Popular pic fest aims for industry cred

NEW YORK — “How do I get people back downtown?”

That was the question racing through Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal’s mind in the wake of 9/11.

“If people were in the streets, we could show the world we were still here and still standing,” she says. “I thought, ‘The more people I can get together, the world will be fine. …’ ”

Speaking from her Tribeca offices just before the fest’s fourth edition, Rosenthal, who founded the event with Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff, confesses, “I just didn’t realize I had to do another film festival after that. I really didn’t.”

To be sure, from an impressive inaugural fest slapped together in just 120 days — thanks in large part to the lucrative and ongoing sponsorship of American Express — the film festival has taken on a life of its own. It managed almost instantly to establish a powerhouse brand with consumers, and carve out a place for itself on the ever-expanding schedule of film fests.

But in year four, the fest is facing a real challenge in proving its relevance to the indie sector. While studios have been more than happy to launch their movies at Tribeca galas, indie companies tend to be less enthusiastic about the event.

The distribution chief at one standalone remarks that the premiere screenings of his film last year were sparsely attended, even while billed as sold out by the festival. The reason? Corporate sponsors snap up tix, but leave many seats unfilled.

While selling tickets is one sign of success, festivals need indie discoveries and bidding wars to build credibility with critics and the industry. While Rosenthal ultimately would like to see the event become a hotbed of buying activity, the industry’s response to the fest has been less optimistic.

An exception is IFC Entertainment prexy Jonathan Sehring, who’s launching Michael Showalter’s “The Baxter” at Tribeca. “The festival isn’t even five years old yet,” notes Sehring. “It’s still getting its footing. Every year its profile is raised. (With) a summer release, you can either do Tribeca or wait for the L.A. Film Festival. To us, ‘The Baxter’ is a quintessential New York movie.”

And there are some buzz pics hoping to score distribution deals at Tribeca. They include comedy Craig Chester’s “Adam & Steve,” Danny Green’s “The Tenants,” James C.E. Burke’s “Aurora Borealis,” Roseanna Arquette’s music world doc “All We Are Saying,” vid helmer Marc Klasfeld’s “The L.A. Riot Spectacular” and Jay Alaimo’s “Slingshot.”

While past years have seen a few films — including Dylan Kidd’s debut, “Roger Dodger” — land deals at Tribeca, there has yet to be a bidding war that fires up the indiewood imagination.

Other fests are gaining traction in that area. Utah’s second-banana festival Slamdance this year found its groove when Paramount and Nickelodeon snapped up “Mad Hot Ballroom.”

The film had been considered a lock for a Sundance berth but failed to make the cut, as did Danny Leiner’s “The Great New Wonderful.” Now, the latter pic is slated to preem at Tribeca, where it’s likely to draw buyer interest. Pic’s ensemble features Maggie Gyllenhaal, Edie Falco, Tony Shalhoub and Stephen Colbert, among others.

Two other available titles preem in the Spotlight section: docus “Through the Fire,” about basketball player Sebastian Telfair, and “SHOW Business,” which tracks four B’way musicals.

Rosenthal, meanwhile, insists that the mission of the fest has not changed.

“It will always have an economic development component to it, drawing on the unifying power of film,” she says. “The first year, we birthed it. The second, we could sit up and babble, then we were toddling and walking. And, hopefully, next year we’ll run.”

Key to building Tribeca’s profile have been Rosenthal and De Niro’s cachet and connections. After 9/11, they lured important Gotham friends to dine downtown (De Niro, after all, ownes stakes in Tribeca Grill and neighboring Nobu), sparking a movement that grew into creation of the festival. But their pull extended beyond Gotham: Hollywood heavyweights joined in and brought the fest studio preems.

With a longer sesh this year, running April 19-May 1, the fest will accommodate a teeming slate of pics and people representing both ends of the film spectrum. Tribeca’s competitive lineup comprises mostly first- and second-time filmmakers and Gotham talent, but Hollywood studio pics and people are still among the main attractions.

Highlights include a gala screening of Universal’s Sydney Pollack-helmed “The Interpreter.” Director Irwin Winkler will take part in the Tribeca Talks series. And producers Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas and Lynda Obst are among the panel guests.

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