Quietly but successfully, Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Prods. has established itself as one of the key connections for the small, tightly knit Gotham film community. It is not De Niro’s alone, to be sure — partner and co-producer Jane Rosenthal is often credited as being central to Tribeca’s ability to summon resources and attract key New York-area talent, as well as being a well-regarded judge of quality scripts.
Even as the smoke continues to waft over the devastated World Trade Center, Tribeca has been demonstrating its loyalty to New York in typically low-key fashion by organizing meals (care of De Niro’s Tribeca Grill) for the legions of rescue workers — one of the first, most tangible gestures of support in the ordeal by any Gotham-based film organization.
“It’s what we had to do,” a Tribeca spokesperson says.
And though De Niro’s current generosity hardly surprises those who know him and his company, his track record as producer probably does.
Yes, there are the expected forays into urban crime drama, with the upcoming HBO miniseries “Crime Wave” and the recent “15 Minutes” and going as far back as 1992’s “Night and the City.” And yes, there has been a Tribeca co-production with Martin Scorsese (long a helmer affiliated with De Niro), but just one: “Cape Fear” in 1991, Tribeca’s first year in business.
But Tribeca has also shown a continuing interest in comedy of all sorts, from the romantic (“The Night We Never Met”) to the satiric (“Wag the Dog,” “Mistress”) to broader fare (“Meet the Parents” and “Analyze This,” both of which have sequels set — “Meet the Fokkers” and “Analyze That”).
At the same time, a continuing stream of theater adaptations is a significant tributary for the firm, including both of Chazz Palminteri’s plays, “A Bronx Tale” and “Faithful,” along with Cheryl L. West’s “Holiday Heart” for Showtime and Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room.” As well, Tribeca’s biggest, yet-to-be-produced stage-to-screen prize is the quintessentially New York musical, “Rent.”
This interest in the stage, Rosenthal notes, isn’t solely because of De Niro’s legit roots, but because “part of being in New York means going to the theater a lot, and tapping into the talent that’s in this community. I wouldn’t say that we seek out just theater, but it does seem that we make many movies based on plays.”
“Bob and Jane work as a team,” observes “Meet the Parents” director and co-producer Jay Roach. “You worry, when you’re hired as director and you’re involved with a producer who’s also a lead in the movie, that things will work at cross-purposes. But (on ‘Parents’) they empowered me at every step. They work as co-equals and partners, and that’s exactly how they work with me.”
Rosenthal says De Niro’s choice of material as a producer is strictly based on “what interests him, what seems like a fresh way of approaching a story.
“Now,” she adds cautiously, “these things don’t always work out. It’s like being at a banquet: You pick at certain foods you think look interesting, and some taste good and some don’t. Some projects work, and others don’t.”
By any measure, “Meet the Parents” was one that worked, with a worldwide gross in excess of $200 million. Roach witnessed firsthand how De Niro operates, and it is based on three principles.
First is the fame factor, or as Roach puts it: “The moment you get a call from Robert De Niro, you clear off your desk and pay attention. I saw this numerous times when he and Jane wanted to get someone for the movie.”
Second is the New York connection: “They know everyone in the New York filmmaking circle, they’re in the Tribeca Building where so many companies such as Miramax are based and they have contacts a mile long. And as soon as people there know Bob and Jane are involved in a project, they swarm to them. That’s how we got Blythe Danner, who mostly does theater. Ellen Chenoweth, who’s a casting director in great demand, was eager to be involved.
“I’m from L.A., and didn’t know about any of this until I worked with them. I couldn’t use my usual crew for all sorts of budgetary and other problems, so I really had to trust their judgment on picking a crew. I felt like I had the top crew around, in every single department.”
Finally, De Niro the actor brings something to the table for De Niro the producer. Roach notes that “Bob comes at a script he’s producing from the standpoint of an actor, in which he builds a character from the ground up. He knows more about the character than I do, down to what color the beret might be. He acknowledges that that’s from a narrow place, but then he fans out from there and gets a global sense of the movie.
“The key for both Bob and Jane is that their taste is exquisite, which is probably the main quality a good producer has to have.”