Data drove decision in painful process of canceling Movement 2020, organizer says

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Call it the Summer With Not Much to Do. 

Everyone's been hit, of course, but one of season's chief glories has really taken it in the chin — the huge outdoor events and festivals that draw thousands in great communal gatherings, from fireworks to music festivals fans anticipate all year long. This year, of course, pretty much anything that draws a crowd has been deep-sixed.

One of the latest to throw in the towel is Movement 2020, which will skip this summer — the first cancellation in its 20-year history — with hopes of returning in a COVID-free 2021. By contrast, Arts Beats & Eats is taking a wait-and-see approach -- for the moment, at least.

"Canceling was the hardest decision we’ve ever had to make," said Movement producer Jason Huvaere. "The data drove the decision, but the process was really painful. The whole experience was painful."

It's been painful on fans, too. For some, like Detroiter Lauren Turner, Movement's the highlight of her year.

A large crowd of techno music fans dance to the beats of DJ Heidi as she performs on the main stage at Movement 2019 on Memorial Day.

"It’s tough, because it’s such a big part of my life," she said, noting that she starts having dreams about it in the weeks leading up to the mid-September event. "It's like a family reunion every year, and hard when that’s suddenly not there. But at same time," Turner added, "it’s the right thing to do and responsible."

Jessi Marcovitz ranks her Movement enthusiasm as "A ten, for sure," on a 10-point scale. She's attended every one of the techno-music festivals — Movement draws about 25,000 fans a day — since 2003. She's crestfallen, but not surprised at the turn of events.

"I mean, honestly, I knew this just wasn’t going to be the right thing to do this year," said Marcovitz, "given the circumstances. And I know they did everything they could to try to put it on."

Huvaere's production company, Paxahau, also produces Labor Day weekend's Jazz Fest, which is canceled as well. In an ordinary year they'd also stage about 50 dance parties at clubs around town, as well as Detroit Restaurant Week - all up in the air at this point.

This crisis is hitting an industry that often runs on razor-thin margins.

"Our annual budget hovers around $4 million," Huvaere said, "though that can waver 200-300 grand, depending on the weather." Under the best of circumstances, he said, it’s a very high-risk business.

"In a good year, we're able to pay all our bills and secure our deposits for following year," Huvaere added. "In a hard year, we have to ask for terms."

And so far, 2020 is shaping up as the mother of all hard years. Pollstar, a trade publication for the concert industry, estimates live events nationwide this year could lose up to $9 billion in revenue "if the rest of 2020 were to remain dark," which it's giving every indication of doing.

Dark as well in this area are the Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre at Freedom Hill, Meadow Brook Amphitheatre in Rochester Hills, and The Aretha in Detroit, all of which have scrapped their summer schedules.

The Aretha, however, is launching a socially distanced pop-up venue they're calling the Lake Lounge Bar & Grill Fridays and Saturdays next to the amphitheater. There's a happy hour 5 p.m.-7 p.m., and music with a cover charge from 9 p.m.-11 p.m.

It's not just the live-music sector, of course. Canceled as well are most art fairs, including the Ann Arbor Art Fair. (The July 25-26 Orchard Lake Fine Art Show is an exception, however. ) Live theater's mostly a bust. Even the Thunder Over Michigan Air Show at Willow Run has been dropped this year.

For its part, a decision on Arts Beats & Eats will be made sometime in the next couple weeks, said producer Jonathan Witz.

"We've got two options — if we can’t move forward on Labor Day weekend as planned," he said, "an alternative would be to postpone to Sept. 25-26. The other option would be to cancel."

Witz's production company does more than just Arts Beats & Eats. It also produces River Days, canceled as well, and events at Soaring Eagle Casino in Mt. Pleasant. With no money coming in, the question arises — can he survive?

"Yes, we can survive — one year," Witz said with a laugh. "But survival is going to mean  everybody sacrificing. In our case, we're probably looking at a $250,000 loss for the year."

Smaller outfits, he says, may well be driven out of business by the health crisis. Still, he says his fellow producers are trying to stay positive.

"The sense I get is that everybody is doing what they have to do," Witz said. "I’m hearing positive, responsible messages: It’s out of our control. We’re rolling up our sleeves for next year."

He sees something of a silver lining for 2021. "If any of us can get through this year and things change," Witz said, "there’s definitely going to be an appetite for events. People are starved for it."

For her part, with big summer events off the table, Detroiter Marcovitz has been spending time with friends at home, and getting outside more.

"I think this whole thing has made us scale back and simplify our lives," she said, "and be grateful for what we have."

Turner's also doing what she has to do in the absence of Movement.

"A lot of the venues I’d go to, the TV Lounge or the Marble Bar, aren't doing any kind of parties," she said. "I haven't gone dancing since February."

She has, however, attended two "slow jams" at Detroit's Woodbridge Pub, held in a lot across the street from the bar. 

"We brought some camping chairs and were socially distanced," Turner said. "So that way at least I get to see a couple people I know and listen to music on actual speakers."

As for dancing, "I'm mostly doing that in my bedroom," she said.

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy