Cineaste City

I’m a nervous wreck,” said Kevin Connolly, a mere four days before Gardener of Eden, his directorial debut, was to premiere at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. The 33-year-old Entourage actor—he plays Eric, Vince’s good-boy manager—was chatting via cell phone from Los Angeles while driving back from church (truly). A comedic and moody genre-bending romp, Gardener of Eden stars Mr. Connolly’s longtime friend, Lukas Haas (Entourage’s Jerry Ferrera, a.k.a. Turtle, also shows up in a supporting role), and is produced by another old buddy, Leonardo DiCaprio. Gardener of Eden is competing in the World Narrative Feature category; it’s also one of the many of films seeking distribution at this year’s festival. Mr. Connolly will have to make a speech before the 900-person audience at the screening (“A disaster for me,” he said. “I’m terrible at those things”) before settling into his new role as auteur. “I’ve been acting for 27 years, and for me it really feels special to come to Tribeca,” he said. “I’m from New York, so it feels like I’m coming home. It’s New York, you know? I mean, what do I know, but my prediction is that in the next few years, Tribeca is going to grow into something huge.”

Indeed. The Tribeca Film Festival, which was started in the spring of 2002 by Robert De Niro and his business partners Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff as an attempt to heal the spirits and finances of devastated, post-9/11 downtown, is growing up fast. In its sixth go-round, it received 4,550 submissions; over the next 11 days, the festival will offer 75 world premieres and films from 41 countries. This in addition to the glitzy circus atmosphere that will take over the triangle below Canal (and blow wafts of sparkly fairy dust throughout Manhattan). Al Gore, beefy and aglow from his star turn as the green movement’s grand pooh-bah, is on board opening night to launch the SOS Short Films program. There will be free outdoor screenings at the World Financial Center Plaza “Drive-In” (including a 20th-anniversary Dirty Dancing screening with audience-participation karaoke), celeb-studded panels, red-carpet parties and sponsors advertising by the truckload (if you don’t sign up for American Express by the end of this thing, your willpower is formidable).

Smack in the middle of it all will be the April 30 premiere of summer blockbuster Spider-Man 3, just one of the events celebrating “Spider-Man Week NYC.”

Despite the big studio glitz, Tribeca’s founders still see the festival as a humble undertaking. “Our mission hasn’t changed,” said Jane Rosenthal. “The festival was always about trying to assist filmmakers in reaching the broadest possible audience and enabling the general community and general public to experience new films they wouldn’t see at the cineplex.”

“I think it’s growing in leaps and bounds in prominence,” said Andrew Herwitz, president of the Film Sales Company and formerly co-head of acquisitions at Miramax. Mr. Herwitz will be at the festival seeking buyers for five films: The Blue State, a romantic comedy starring Anna Paquin and Breckin Meyer; Taking 5, about high-school girls who, spurned by the boy band of their dreams, turn to revenge; The Slim Peace, a documentary about Jewish and Palestinian women who join a Weight Watchers program (“A very different take on the Middle Eastern conflict,” said Mr. Herwitz); The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a serial-killer horror flick; and Beyond Belief, a documentary about two soccer moms from the suburbs of Boston, widowed after 9/11, who dedicate themselves to empowering their Afghan counterparts.

“I think the festival would have quickly disappeared if [healing after 9/11] was the focus,” said Allen Bain, whose production company, The 7th Floor, produced Gardener of Eden and The Cake Eaters, a family drama playing in the Encounters category directed by another actor-turned-director, Mary Stuart Masterson. “It would have become the September 11th festival, and I don’t think anyone in New York would want that.”

As the festival finds its roots outside of the tragedy’s shadow, it appears poised to become a place of legitimate business. In its first year, Tribeca bumped right up against the mammoth Cannes Film Festival; organizers have since moved it up to allow buyers and filmmakers room to breathe between events. Producers and buyers also point to Tribeca’s programmers having become more selective (last year’s stinkeroo Poseidon notwithstanding). In 2005, Tribeca favorite Transamerica garnered Felicity Huffman an Oscar nod, and last year 24 films ended up with deals.

“It’s evolving,” said Ms. Rosenthal. “I think if you had told me at that first festival that I was going to be doing a second one, I wouldn’t have believed it. And to be here six years later talking about this is staggering. “

“Tribeca is no longer an up-and-comer; it’s an arriver,” said
Sheila Nevins, HBO’s president of documentary and family programming. “We’ve made some really good discoveries there.” Ms. Nevins named the Antoine Fuqua film
Bastards of the Party and The Death of Kevin Carter (“we changed the name three times”) as past acquisitions—though she demurred naming names when it came to what interested her this year. “I’m not going to give it away,” she laughed. “Listen, we go everywhere and look for everything. We like to go into corners and crevices. I don’t want to call myself a scavenger, but I will call myself a bargain hunter.” Besides, when comparing Sundance and Tribeca, she said, “it’s a shorter trip—a MetroCard and no altitude problem.

Not everyone is ready to jump on the feel-good express.

“I don’t think we’ve ever bought a film there,” said Sony Picture Classics co-founder and co-president Tom Bernard. “Tribeca has been called many things, but ‘marketplace’ isn’t one of them. They have to figure out who they are. They’ve got all the potential in the world, but haven’t realized it yet.” Mr. Bernard, whose studio released such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sweet and Lowdown and All About My Mother, pointed to the Sundance, Cannes and Toronto festivals as examples of what he considered functioning marketplaces.

“I don’t know what they’re doing,” he said of the Tribeca festival. “We certainly get a lot of people knocking on our door, talking about what their festival can do for our movies. We haven’t gotten that knock [from Tribeca]. And if we haven’t, I’m sure a lot of other people haven’t either.”

(“Maybe he should check his phone log,” said Ms. Rosenthal when asked to respond to Mr. Bernard’s comment. “Ask him to look back at last year.”)

In any case, Tribeca is still fighting its image as the new kid on the block.

“I think that’s always going to be their problem—that people will presume that [Tribeca’s} movies are the ones that didn’t get into Sundance,” said Arianna Bocco, the vice president of acquisitions and productions at IFC Entertainment. “I think what’s great about Tribeca—and where I’ve seen it grow since its first year­­— is the way they’ve been able to have more quality films. And they’ve grown in the level of filmmakers they’ve been able to bring in. You know, it takes a while for festivals to develop identities ….In my opinion, it’s time, it’s history, it’s getting people used to the idea that they can buy films out there.”

Ms. Rosenthal pointed out: “It took Sundance nine years for Sex, Lies and Videotape to pop out of that festival. We had more acquisitions last year than in the total four years combined. It has to evolve, and it either will or it won’t—all I can do is be prepared for it.”

For the filmmakers involved, however, just getting to New York City is exciting enough. “It was our top choice,” said The Cake Eaters director Mary Stuart Masterson, who grew up in Manhattan and attended Dalton and the Nightingale-Bamford school. “Everyone thinks Sundance is the top choice, but our film wasn’t finished yet.” She pointed out that when it comes to distribution, no one wants to wait an additional eight months. She added, “I’m from New York; 7th Floor is from New York; our executive producers are from New York; and we shot it in New York State and got all the good tax incentives. It felt like the right thing, the perfect place.”

“It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to me since I became a mother,” said former talk-show host Ricki Lake, executive producer of the documentary The Business of Being Born (which has garnered attention in the blogosphere thanks to footage of Ms. Lake giving birth in her bathtub). “I miss New York so much!”

Zak Penn, the unofficial go-to screenwriter for all the big comic books turned blockbusters (X-Men 2 and 3, Fantastic Four, and the recently announced 2008 Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton) grew up in the East 70’s, attending the Trinity School while his wife matriculated at Hunter. “We’re real New Yorkers—we’re not like those people that say they’re from New York, and then you find out they live in Englewood Cliffs,” he said. “For us, to come back to New York and Tribeca is awesome.” His second directorial effort, The Grand—an improvisational comedy with a cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Dennis Farina, Dennis Cross, Werner Herzog and Michael McKean—is currently without distribution. “For me, it’s all about making a movie that people will enjoy.” Though he admittedly has plenty of contacts (“I have a deal with Fox, and my wife is a studio executive at New Line”), he was mostly interested in finding the distributor that would do the best job releasing the picture and letting audiences know of its existence (“my investors might not have the same agenda,” he joked)—a sentiment echoed repeatedly by other filmmakers.

Back to Kevin Connolly: “I’m preparing myself right now, because not everyone is going to like the movie. There are people who didn’t like The
, you know? My worst fear is people telling me not to quit my day job, which I’m sure is coming.” He laughed. “As an actor, there are so many different people to hide behind. This is the best feeling in the whole world, but you can’t turn around and say, ‘The director sucks!’” Cineaste City