Manhattan Movie Makeover

Post-9/11 lower Manhattan may end up looking more like Hollywood than Wall Street.

Though many financial firms have scattered uptown or to New Jersey in the wake of the terrorist attacks, at least three local filmmaking concerns-including Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Center-are investigating how they can make New York’s movie business synonymous with lower Manhattan. And state development czar Charles Gargano is helping two of them with some seed money.

On April 1, the Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development announced that two not-for-profit filmmakers’ organizations, the Independent Features Project and Film/Video Arts, would together receive $100,000 to begin a feasibility study for a new media-arts center below Canal Street. In a statement, the Governor’s office said that the center is meant to become the “single focal point for the Independent film community in Lower Manhattan.”

Empire State Development Corporation chairman Charles Gargano told The Transom: “We think that [the film business] is an important industry. and we want to help [the I.F.P. and F/V.A.] with this grant to do a study. The independent-film community is a unique convergence of culture and commerce, and this is an exciting opportunity to bring that energy and vitality into the redevelopment of lower Manhattan.”

But I.F.P. and F/V.A. are not alone in their quest to brand downtown as the East Coast’s filmmaking capital-and some would say they’ve got some catching up to do. In early May, Tribeca Films co-founders Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro will host the second Tribeca Film Festival, an event that began as a bit of post–Sept. 11 boosterism but, with its unexpected success, has further established the neighborhood as Hollywood East, and Tribeca Films as the gatekeeper of that turf. Sources close to the situation told The Transom that this year’s festival-which is slated to screen more than 200 films this year, compared to about 150 last year-is just a part of Mr. De Niro and Ms. Rosenthal’s plans for broader expansion into the neighborhood via their not-for-profit Tribeca Institute, which organizes the festival. Those sources also said that like the I.F.P.-F/V.A. project, Governor Pataki’s office will be involved.

Mr. Gargano said he hadn’t spoken to Ms. Rosenthal or Mr. De Niro about their game plan, but that his deputy commissioner of motion picture and television development, Pat Kaufman, had. “They made a strong commitment [through last year's festival] to helping lower Manhattan. Certainly we’re going to look at them to see if maybe we can provide support.” He added: “There are some good possibilities with them as well, and we are talking to them about cooperation.”

Ms. Kaufman would not reveal the specifics of her talks with Ms. Rosenthal, except to confirm that she had had “preliminary discussions about an increased role in lower Manhattan for the Tribeca Film Institute.”

Sources familiar with the situation said that Ms. Rosenthal and Mr. De Niro intend for their institute to someday function like Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, which backs the annual Sundance Film Festival and fosters new writers and directors with educational programming. The Tribeca Institute already sponsors one screenwriting contest with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and one film-industry source said that they’re talking about collaborating with Kevin Spacey’s Triggerstreet, which hosts online screenwriting competitions.

Sources familiar with the situation said that Ms. Rosenthal wants to work with the ESDC to create year-long programming, increase Tribeca’s “outreach and education,” expand into additional space, possibly closer to the World Trade Center site, and further brand Tribeca-the neighborhood, film company, film institute, film festival and the film center that houses Miramax-as a name whose roots are entwined with New York’s geography and film industry.

It was a sense of rootlessness that led Michelle Byrd, who has run New York’s I.F.P. for six years, to approach Ms. Kaufman about 14 months ago.

The I.F.P. has been in New York for almost 25 years. It is a not-for-profit organization that offers education and resources for independent filmmakers. The New York I.F.P. hosts the annual Gotham Awards, and screens the films that compete in its Los Angeles branch’s Independent Spirit Awards each Oscar weekend. I.F.P. also runs its own annual film market, publishes Filmmaker magazine, and has participated in both the New York and Tribeca film festivals.

“There’s no one in this city we haven’t worked with,” said Ms. Byrd. And yet she said that when she approached Ms. Kaufman about state involvement with the organization, it was because “I didn’t feel like we were grounded in the arts and cultural community in the way you expect an organization that has been around for 25 years to be grounded. We don’t have connections to our local politicians.”

Ms. Kaufman connected Ms. Byrd’s needs with those of Eileen Newman, the head of Film/Video Arts, a nonprofit training organization that claims filmmakers Michael Moore ( Bowling for Columbine ), Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon ), Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven ), Darren Aronofsky ( Requiem for a Dream ) and Kevin Smith ( Clerks) as alumni. In 2000, F/VA moved from their home on 12th and Broadway to the Wall Street area, until the World Trade Center attack forced them to move again.

The government’s economic incentives for businesses looking to relocate to lower Manhattan helped Ms. Byrd, Ms. Newman and Ms. Kaufman develop the idea for a film center.

“We want a place for everyone from the guerrilla filmmaker to the more established director,” said Ms. Byrd. “We want a space in which the public has a role. We want foot traffic; we want a social space where people can network and meet up.”

Mr. Gargano emphasized that the announcement of the grant was “a vital first step” toward a project that could well see more state funding as it develops.

Since the grant announcement, Ms. Byrd said she has received word from interested New York filmmakers and organizations, though she said she hadn’t heard from anyone at the Tribeca Institute. Ms. Byrd said that she didn’t know if Tribeca would be involved, but that she “hoped so.”

That raises the question, of course, that everyone The Transom contacted seemed reluctant to tackle: Whether the state’s funding of the I.F.P.-F/V.A. study will raise the hackles of not only Ms. Rosenthal and Mr. De Niro, but also a number of well-established film companies that have long called Tribeca home.

Through a spokesman, Ms. Rosenthal said: “We’re thrilled for them. Anytime anyone can help filmmakers make use of downtown, I’m all for it. It is exactly why I’ve been championing the cause for downtown for over 15 years. It’s a vibrant, relevant community, and one that we at Tribeca are preparing to celebrate once again this May when we host the second annual Tribeca Film Festival.”

As for whether or not downtown behemoth Miramax might get in on the film center, Ms. Byrd said, “Wow, that hadn’t even occurred to me …. I guess if they wanted to be. That’s part of what the study would explore.”

A spokesman for Miramax said, “As a company with deep roots in New York, we strongly support the Governor’s and the Mayor’s efforts to continue the revitalization of the neighborhood by supporting great film projects.”

John Penotti, co-head of GreeneStreet Films, which runs its own film center in Tribeca, said he called Ms. Byrd to congratulate her, and rejected any suggestion that he might feel competitive. “On the contrary, the more opportunity to be inclusive and multi-tentacled, the better it is for everybody.”

Richard Peña, head of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, said that he and his colleagues also welcomed the announcement.

“When there’s this new space, who knows what we can do together,” said Mr. Peña, whose organization runs year-long film series and the venerated New York Film Festival. “This was just our way of saying, ‘This is great news; count us in.'”

There’s also the question of whether the city-which is actively involved in the Tribeca Film Festival-will back Mr. Gargano and Ms. Kaufman’s plans.

Though Katherine Oliver, the newly installed head of Mayor Bloomberg’s Office for Film and Television, was aware of the grant, at press time she hadn’t returned The Transom’s call seeking comment.

Both Mr. Gargano and Ms. Kaufman stressed that though both Tribeca and the I.F.P.-F/V.A. projects both seem to be intent on becoming central to the city’s film industry, it is not a matter of competition.

“It’s just the opposite,” said Ms. Kaufman. “We want to create a more solid foundation for independent film in New York, a greater critical mass.”

Ms. Kaufman also said that though it may look as though the state government is sponsoring the creation of an unofficial Hollywood-on-the-Hudson, “that is not the goal. The goal is to create a 24-hour community in lower Manhattan where people work, live and go to enjoy themselves. To the degree to which certain industries gravitate toward that, that happens on its own. That’s not our goal.”

-Rebecca Traister

Confessions of A Dangerous Principal

Gong Show creator Chuck Barris looked like a contestant in a modified version of The Old Game as he stood in front of the auditorium at Brooklyn’s High School of the Arts in Boerum Hill on April 3. For those who didn’t see the film version of Mr. Barris’ trippy “memoir,” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind , The Old Game -as described in the movie’s final scene-consists of “three old guys with loaded guns” who stand on a stage and “look back at their lives, see who they were, what they accomplished” and “how close they came to realizing their dreams.”

The winner, as Mr. Barris’ cinematic doppelgänger explains, “is the one who doesn’t blow his brains out. He gets a refrigerator.”

In this PG-13 version, there were no firearms or additional contestants-just Mr. Barris standing white-haired and alone in a corduroy sport jacket, low-slung Emporio Armani jeans and Asics running shoes, before rows and rows full of rambunctious teenagers who weren’t even born when he was shredding the pristine surface of network television with The Dating Game , The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show .

The Transom asked a group of girls sitting near the front if they knew who Mr. Barris was. “Someone,” replied 15-year-old Ashley Gonzalez with an assassin’s smile, making her friends around her giggle. “He’s an old man!” yelled a senior boy behind her.

Mr. Barris, 73, stood with his hands jammed in his pockets, looking cowed as the school’s pony-tailed principal, Robert Finley, told the class that he was participating in this year’s Principal for a Day, an event organized by Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning (PENCIL), which pairs public schools with private-sector partners.

Then Mr. Barris toddled forward and stared at the crowd of black and brown faces. “Um, I love this whole idea because I can identify so much,” he said, before lowering his head and futzing with his hair. He said he had grown up poor “in Philadelphia” and that “I figured out that I would try to go into television because it was brand-new.”

Mr. Barris’ voice grew more confident. He could win this game. “The only reason I mention that to you is for the simple reason that I think it’s important that you can get anything you really want-as weird as this sounds-if you really try hard and don’t give up.”

This didn’t sound like the Chuck Barris who wrote that he got the idea for The Gong Show after selling ABC on a pilot for a legitimate talent show, then realized that “what were roaming the streets were tons of exceptionally untalented people: kooks, loons, horrible singers singing dreadful versions of ‘Feelings.'”

But Mr. Barris was one of those kooks, too-a kook who’d made it big. He walked the kids through his rise: how he borrowed $7,500 to produce the pilot for The Dating Game through The Gong Show . But he really got their attention by detailing his fall.

“At that time in my life, all the critics yelled at me,” he said. “They called me the ‘Ayatollah of Schlock-ola,'” he remembered with a wince. “And all my shows went off the air. I made a movie; it went off the air. And I was back to where I started. But I wrote a book. And the book came and went.”

The refrigerator was almost his. “And then, one year after the book came out, George Clooney found it. And he read it, and he decided to make a movie. And he got Julia Roberts and he got Drew Barrymore, and he made a movie from this book I wrote,” Mr. Barris said. “And all of a sudden, the movie is in all of the theaters all over the world.” And the book “became a big seller all over the world. And things happened again.”

He was moving toward the crescendo now, the Big Lesson. “And I sit back and say to myself, ‘Why? What did I learn? What can I tell somebody that I learned from all of this?'”

The class of ’03 were silent now, waiting for the Big Answer.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Barris said, peering sheepishly through his wire rims.

A big guffaw rose up from the crowd. The Old Guy didn’t know!

“The only thing I can think of is: ‘Hang in there. And be hopeful for what you want,'” he said. “You need luck. You need to be prepared. You need timing, and all those things you need-if you’re missing one, you’re out.” Then he told the students: “That’s all I have to say.”

After sampling an onion ring from the cafeteria, Mr. Barris told The Transom that he’s almost finished writing the sequel to Confessions , tentatively titled Bad Grass Never Dies . Then he would lecture. Of one thing, he seemed certain: He wouldn’t return to television. “I have a good idea now and then, but … I don’t think it ever could be as good as it was for me. They were really great days, and I find that would be very hard to duplicate.”

Given that Mr. Clooney had turned the story of his life-C.I.A. claims and all-into a movie that Mr. Barris liked “very much … mainly because I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed of what they did,” had Mr. Barris at least learned to accept that he had altered the face of American culture? “I can never accept that,” he said. “I don’t know why. It may be because I’ve just gone through life and living things, and I’ve had successes and failures, and I don’t have any reasons for what happened other than really trying hard and working hard and getting ahead. All the other stuff, it seems to me, I never understood it.”

As he headed into the hallway, a young woman bounded up to him.

Could he please make tomorrow a “jeans day?” the girl asked.

Mr. Barris beamed. “Of course,” he said.

“You will be immortalized,” said Principal Finley.

-Frank DiGiacomo

Art in the Time of SARS

On Monday April 7, shortly before news broke that four bombs had been dropped on the bunker where Saddam Hussein and his two sons were believed to be hiding, an elite crowd turned out to support another kind of Bomb-the arts magazine-at its annual Artists’ Choice Benefit at Eyebeam Atelier on West 21st Street.

Up for silent auction were works by a number of established artists-including the evening’s honoree, Eric Fischl-as well as items from emerging artists-such as Virva Hinnemo and Lucy Winton-that had been chosen by the former group. Bidding on the work was producer Doug Cramer and former AOL chairman Bob Pittman, and judging from the bid sheets that The Transom witnessed, the upstarts were making the most money. Sol LeWitt’s Tangled Bands was especially popular, with art dealer Paul Olsen, Mr. Cramer and committee member Elizabeth Dee among others losing out to art collectors to Susan and Bob Cochran. James Rosenquist bought Kathleen McShane’s Swollen Grid , and Bob Pittman took home Steve DiBenedetto’ s Convergence . The auction ultimately raised more than $100,000.

Salman Rushdie was also among those looking to buy, but he left empty-handed. Mr. Rushdie said he was at work on a new novel, but “didn’t like to talk about works in progress. Right now I just want the war to be over as soon as possible and for people to stop dying,” he said. Meanwhile, Mr. Cramer’s date, artist Anh Duong, had another international crisis on her mind. “I just came back from a charity event in China, but had to come back because of SARS,” she told The Transom. “I was very comfortable at first because I was going to Beijing and I thought everything was in the south, but once I landed there I started to get paranoid, and it was crazy. I stayed in the hotel for two days hiding and I was afraid to touch anybody, to talk to anybody so I just came back.” To The Transom’s relief, Ms. Duong said she’d been back from China for nine days now and was feeling fine. “China is a huge country so you have to be really unlucky to get it,” she said.

-Alexandra Wolfe

The Transom Also Hears ….

Paul Theroux learned quite a bit researching his new book, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to CapeTown . At an April 8 lunch at the Explorer’s Club celebrating the book’s publication, Mr. Theroux entertained the crowd-which included his wife Sheila Donnelly, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, Town & Country editrix Pamela Fiori and Betsy Cronkite-with a number of adages he had picked up during his travels. Among them: “Two buttocks rubbed together causes friction” and “If your face is ugly, learn to sing.”

-A.W.