There will be 120 feature films screening at the Tribeca Film Festival between April 23 and May 4, among them the documentary Run for Your Life, about the origins of the New York City Marathon and its founder, Fred Lebow. “[The marathon] was about trying to bring everybody, all five boroughs, together,” said Jane Rosenthal, co-founder of the film festival. “I found—as someone who’s put on this event—watching someone else create this major cultural event … fascinating.” Ms. Rosenthal spoke of Lebow’s challenges—1970s New York was in an economic slump, Gerald Ford had recently told it to “drop dead”—and while the marathon organizers were interested in the pure sportsmanship of running, “it was also very much, ‘We’re going to put on a show,’” she said, smiling. “Which is kind of how we approached our first festival.”
It’s an apt analogy, though the marathon took just one day of the city’s attention, not 12, and even as it toured the city’s five boroughs it was less sprawling than Ms. Rosenthal’s Tribeca has been in the past. Started in the spring of 2002 by Ms. Rosenthal and business partners Craig Hatkoff and Robert De Niro, Tribeca aimed to bring life and commerce to a devastated, post-9/11 downtown—like the marathon, it was a feel-good event as much as anything. But over the last half-dozen years, as Tribeca grew into a glitzy stopover on the film festival circuit that includes Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Toronto and it’s uptown neighbor, the New York Film Festival, the event has come to seem too small and too big at once, a perpetual kid.
Tribeca has always suffered comparisons to it’s older, more important siblings. It doesn’t have the old-world glamour of the red carpets of Cannes, the international marketplace hagglings at Toronto or Berlin, the late-night frenzied dealings and celebrity swagfest of Sundance or the elegant prestige found at Lincoln Center. It hasn’t even had a central location, what with theaters all over the city hosting screenings, and downtown itself a strange labyrinth of high-end restaurants and hotels. What Tribeca has had is a lot: hundreds of films; paparazzi-lined Hollywood-style premieres; family film and ESPN sports-themed programming; artist round-table discussions; outdoor “drive-in” screenings; concerts; and audience-participatory events. (This year, director John Landis will host a 25th-anniversary screening of the epic video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” where audiences are invited to “learn the Thriller dance,” get zombie-fied at a Thriller face-painting station, compete in a Michael Jackson look-alike contest or boogie at the Solid Gold Dance party.)
Given the overwhelming confusion of choices (for the “Thriller” video alone, four separate activities?), Tribeca has consistently faced cries of complaint: It’s unmanageable, the venues are all over the place, ticket prices are too high, it doesn’t generate the kind of sales that make Variety headlines, it’s just too much. At seven years old, it’s time to ask: Can Tribeca grow up?
“I read somewhere that in New York the default mode is complaint,” said Tribeca Film Festival artistic director Peter Scarlet. When the New York Film Festival started in 1963, he pointed out, the New York press responded with a “reaction of distaste mixed with horror, not unlike that you saw with ’50s sci-fi movies when something landed from another galaxy. But gradually, humans being what they are, and the New York Film Festival being what it is—a pretty terrific film festival—New Yorkers actually relaxed their sphincters and got used to it. Now it’s an accepted part of the cultural fabric of New York. And then this other monster called Tribeca came along seven years ago and it was like, ‘Oh my God it’s so big!’ Which seems kind of ridiculous because New York is the town of everything bigger than everything else. I mean, nobody complained that the Empire State Building is too tall.”
That’s true, because the Empire State Building’s height is what allows us all to appreciate it. Tribeca has faced the opposite problem, being so big as to be impossible to appreciate.
“Everyone has their opinion,” said Tribeca’s director of programming, David Kwok. “I think when you come so strongly out of the gate, people want to criticize or have their own perspective of how it should be. Especially when it’s new. It’s almost natural instinct for some people—it’s easier to take a jab than to look at the positives. Whether it’s fair or not is not for me to say.”
As one industry insider put it, “They’re a film festival on the defensive.”
HAVE THE CRITICS been too harsh? “I keep quoting Keith Richards, because I cannot analyze it anymore. It just is what it is,” said Ms. Rosenthal, days from Tribeca’s opening night kickoff on April 23, a celebrity-packed premiere of Baby Mama at the Ziegfeld Theater. Ms. Rosenthal gave a pointedly silent shrug. “It’s just a film festival; it’s not like analyzing a heart procedure.” Ms. Rosenthal was sitting in a sunny office at Tribeca Film Festival headquarters, a rosy-bricked building on Greenwich street, walls adorned with classic movie posters and black-and-white portraits of past festival participants. Seven floors below, the first truly warm day of the season had office workers leaning against buildings, turning their winter-pallored faces skyward; the sidewalks were bustling, and construction of new buildings rumbled in the distance—all a far cry from seven years ago. “The neighborhood has rebounded more than anyone could have imagined,” she said. “It’s the human spirit—it’s so New York.”
There’s no question that 2008 shows a Tribeca Film Festival trying to respond to its critics: the number of films has been scaled down by 25 percent. Venues—the biggest challenge for organizers in a city of this size—are mostly below 23rd Street and within easy subway distance. Ticket prices have been lowered, distributors have been carefully courted. More than one acquisitions executive commended the Tribeca team (particularly co-executive directors Nancy Schafer and Paola Freccero) for their friendly buyer outreach program.
“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.”