TIFF is all about celebrating new films, but this year the festival looks back a quarter of a century at a film that came to the festival like a lamb, but left as a lion.
“I feel like I got very lucky here,” says Michael Moore on the 25th anniversary of his documentary Roger & Me, which became a sensation at TIFF. He credits the festival with the launch. “Actually, launch is too soft of a word,” he says of its “rocket propulsion.”
The documentary is a personal look at the economic blow-back of General Motors CEO Roger Smith’s decision to close several auto plants in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Mich. The closures cost 30,000 people their jobs and set the city on a downward spiral.
“When we were making it, our plan was to buy an old Ford-Econoline van and, like hippies, travel around the state of Michigan showing the film in union halls, churches and schools,” he says. “But when it was finished, I could tell people were going to love this. It was going to drive people crazy.”
Instead of a church basement in Michigan, the movie found an enthusiastic audience at TIFF. “The egalitarian thing about this festival is that if you’ve made a really good movie,” he says, “the cream will rise to the top. It will be seen. Studios will know about it.”
By the doc’s third screening at the Royal Ontario Museum, “the cops and the fire marshall had to be called in because there were too many people. Everyone was lined in the aisles, nobody would get up, and the fire marshall said, ‘We’re not starting this film until 100 of you leave.’ The next day in the newspaper there was a picture of the melee and a big headline that said ‘Riot at the ROM.’ My friends said, ‘Riot? That wasn’t a riot.’ I said, ‘For Canada, that was a riot.’”
Offers from studios began to pour in. “I was so petrified by the whole thing but I also was enjoying it. … I didn’t have an agent, didn’t have a lawyer. It was just me and I just started messing with them. They would say, ‘Here’s $100,000. Here’s $200,000, $300,000. I’m on unemployment at the time making $98 a week so once the offers passed $100,000 I thought I’d hit the jackpot, so I was just going to mess with them.”
Asked what was going through his head while all this was swirling around him, Moore says: “Why didn’t I go to Jenny Craig three months ago?”
From its Toronto beginnings the film went on to become a sensation and breathe new life into the documentary as popular entertainment.
“They ended up putting it on 300 screens,” he says. “Completely unheard of. The Thin Blue Line was the year before that, and that was big for a documentary. Probably played 100 art houses and made a couple million dollars. In hindsight I see the impact it has had on the form. … I think there were nine documentaries before Roger and Me that grossed $1 million or more. Nine. Since Roger and Me: 119. You see where that line is and that I feel great about.”