ALPENA, MICH –The Thunder Bay International Film Festival kicks off the 20th anniversary year celebrating the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s (TBNMS) federal designation. TBNMS was officially designated in 2000 as the first freshwater marine sanctuary of the 14 nationally designated underwater parks. While more than 1,000 students from communities along the sanctuary’s shoreline are getting a “Sneak Peek” of the festival this week, the festival will be open to the public January 22-26.

“Since the sanctuary’s official designation on October 7, 2000, the Thunder Bay International Film Festival has become one of our flagship annual events,” said TBNMS Superintendent Jeff Gray.

“Through the power of filmmaking, this year’s carefully curated selection of more than 50 films in five days will spark imaginations, touch hearts, awaken adventurous spirits, and most importantly, inspire wise stewardship of our Great Lakes and ocean,” added Gray.

Now in its eight year, Film Festival Coordinator Stephanie Gandulla works diligently each year to build a strong allegiance with filmmakers near and far. This year’s program clearly reflects the benefits of that effort with more filmmakers set to attend with newly released documentaries about timely Great Lakes topics. Several were filmed right here in Thunder Bay. That track record has caught the attention of the Michigan Film & Digital Media Office.

“This is the third consecutive year that the Michigan Film & Digital Media Office has sponsored the film festival, serving as our lead sponsor – “Great Lakes Executive Producer” – this year. This level of support recognizes the festival’s ability to attract a high caliber of national filmmakers and films,” noted Gandulla.

Festival films range in length from one minute to feature-length. Most of the films and events are scheduled at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in downtown Alpena, with satellite events in Rogers City and Harrisville. Film screenings are complemented by social events, educational activities, and opportunities to meet filmmakers.

A key partner that provides sanctuary access to many of the stunning, powerful ocean films is the International Ocean Film Festival. Based out of San Francisco, its films are largely unavailable to the general public.

Unique to the Thunder Bay International Film Festival is the opportunity to view a combination of recent films about both the ocean and the Great Lakes. This one-of-a-kind film festival would not be possible without generous festival sponsors. Gray and Gandulla urge festival enthusiasts to reach out to this year’s sponsors to let them know how much bringing important events like this to northeast Michigan is appreciated.

In addition to the Michigan Film & Digital Media Office, sponsors include Lake Huron Director: Alpena Agency, Inc.–Auto Owners Insurance; Thunder Bay Stars: Alpena Convention & Visitors Bureau, Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan, HPC Credit Union, mBank, and National Marine Sanctuary Foundation; and Festival Friends: Alpena Beverage, Alpena Credit Union, Bouldrey, Senchuk, Rouleau & Williams CPAs PC, Tom and Karen Brindley, DPTV–Great Lakes Now, Everett Goodrich Trucking, Inc., Lappan Agency, McDonalds–Alpena, Northland Credit Union, and Thunder Bay Eye Care.

Since 2017, Thunder Bay International Film Festival has gone on the road to other shoreline communities before hosting three days of events in Alpena at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center. On Wednesday, January 22, Presque Isle communities will have the opportunity to screen films at the historic Rogers City Theater. On January 23, the Alcona County Library in Harrisville will host a selection of films, and on Sunday, January 26, another set of outstanding films will be featured back at Rogers City Theater. Each satellite event is only $6 per person and includes a reception with opportunities to discuss the films.

“Each year we try new approaches and are always looking for ways to expand our reach. This year in addition to the “Sneak Peek” film presentations for students in Presque Isle, Alpena and Alcona Counties, we added a free “Sneak Peak” for the public at Art in the Loft in Alpena on Thursday, January 16, at 6 pm,” said Gandulla. “We are excited to partner with Art in the Loft for this really fun event featuring all the cool movie trailers, treats including popcorn, of course, and a cash bar with beer and wine.”

One of the most popular film events is the Student Short-Film Competition in partnership with the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative. Held on Saturday afternoon, this has become a standing-room only event with the top three films winning cash prizes, as well as a People’s Choice Award. The theme for 2020 is “Great Lakes are…” and offers many fresh perspectives from our youngest aspiring filmmakers. New this year, school-age youth throughout the region are invited to watch festival films for free from 10am to 3pm on Saturday and Sunday.


Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary encompasses 4,300 square miles in northwestern Lake Huron. Designated in 2000, the sanctuary exists to preserve our Great Lakes maritime heritage, including a significant collection of historic shipwrecks. Through innovative, accessible educational programs and community outreach, the sanctuary strives to protect our Great Lakes for future generations. The sanctuary’s visitor center, the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, is open year round. The center is a popular destination for residents and visitors of all ages, allowing the public to experience and appreciate the estimated 200 shipwrecks in and around Thunder Bay in an area known as “Shipwreck Alley.” Visitors can also see shipwrecks from a glass bottom boat, or paddle, snorkel, and dive the wrecks in the sanctuary.

For detailed schedule, ticket pricing, and film descriptions, visit:

VIDEO/PHOTO NOTE: High-resolution stills and movie trailers available.

Press passes available.

Visit the sanctuary at and at