In late July 2009, Screen Arts and Cultures professor Jim Burnstein was at the annual Traverse City Film Festival in northern Michigan with students from his advanced film production class. Burnstein, the coordinator of the Screenwriting Department, had convinced the festival’s founder, Oscar-winning documentarian Michael Moore, to screen the students’ films alongside the event’s normal big-name theatrical fare.
Burnstein had also taught an introductory course in screenwriting for festival patrons. His involvement, along with that of his students, was supposed to be a one-time thing. But Moore had other ideas.
“He said to me, ‘So we’ll do this every year, right?’ ” recalled Burnstein of his companion on the Michigan Film Office Advisory Council. “And I said, ‘Sure, great.’ I mean, that was our hope.”
One year later, Burnstein and his students are coming back — and then some. This year the Traverse City Film Festival, which is being held from July 27 through August 1, announced a special partnership with the University that will dramatically increase the presence of students and faculty at one of the biggest film festivals in the Midwest.
“This is one of the great universities in the world, and I think that the people there don’t want it to exist within a bubble,” Moore said in an interview with the Daily. “It needs to be part of the greater community, at the very least in the state of Michigan.”
The “Fahrenheit 9/11” director noted he was excited by the promise of the partnership.
“I think this is the beginning of a long-term relationship, and I say this as a Spartan fan,” he joked.
Two student short films from last semester’s SAC 423 (“Practicum for the Screenwriter”) will be screened at the festival: “Camp Chapel,” written by recent LSA and Ross School of Business graduate Michael Burke and directed by LSA senior Bhanu Chundu, and “Margaret and Izzey,” written by recent LSA graduate Erin Whittemore and directed by LSA senior Ben Ellmann.
In addition, Burnstein will be bringing a group of SAC faculty members to serve as judges, host panels on topics like film literacy, teach classes and moderate film screenings.
Though the student films received an auto-bid into the festival, Moore, who watches every one of the over 400 festival submissions himself, wasn’t as lenient on American independent films this year.
“Fewer ones are being made, fewer good ones are being made,” he said. “I think we need your generation to make the next great batch of movies and to take this art form into the 21st century.”
That generation, as represented by SAC 423 screenwriters Burke and Whittemore, is ready if nervous to take its hard work to Traverse City.
“We can’t have (the films) be awful and not be invited to Traverse City next year,” Burke said. Yet he and Whittemore amiably postulated what they would like to walk away from the festival with.
“Best-case scenario, I think, is we both have agents, managers and have sold our scripts for six, seven figures,” he said. “Realistically, I would love to get —”
“An e-mail,” Whittemore finished, laughing.
But no matter the outcome of the festival, for a few days this week by the shores of the Grand Traverse Bay, the University of Michigan will step into the film industry spotlight.