Downtown fest akin to a street fair, leaving some purists dubious
“The last two years have been a whirlwind,” says Tribeca co-topper Jane Rosenthal, who launched the Tribeca Film Festival with partners Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff in 2002 as part of a mission to revitalize their devastated neighborhood in the wake of 9/11.
“We’re extremely proud of the impact we’ve been able to make downtown, both economically,” she explains, referring to the roughly $60 million spent in the area over the fest’s two editions, and “rejuvenating the spirit of the people who live there.”
Indeed, after only three years, Tribeca is quickly becoming a Gotham institution, as much a part of the New York scene as Shakespeare in the Park or Time Square on New Year’s Eve. With major returning sponsors like American Express, Anheuser Busch and General Motors, and a solid commitment from city officials, Tribeca has developed into more than just a film fest — call it the Lollapalooza of Lower Manhattan.
In fact, of last year’s roughly 350,000 festgoers — up from 150,000 the first year — only a fraction went to see movies. “Eighty percent of our attendees came to events that were free to the public,” says Rosenthal, “whether the drive-in movie, panels, concerts or the family festival.”
Sidebar programs will again dominate the downtown scene, including tributes to Gary Marshall (in tandem with Marshall’s fest opener, “Raising Helen,” starring Kate Hudson) and French actress Emmanuelle Beart (star of “Strayed”). The third go-round also brings new partnerships with South African Tourism (in celebration of the 10th anniversary of South African democracy) and the USC-based Norman Lear Center. The center is organizing several panels, a live poetry slam and the first public viewing of the Declaration of Independence in New York City.
And what exactly does the founding fathers’ document have to do with a film festival? “We have a responsibility as filmmakers to celebrate our freedom and understand our history,” says Rosenthal. “I know that feels a little outside what a normal film festival does, but because of the tragedy that occurred here, it has become important to remind ourselves of what happened.”
Despite this laudable civic-mindedness, there is the concern that the films, many of them modest foreign and indie pics, are getting lost amid the hoopla. “Do these activities mean we divert some of our resources to make some of these events happen? Yes,” says Hatkoff. The populist approach also has helped raise support from the public and private sector, allowing this year’s operating budget to balloon to $15 million, which amounts to twice the cost of the fest’s inaugural bow.
“But bringing (programmer) Peter Scarlet in showed our commitment to make the film component world class,” adds Hatkoff.
In his second year, fest exec director Scarlet believes the concerts, family street fairs and Hollywood premieres don’t distract from his international selection, but lure more potential viewers.
“It draws people beyond just the traditional film festival audience,” he says. “From the get go, Tribeca established itself as more retail than wholesale, where anybody can come.”
Scarlet is especially proud of nabbing the world premiere of “Delamu,” a doc from Chinese helmer Tian Zhuangzhuang (“The Blue Kite”), and new works from Latin American icons Hector Babenco (“Carandiru”) and Fernando Solanas (“Social Genocide”). “They are the living symbols of the strength of Latin America,” says Scarlet.
Extended to a full nine days, with the overall number of feature premieres down from about 200 last year to 140, the festival will increase the number of times each title is shown, “so people get to see them,” says Scarlet.
Answering charges that the Tribeca fest has ignored the Gotham film industry, the org has worked hard to involve the locals. A new Tribeca All Access program will bring in NYC producers and execs to meet with minority filmmakers.
Also, members of the New York Film Critics Circle will make up juries for the inaugural N.Y., N.Y. competitive sections (documentary and fiction). The added competitions act to “recognize the New York work with a prize,” says Scarlet. “That’s why we set up shop here, to call attention to New York filmmaking.”
Not everyone buys the festival’s line, however. “Their focus has always been Hollywood populist premieres,” complains Tom Bernard, of Sony Pictures Classics, “because that’s what gets people downtown.”
Or as another N.Y.-based exec more cynically puts it, “I say the (festival) is a PR gambit for investors in Tribeca real estate.”
Industryites also grumble that the fest is still lacking as a sales event, “because it falls the weekend before everyone leaves for Cannes,” says Film Sales Corp.’s Andrew Herwitz, who repped three films at last year’s event. “The films are to be taken seriously, as far as sales potential. I just wish it were a week earlier.”
Agreeing that Tribeca would like to establish itself as a market, Rosenthal says dates could, in fact, shift, “as the rebuilding effort continues downtown and we’ll have more venues.”
Cinetic Media’s Micah Green, who is repping “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” doesn’t see Hollywood or Cannes as obstacles to “strong independent stuff that buyers will buy,” he says. “The question is are they out there and available for Tribeca to program.
“The quality level has the potential to grow,” continues Green, who welcomes the prospect of another American indie market after Sundance in January and before the Los Angeles Film Festival in June. “But it’s going to take some time. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”