Michael Moore’s documentaries have targeted the wealthy and powerful — General Motors, the health care industry, and President Trump.
But in August at the Traverse City Film Festival in northern Michigan, the famed filmmaker had tough words for an adversary of much smaller stature: a Brighton multimedia company with 20 full-time employees.
In June, Boston Light & Sound sued the nonprofit film festival led by Moore in state court in Michigan over allegations that it owes the company about $160,000 for services and equipment it used during the 2017 event.
Not only is Moore denying the claim, he took the stage at the film festival and aired his own grievances with the company.
“Trust me, we’re into it,” Moore said of Boston Light & Sound, according to a video of his Aug. 2 remarks on YouTube. “It’ll be resolved and those responsible on their end will regret that they did this.”
The Traverse City Film Festival runs the annual festival and operates two theaters year-round in Traverse City, a community of about 14,600 people.
The fight over the unpaid bill seemed destined to be resolved without much notice until Sept. 9, when prominent film critic Leonard Maltin came to the company’s defense while Moore was premiering his new documentary, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” at the Toronto International Film Festival. The documentary opens Friday.
In a video published on Twitter that has been viewed about 415,000 times, Maltin called on Moore to stop discussing the legal dispute in public. He said Chapin Cutler, the president of Boston Light & Sound, is a longtime friend who does excellent work, and negative publicity from Moore threatens his business.
“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,” said Maltin, who was filmed as his daughter, Jessie, asked him questions. “Don’t smear Boston Light & Sound.”
Maltin said in the video that he took action after hearing, perhaps erroneously, that Moore addressed the dispute publicly at the Toronto festival, which ended Sunday.
But in a telephone interview on Wednesday, Maltin said he isn’t certain that is true, and the Globe could not independently verify it.
Representatives for Moore, who established the Traverse City Film Festival in 2005, didn’t respond to questions Wednesday.
Moore is the president of the festival’s board of directors, which issued a statement Wednesday saying the lawsuit was filed after Boston Light & Sound learned it wasn’t being hired for the group’s 2018 event. The board disputes the bill and has paid the company more than $2.25 million “over the years,” the statement said.
“They didn’t sue until after we dropped them. They were upset,” Moore told the Traverse City festival audience in August.
Maltin told the Globe that speaking out on behalf of Boston Light & Sound was the right thing to do.
“They’re a small company and they can’t afford to take a loss of that magnitude,” he said. “No one else was picking up on the story and I felt I had to speak up.”
Cutler, 74, who began his career as a projectionist while studying at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said his company worked at the Traverse City Film Festival from its inception in 2005 until last year, providing audio and visual equipment and staff to operate it.
Boston Light & Sound’s lawsuit said the company was contracted to provide $256,500 in goods and services for the 2017 event, but has been paid only $102,000 so far.
“I have no hostile feelings toward Michael or anyone else,” said Cutler. “It’s simply we did the work. They consumed the product. We want to get paid. That’s it. Everything else is just hogwash.”
Before the lawsuit was filed, Cutler said, a festival official told him the organization was struggling financially. He said he offered to negotiate a payment plan, but was rebuffed.
Moore is not named as a defendant in the suit, but both the festival and Boston Light & Sound have listed him as a potential trial witness.
The festival acknowledged in court papers that it paid Boston Light & Sound $102,000 in 2017, but alleges it never signed a contract with the company for the 2017 event. A countersuit filed by the festival accuses Boston Light & Sound of shoddy work during its 2013 event, including allegations that the company failed to provide some equipment and complete work it was paid to do.
In Moore’s remarks to the Traverse City Film Festival on Aug. 2, he said, “We’ve learned that perhaps we should be suing them.”
“We may not owe them anything,” Moore said. “They owe us.”
Boston Light & Sound said in court papers that the festival’s counterclaims are fabrications. The festival scaled back its requests for equipment and services in 2013 because of budget constraints, but is now claiming that Boston Light & Sound didn’t follow through on work it was paid to provide, lawyers for Boston Light & Sound wrote in a legal filing.
Also in 2013, Cutler said, he loaned the festival about $100,000 worth of equipment for three months after the digital cinema projector it was using at the State Theatre failed. The theater is one of two the festival operates year-round.
“If I were going to screw them in this manner, why would I have kept them in business for three months?” Cutler asked.
IRS documents show the festival took in about $2.7 million, but spent $3.1 million in 2016, the most recent financial data publicly available. Still, the festival ended 2016 with more than $2.7 million on hand, the documents show.
A mediation session was held, but didn’t resolve the case, Cutler said. A trial is scheduled for February.
Cutler said his company has weathered the financial dispute thanks to major jobs it has done in recent years, such as equipping theaters to screen the World War II movie “Dunkirk” and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” both shot on 70mm movie film popular in the 1950s.
Boston Light & Sound was tapped to prepare the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles with Dolby Cinema to screen “A Star is Born” with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper at a red carpet premiere on Monday.
“I love Traverse City. My wife and I have actually talked about retiring up there,” Cutler said. “I am exceedingly sad about what has transpired, but it was not of my doing.”