Tribeca’s 7-Year Itch

“People talk, you listen to your audience,” said Ms. Rosenthal. “It’s the sign of a good producer—to listen to your audience. If a joke doesn’t work, you take it out. In any business you have to listen to your customer to make a better product—whether that product is a film festival or the film itself, the best cup of coffee, or whatever.”

“We’re not the George W. Bushes or Donald Rumsfelds of this operation,” Mr. Scarlet said. “We’re not saying, ‘No, this is right, we’re going to keep on doing it.’ When people who are thoughtful and paid attention to this thing say, ‘Wouldn’t this be better this way?’ More often than not we’ve gone, ‘That may be so.’”

Of course, some of Tribeca’s issues—like the fact that it comes just before Cannes, perhaps the biggest international film marketplace of the pack—are unavoidable, b
ut festival organizers are making efforts to work around them as well. “It’s a really tricky time of year,” said Ben Stambler, VP of acquisitions at ThinkFilm (which picked up the Academy Award-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival). “The closer it gets to Cannes, the crazier things get. They [Tribeca organizers] have made it a lot easier. As a buyer, it’s the least amount of days it’s ever been—that first Thursday through Monday. Basically, if you’re doing your job right, you’ll have seen all the movies you’ll need to by the end of the weekend. Buyers are kind of like babies. … I think Tribeca has learned that they can make the buyers happy and save themselves a lot of grief.”

Sales have become a closely examined part of the film festival process. Last year, 43 movies were acquired at Tribeca, almost double from 2006. “As far as potential acquisitions, we never get into specific titles we are considering, but will say the festival has a history of debuting some great films,” wrote Harvey Weinstein, of the Weinstein Company, in an e-mail. Mr. Weinstein will premiere Boy A, Elite Squad, Lou Reed’s Berlin, and Meerkat Manor at the festival, and hopefully pick up a title or two as well. “We found Transamerica there three years ago, so as always, will be very competitive when we find a project that we are passionate about,” he wrote.

Other buyers agree Tribeca has become a place to do actual business. Many who The Observer spoke with each had their own tier system, with 10 to 15 titles to look at closely. All seemed in agreement that a Little Miss Sunshine-like bidding frenzy isn’t what Tribeca needs to get on an even field with Sundance or Toronto (though all allowed it wouldn’t hurt, either). Mr. Stambler of ThinkFilm said that those famed late-into-the-night Entourage-like bidding wars are not the norm. “Toronto and Sundance are the only places it happens to occur, and they’ve been running forever and it’s really hard to come in there and take that element away from them,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that the festivals that don’t do it are failures. That’s only the sexiest, most romantic way films get sold.”

Robert Kessel, EVP of productions and acquisitions at Overture Films (who snatched up audience favorite Sunshine Cleaning at this year’s Sundance) agreed. “I think because there’s so much travel involved with those other festivals—it’s like you go all that way, you damn better well buy a movie,” he laughed. “It’s not just the altitude, there’s something about putting a whole bunch of buyers within a couple of square miles of each other in varying tents for 10 days, sort of a hermetically sealed environment, and having to go ahead and create competition on selling these movies.”

“It’s not easy to become a major player,” said Peter Goldwyn, VP of acquisitions for Samuel Goldwyn Films. “I wish things were more spread out. I don’t think it’s healthy to buy everything in January and go from there. I wish I could go to every festival and buy one movie.” He mentioned the difficulty for filmmakers having to decide which festival to try to get their film into. A little movie, he pointed out, could get into Sundance and get blown out of the water by a Little Miss Sunshine. At Tribeca, however, the same film could be the big fish in a small pond. “But I also feel like they’re [Tribeca] not just making it about the industry and sales. I feel like they’re programming it for the city of New York. You got Sundance and Berlin coming before Tribeca, and you’ve got Cannes right afterwards. There is definitely a limited amount of product you can really pick from. To criticize the festival itself is not the right answer. The reality is that they’re only as good as the films themselves. And the films are only as good as the films being made.”

 

FOR A MOVIE-LOVING town such as ours, New York seems like a natural locale for a major film festival. You don’t need a passport; there’s no wacky altitude or snow—and hey, just think of all the restaurants! But, in fact, a lot of that Manhattan distraction can get in the way. There’s no prime location, no we’re-all-in-this-together feeling one finds in the lobby of the Four Seasons in Toronto, or slipping and sliding up Main Street in Park City, Utah. For many of the New York media and film industry, it’s hard to hit back-to-back screenings when the comforts of home are just a subway ride away.

“We don’t have a Lincoln Center, we don’t have that centralized hub,” said Mr. Kwok. “I go to other film festivals and I’m jealous because it’s so easy—all their venues are in one place.” Mr. Scarlet, speaking of the Berlin Film Festival, where everything is basically located within two giant multiplexes, said, “When I compare what we’re doing to that, it’s almost as though we have pup tents down by the river.”

“At Sundance or Toronto, we’re away from our normal lives. It’s a different experience in New York. You don’t know whether you should go into the office, or maybe go the gym, and then go see five movies,” said Ryan Werner, VP of marketing at IFC Entertainment, which has four movies playing in this year’s festival: Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg; Savage Grace, starring Julianne Moore; the latest from Harmony Korine, Mister Lonely; and a French film, The Secret of the Grain.

Overture’s Mr. Kessel added: “There’s probably something to be said about people being able to go home at night as opposed to being out and about at parties that obviously impacts a film festival’s ability to be a market in the same way.”

And about those movies. Among the buzzier picks is Trucker, staring Michelle Monaghan as a bad-ass big-rig driver with a (maybe) heart of gold; Bitter & Twisted, from first-time Australian director Christopher Weekes; and From Within—a potentially buyer-friendly horror movie starring Adam Goldberg and Rumer Willis, from Phedon Papamichael, making his directorial debut after a long career as a cinematographer. In addition, the documentary section is particularly strong (Julian Schnabel manages to show up in two of them—Hotel Gramercy Park and Guest of Cindy Sherman, in addition to contributing his own, Lou Reed’s Berlin).

 

MS. ROSENTHAL, SUMMING up this year’s evolution said, “You know, we’re seven. … You’re no longer an infant. You’re beginning to have your sense of balance. I feel like we have our balance.”

Said Mr. Scarlet, “I’m interested in good film. Part of it is that we want to get as many films as possible into the mainstream because we’d like people to see them. It’s important to me to keep people’s eyes open to what’s happening in the world. I sound like a cornball but the really potent thing about the movies is that you can make contact with people through them, maybe more powerfully than any other art form. We’re trying to prepare an encounter between you and everyone else who comes to see the movie. That’s what the whole point of the festival is.”