to be a for-profit organization that uses its resources for the benefit of the community. If I own my own business one day, I will know how to be a good community steward because of what I’ve learned watching Sam and Abby operate Porterhouse.
So these are the facts, as best I see them, and they bring up one final point worth considering. I mentioned earlier the spirit in which these events have occurred. Since the release of Michael’s email this morning, dozens of angry email messages, Facebook posts and voicemails have come streaming in. The vitriol contained in some of them has been so extreme as to feel like a physical slap in the face. I can’t help but question whether the wording Michael chose to use in his email engendered the inflammatory nature of many of these responses. The picture as painted in the email is that of a clear villain (the evil, for-profit, money-obsessed Porterhouse) and a clear victim (the virtuous, non-profit, community goodwill-obsessed Comedy Fest). Of course, the issue is far more nuanced and complex than any such simplistic reductions, many of which also suffer from being untrue.
The more moderate responses to the news all seem to have one universal theme: How hard can it be to find two different weekends in a long winter for the festivals to take place so they both are successful and everyone’s happy? Alternatively, why can’t they both take place on the same weekend? What’s so hard about sharing dates? Why couldn’t these organizations just make it work? These are all excellent questions. The short answer is that both organizations have strong cases for why they want this specific weekend, which includes not competing with similar events in the region and working under specific planning constraints (like how Michael cited Sundance and Porterhouse cited competing beer events). The long answer - and this is why this post is difficult for me to write - is a conclusion I reached after going through this process for over a year now: Because both organizations don’t want it to.
Now, I don’t mean neither organization wants it to. From where I stand, one does and one does not. As mentioned in the referenced emails earlier, I was personally invested in both events succeeding, but I was also professionally invested, and as such reached out on Porterhouse’s behalf to attempt to collaborate with Comedy Fest to make the most out of sharing the weekend. Not only were my personal attempts at reconciliation rejected (Comedy Fest revoking my blogging privileges in response to questioning their characterization of Microbrew Fest), but professional overtures were rejected as well. Every manner of collaborative and partnership opportunity was presented to Comedy Fest by Porterhouse when the date conflict began in an attempt to stave off competition. Porterhouse offered to host a VIP tent at Microbrew Fest for comedians. Porterhouse offered to create bundled ticket packages to help sales for both events. Porterhouse offered to cross-promote and market Comedy Fest. Porterhouse offered to collaborate on scheduling of events. The answer was always the same: Comedy Fest is not interested in any collaboration, regardless of what form it takes. The only solution Comedy Fest would accept is Porterhouse moving dates, even if that meant a potential event failure for Porterhouse, and even when there were perfectly viable options on the table for both events to succeed on the same weekend. The stubbornness reached such an inexplicable point that Comedy Fest organizers refused to allow Porterhouse to donate Microbrew Fest tickets for the comedians’ gift baskets…a decision they reluctantly reversed when comedians heard about the Microbrew Fest and asked if they could attend.
The same cycle of stubbornness occurred again this year. Financially and logistically speaking, Porterhouse could not move its dates without risking the failure of the festival. Comedy Fest was also not interested in moving, so Porterhouse offered once again to collaborate. Once again, their overtures were refused. Instead, a threat was issued: Move the dates, or Comedy Fest will cancel. (With the more subtle implied threat being, ‘and it will look like your fault to the community’). Faced with moving dates to a weekend that would be economically unsustainable, Porterhouse apologetically held firm, offering even in its final emails to collaborate and do whatever was possible to avoid the cancellation of Comedy Festival, a move that seemed wholly and bafflingly unnecessary. In the end, Comedy Fest made good on its threat: It canceled, and Porterhouse was blamed as the cause of the cancellation.
So now here we are: Two of the city’s biggest event organizers are locked in an apparent vicious PR battle, the public is disappointed and disgusted with one or the other or both organizations, accusations are flying, and livelihoods are on the line. And all because of…what? There’s not enough room in the Traverse City sandbox for everyone to play? No. There’s more than enough room for everyone to play. What’s missing in this situation is the simple acknowledgment by all parties involved that everyone has the right to play. Everyone has the right to make a living in this town. Everyone has the right to protect their business, and to make decisions that ensure their livelihood is sustainable (as well as those of their employees, partners, vendors and performers). Comedy Fest has that right, and so does Porterhouse.
In writing this, I’ve attempted to leave my personal feelings out of it and just report the facts to the best of my ability. However, I will say this much: I care deeply about both of these organizations. I couldn’t imagine the community without them. I’m saddened and sickened by the way this process has gone down, which could result in the cancellation of not one but two of the community’s biggest winter festivals. And while I hope both organizations will succeed, and that both events will eventually go on to enjoy bright futures, I don’t doubt my intimate familiarity with the way this situation was so gravely mismanaged will permanently affect my views in some way on both organizations involved. In some cases it will be for the better, in others for the worse. But with the reputations for both organizations on the line, the public needs to know the whole story, and to make up their own minds on what to believe. And the conclusions drawn could be as simple as this: Everyone has the right to play in Traverse City, and everyone also - at one time or another - is in danger of letting ego override that fact, and making mistakes accordingly. In the end, this situation could be nothing more than the perfect storm that arises when both of those narratives collide head on.