Tribeca balances glitz with grit

As the sixth Tribeca Film Festival kicks off tonight, the event again shows its support for a pressing issue.

Fest’s opening night, hosted by Al Gore, will spotlight the global climate crisis. Several short films addressing the problem — and solutions — are set to unspool, along with live music from Bon Jovi. (The shorts, by a diverse group of filmmakers, are part the SOS campaign behind the Live Earth concert series set for July 7.)

Of course, Tribeca’s original mission, launching an event in mere months after the 9/11 attacks, was to help heal some of the pain in lower Manhattan.

“The idea was to drive people downtown and make the city feel normal again,” says fest co-founder Jane Rosenthal, noting she never planned for it to become an annual event. “We’re now in year six — it’s something I never thought I’d hear myself saying.”

The fest has grown to encompass 157 features and 88 shorts this year. The films are mostly international and U.S. indies plus a smattering of studio pics, such as the U.S. preem of “Spider-Man 3″ and Curtis Hanson’s Vegas pic “Lucky You.” Tribeca closes with Albert Maysles’ docu on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Central Park art project, “The Gates.”

Fest officials say some 240 filmmakers are confirmed to attend, along with nearly 800 industry execs.

But the growth hasn’t come without its challenges.

Single ticket prices for screenings were increased by about 50% to $18 this year, a move that drew immediate criticism. Observers wondered why one of the most well-funded fests around — American Express has been a major supporter from the get-go — needed to up prices.

Sponsors, Rosenthal explains, “do not pay for 100% of the budget and do not cover all the free events that are part of our civic mission to embrace an entire city.”

She reveals to Variety that the fest’s annual budget is “more than $10 (million),” adding that “the festival has run at a deficit for the last five years and can’t continue to run at a deficit.”

Flying in filmmakers from around the world (sponsor Delta Airlines doesn’t cover all the trips) and putting them up in Manhattan hotels (Tribeca lacks a hotel partner) is a pricey undertaking, Rosenthal reminds.

Industry attendees also have grumbled that the screening venues are now scattered all across Manhattan, versus in the immediate Tribeca area.

“There are no venues downtown,” Rosenthal admits. “One Cineplex downtown is not really the best for us. If we are going to screen movies, we have to be in movie theaters.”

While the fest has created some temporary venues downtown, the majority of the screenings are now held in AMC theaters as far north as 72nd Street.

Screenings migrated above Houston Street last year when Tribeca entered into a partnership with AMC Theaters. But that AMC alliance doesn’t mean Tribeca gets a free ride. “Nothing is donated here,” says Rosenthal, adding the fest must also provide digital projection equipment. “We have to outfit over 29 movie theaters.”

As for the programming, the fest has slimmed down a tad, joined with ESPN to create a sports-themed mini-fest, and spread New York-made films throughout the program, instead of in their own section.

The prior Gotham focus “started to be perceived as a ghetto of New York films,” says Tribeca’s executive director, Peter Scarlet. Prizes still will be handed out to a New York narrative and documentary this year.

While the bulk of the fest’s two main competitions are world or international premieres, Scarlet calls the obsession over world bows “foolish. I don’t think New Yorkers give a damn if a film has played at 9 a.m. at the Palm Springs Film Festival.”

The public may not care, but acquisitions execs tend to be focused on seeing films that haven’t screened elsewhere.

To that end, Tribeca is gaining ground, with a spate of pickups last year, albeit in more minor deals. Rosenthal admits Tribeca hasn’t had its “Little Miss Sunshine” yet, adding, “I hope that we will become a thriving market for filmmakers to sell their work in years ahead.”

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