Will fest's auspicious debut spur sophomore curse?

New york — They built it and New Yorkers came. But will they come again?

With free popcorn on public street corners, the world premiere of “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” and a hospitality suite that rivaled La Cirque, the first edition of the Tribeca Film Festival, held just eight months after Sept. 11, surpassed all expectations.

Launched by Gotham film industry stalwarts Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Jane Rosenthal, the inaugural event attracted more than 156,000 attendees, 631 journalists, celebs from Hugh Grant to Reese Witherspoon, politicos from Bill Clinton to Nelson Mandela, and pumped at least $16.5 million into the local economy.

But without the rallying cry to revitalize lower Manhattan that galvanized the festivals inaugural event, how can the TFF realistically measure up in its sophomore year?

“I think that year two is more important to us than year one,” admits producer Rosenthal. “While last year was about revitalizing downtown and we continue to want to revitalize our community, this is also about growing a world-class festival and this is what we’re concentrating on.”

Rosenthal and her staff say they can accomplish their goal through extensive prep time. While the first event came to fruition in just 112 days of urgent planning, next year’s TFF has the benefit of several months of development and an auspicious initial run.

According to Rosenthal, several sponsors from 2002 have already reupped, and additional companies that couldn’t participate last year because of the tight time frame have stepped forward.

“We will be bigger, broader, and better,” enthuses TFF co-founder Craig Hatkoff, who promises the fest’s second year will surpass the roughly $10 million in production costs of year one. “The philosophy is that if we can find enough sponsors, we’re going to launch as many new activities as we can.”

New programs on tap include outdoor screenings, filmmaker workshops, a science and technology screenwriters lab sponsored by the Sloan Foundation, and expanding last year’s successful family-oriented programming with an entire Family Film Festival scheduled the weekend before the festival proper.

According to Rosenthal, the fest is making every effort to nab a studio summer blockbuster to repeat the success of last year’s “Star Wars” benefit galas (“The Matrix Reloaded,” anyone?), but are also aggressively reaching out to the independent and international film communities.

But like so many of Hollywood’s bloated sequels, Tribeca’s commitment to expansion could be debilitating. “It needs a lot more direction,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Tom Bernard, who is on the advisory board for the fest’s second edition. “Coming on the heels of Cannes and after Sundance, what is the Tribeca Film Festival going to be? Is it a festival for discoveries? Is it for Hollywood movies? And what do distributors get out of it? Is it word of mouth for a summer release? Is it a prize? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered about its identity before moving forward.”

“It’s a people’s festival,” is the repeated mantra heard from the Tribeca camp. But “people’s festival” doesn’t necessarily exclude “business festival.” So while Rosenthal doesn’t want the TFF to be branded what she calls an industry-only event, she is also open to the kind of marketlike atmosphere that has made fests like Toronto and Sundance must-attends.

With its early May playdates, the TFF has the ability to steal American indie premieres from other domestic fests like the Los Angeles Film Festival, now in June, and could even present a challenge to Cannes.

“There is certainly room for a festival right prior to Cannes to launch English-language independents that weren’t ready in time for Sundance,” says Cinetic Media’s Micah Green, who was at the first TFF selling two documentaries, “The Specimen,” later acquired by HBO, and “Spellbound,” which recently sold to ThinkFilm.

“The Cannes Film Festival is a great place for the right film, but they take very few American films,” continues Green. “So for Tribeca, it’s really a matter of what they will do in terms of finding the right films and in accommodating the industry.”

For Green, that means access for buyers and no screenings too early or too late. “At Sundance, you can do that, because there’s nothing else to do, but for a festival in New York,” he says, “you’re not going to get executives turning out to a 10 p.m. screening. They want to go home at the end of the day.”

The sheer industry clout behind Tribeca has already made at least one festival step aside. Gen Art, the seven-film, seven-day, seven-party Gotham fest, which in the past has run in late April and early May, will now kick off a full month earlier.

Says Gen Art director Jeffrey Abramson, “After the success of Tribeca, it might be even harder for us to draw films. But who knows if Tribeca’s going to get the kind of press coverage they did last year?”

Entertainment attorney John Sloss isn’t holding his breath. “I’m not convinced that it’s a viable selling festival,” he says. “It was oriented more towards Hollywood than it was to the burgeoning film community that already exists in New York.”

Sloss calls the festival’s first outing a missed opportunity, alienating many of New York’s indie players by promoting stars rather discoveries.

Magnolia Pictures’ Eamonn Bowles, however, onboard for a second year as the fest’s international programmer, contends Tribeca can be many things to many people. “We’re not looking to pigeonhole ourselves into a rarefied art festival or a more populist festival. We want to be both.

“This festival is not just a bump-in-the-road,” continues Bowles. “We’re looking to establish something real and strong and significant and we’re well aware of the perception that people are going to think it isn’t as good as last year, even though it may be better.

“But that’s just the way it is.”

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