Last week at the Toronto International Film Festival, Michael Moore debuted his latest film, Fahrenheit 11/9. The Daily Beast described the political documentary as a fast-paced, wide-reaching project, jumping from Flint, Michigan to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (and stopping along the way to compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler). As Natalia Winkelman wrote, “Moore’s best zingers and most penetrating indictments land on the Democratic Party, whom he implicates (along with dominant liberal news media) as part of an establishment system continually churning in place to maintain the status quo and impede forward movement. He even calls out Obama on a few occasions: for letting down the people of Flint, for accepting Goldman Sachs money, for deporting immigrants, for drone strikes. But best of all, Moore acknowledges and emphasizes that he himself is not totally free from that establishment either.”
Apparently, Michael Moore is struggling to reconcile his revolutionary brand with his status as a famous, wealthy filmmaker. Simultaneously, critics of the documentarian are calling hypocrisy, insisting that Moore’s conduct is at odds with his reputation as a champion of the people.
In early June, Boston Light & Sound, Inc. filed a lawsuit against Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival. In the claim, BL&S stated that a total payment of $256,500 had been due by September 30, 2017, for their work on the 2017 film festival. “TCFF paid a $100,0000 deposit towards the Contract Amount on July 12, 2017,” legal docs claimed. “BL&S performed all of its obligations pursuant to the contract. However, since the 2017 film festival, TCFF has only paid an additional $2,000 toward the outstanding balance owed.” That brings the alleged balance down to $159,055.
Chapin Cutler, the President of Boston Light & Sound, a 13-year Film Fest collaborator, “said his 2017 contract with Film Fest, totaling $256,500, was comparable to past contracts and pricing has not changed,” the Traverse City Record-Eagle reported. In April 2018, Michael Moore revealed that the Traverse City Film Fest “ran a rare deficit last year.”
“It became apparent the festival had overextended,” Cutler alleged. “The festival’s eyes were a bit bigger than their finances could handle, and we were the people left standing, holding an invoice.”
Boston Light & Sound further alleged that, “On April 24, 2018, BL&S sent letters to TCFF requesting payment of the contract balance. However, rather than paying the contract balance, or any part thereof, in response to demand letters, TCFF attempted to avoid fulfilling its contractual obligation and the debt incurred by threatening to distribute false and defamatory stories to harm BL&S’ good name and business relationships.” The Traverse City Film Festival has denied these allegations.
In legal documents, the Traverse City Film Festival has countered, saying that the “budget” that BL&S attached to their claim is an “estimates for services, and does not constitute a ‘contract’ as alleged by BL&S… TCFF did not enter into a ‘contract’ with BL&S as alleged, and therefore has not refused to pay an outstanding contract balance.”
In their counterclaim, TCFF further alleged that “BL&S has received payment for equipment, services and labor that it failed to perform, at the expense of TCFF,” specifically citing Boston Light & Sound’s work on the Bijou Theater in 2013.
“TCFF has not disputed that BL&S fulfilled its obligations under the 2017 Contract, and has not disputed the balance owed nor asserted any valid defenses or counterclaims arising out of the 2017 contract. Rather, TCFF has filed frivolous defenses and counterclaims, including alleging that BL&S breached the contract for the 2013 Traverse City Film Festival and the budget proposal for improvements to the Bijou Theatre.”
Boston Light & Sound responded to the counterclaim: “The Bijou project proposal was never finalized or turned into a formal contract because of TCFF’s constant modifications due to budget constraints. TCFF has only raised these fabricated counterclaims in an attempt to delay the case, increase the costs of litigation, and avoid a legitimate obligation to its creditor.”
“TCFF’s fabricated claims exclusively arise from an alleged failure to perform according to an alleged contract.”
“All I can say is that there are no grounds, morally, ethically, business-wise, why they should not pay our bill,” Chapin Cutler told The Daily Beast. “We delivered the product, they consumed the product, there was no complaint about the product, and they had nothing bad to say about us, at all, until they filed the counterclaim in July.”
In a statement provided to The Daily Beast, a spokesman for TCFF said the organization “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.”
“Over the past decade, TCFF has paid Boston Light and Sound more than 2 million dollars including $100,000 for its services last year,” the statement continued. “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.”
Had Moore chosen not to speak out on the lawsuit at a TCFF town hall meeting in August, this case might still be local news. But his remarks caught the attention of respected film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. In a video with his daughter/colleague Jessie Maltin, the critic addressed Moore personally. “I’m extremely uncomfortable doing something like this,” Maltin wrote. “I have no desire to fight or argue with anyone—but I must stand up for my dear friends at Boston Light and Sound.”
Maltin begins by insisting that he respects and admires the filmmaker, but says that he “can’t sit by silently” as he “slanders dear friends of ours, Deborah and Chapin Cutler, and their company Boston Light & Sound.” Jessie Maltin summarized: “The quickest way for us to explain it is that they had to file a lawsuit, because the festival told them they were broke, and they owed them over $150,000.”
“And were not interested in finding a way to make a payment plan,” Leonard Maltin interjected. He went on to describe Boston Light & Sound as “miracle workers”: “Decent, hardworking people who hire other decent, hardworking people. They do this as a labor of love.”
“So when we heard that Michael Moore was talking about them,” Jessie Maltin continued, “Saying that this lawsuit was some sort of personal vendetta…”
“Yes, personal vendetta is what he said,” Leonard Maltin confirmed. “I don’t call it a personal vendetta when I get stiffed for money that I’m owed and that I’ve done the work required to do. I don’t get that, I really don’t. And Michael Moore is a man who’s always stood up for the little guy, right? And wants people to do the right thing? Well do the right thing is what I’m saying, and I hope he will hear.”
Jessie Maltin posted the video with the caption, “#MichaelMoore owes Boston Light and Sound over $150,000. They finally had to file a lawsuit. He’s now saying they were fired, their work not up to par. I expect better from a man who makes his living as the voice of the underdog. This is not acceptable.”
While Cutler said that the Maltins came up with the idea for the video independently and then asked for his permission, “It is exactly the message I would have wanted to put out, almost word for word.” He is, however, disappointed in “the name-calling that has gone on in Michael’s direction.”
“This is not about politics, this is not about name-calling, this is not about raising the middle finger. This is simply a case of a contractor who has been stiffed, and simply wants to be paid and move on with their business,” he said.
Cutler echoed the Maltins’ objections to Moore’s remarks: “There have been certain statements made which are untrue. The comment has been made that this is something personal, against Traverse City or individuals involved in the Traverse City Film Festival. This is not true. They pay their bill, we go away.” He continued, “There’s been comments about us being behind in the times. I don’t think you’ll find anybody in the industry that we’ve worked with who would agree with that statement. There have been statements that we’ve been dropped or let go by many festivals. That’s also not true.”
“Instead of them meeting their obligation in September or any time during the fall, once they decided that they didn’t need us any more, they felt they didn’t have any reason to pay us,” Cutler explained. “We were put in the position of having to sue them, because they were basically taking the position, well, they’re not going to work for us anymore, there’s no reason for us to have to pay them.” He also noted, “The people that they actually ended up using were the same people that I had been using for the past five or six years.”
“If we were so technically incompetent, I don’t understand why the festival continued to use the very same people that we had been using to make that festival successful.”
Cutler was adamant that TCFF was free to work with any vendor they chose, and that his grievances were related to money owed, not some personal vendetta. But when pressed on the “fishy” circumstances under which TCFF dropped BL&S, with the festival owing their vendor money and seemingly unwilling or unable to pay up, Cutler rejoined, “I think fishy is a very kind word.”
As for the comments Moore made at the town hall in August, Cutler believes that the filmmaker is attempting to distract from the issue at hand. “I think it’s basically he’s throwing up chaff to divert attention from the real issue, which is we went, we did a job, we did it perfectly, we left, and now they just don’t want to pay us,” he told The Daily Beast. “They’re not willing to take the assets that they have and put them to work to pay off their debts.”
“I love this festival, I always have,” Cutler concluded, having repeatedly expressed admiration for Moore’s work and his vision. “I don’t have any ill will towards anyone involved in this. All I would like is to be paid for the work that we did.” (Moore did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
Moore was also accused of lying about a former film fest employee’s termination. According to Interlochen Public Radio, at the TCFF town hall event in early August, Moore told the audience that former executive director Deb Lake was fired.
“Deb Lake left the job in December after 13 years. At the time it was reported that Lake resigned from her position,” the piece continued. Lake told Interlochen Public Radio that Moore’s statement, in which he reportedly “said the festival board terminated her, and referred to both ethical and legal obligations in making the decision,” was false. “I have yet to see any evidence that the board met or discussed my employment, and I believe that the decision was made unilaterally by Michael, as almost all decisions made by TCFF were,” Lake stated. “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.”
As someone who worked “very closely” with Lake, and described her as hardworking and singularly devoted to the festival, Cutler told The Daily Beast, “I am very disappointed in the way that she ended up leaving the festival at the end of December and the things that have been said about her since.”
“I had never heard or seen anything about unethical behavior until she was let go,” he continued. “If I was an investigative reporter, I would ask to see the minutes of that board meeting.”
A Record-Eagle article on the Boston Light & Sound case noted, “The suit comes during turnover at the top of Film Fest—Lake left the position in December 2017, and a new director, Joseph Beyer, left the festival just weeks after being appointed to the role in April.”
Additionally, Moore is currently embroiled in a parallel lawsuit courtesy of his ex, documentarian Kathleen Glynn. According to Page Six, Glynn is “hauling [Moore] to court for allegedly stiffing her on profits from their movie projects.”
“He was supposed to pay her 4 percent of total revenue from his creative works—but he gave her just $541 in 2014,” the suit says. “That means he would have pulled in just $13,525 during a seven-month period, according to court papers. And Glynn’s not buying the amount of income Moore reported to the IRS—negative $350,862 in 2014 and negative $221,025 in 2016.”
On Twitter, Jessie Maltin has been standing up to trolls and defending her and her father’s video. “If our friends told us this and Moore had never had any other issues, I’d question it. This was my final straw. I’ve seen him yell at people in person. I’ve seen the way he treats people with my own eyes. It’s upsetting,” she wrote in one thread. “People who work with Moore have shared their grievances with us many times over. He does not have a stellar reputation.”
Maltin’s video has also been amplified by people who are inclined to believe the accusations. “When you have somebody that’s as potentially incendiary and controversial as Michael, there are all kinds of things that can be said about them, right wrong or otherwise,” Chapin Cutler told The Daily Beast. “I cannot speak, based on my own knowledge, as to whether the things that are coming out are correct, other than to say that I’ve heard many of the same stories that Jessie has referred to, and that other people have referred to.”
This story has been updated with a statement from a TCFF spokesperson, and has clarified where and when Moore made the remarks that the Maltins object to in their video: at a Traverse City Film Festival town hall event, not at the Toronto Film Festival. We regret the error.