A person sizing up the Tribeca Film Festival would be entitled to ask, with classic New York inflection, so what is it already?
Is it a film marketplace, a supersized studio junket, a hip downtown international cinephile convention, a pan-borough plug for greater Gotham?
As it begins its sixth edition today with a gala, Al Gore-hosted screening of short films about global warming, the fest is in fact all of those things. It has survived, adapted and grown in unforeseen ways since emerging in the wake of 9/11, developing into an event with few analogs on the film-fest circuit past or present.
Film savants can point to the premieres of unaffiliated pics that could get acquired at Tribeca, as a few have over the years. But as much or more of what draws some half-million people to the 12-day fest are screenings of mass spectacles such as “Spider-Man 3” or “Dirty Dancing,” the annual family street fair or the chance to cut the city’s grit with a bit of glitter.
“We didn’t have a business plan when we started,” said fest co-founder Jane Rosenthal. “We don’t act as a traditional festival.”
One marked change in the past two or three editions has been the number of screenings outside the traditional downtown zone. This year, events will roam from a multiplex in Astoria, Queens, to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights all the way up to the Bronx.
To some purists with the traditional view of the fest as the downtown equivalent of the staid New York Film Festival, that’s tantamount to Toronto launching screenings in neighboring Mississauga, Ont.
“That’s the way it should be,” said fest co-founder Robert De Niro. “We wanted to spread it to other parts of the city.”
In the manner of films like “Manhattan” or “Taxi Driver,” Gotham, broadly construed, is itself becoming a dominant character at the fest — a development likely to be driven home by the closing-night screening. The film is “The Gates,” a doc co-directed by Albert Maysles about the Central Park art happening that held the city, but few outside it, in thrall.
“People will always want to be in New York, so in that sense, it is not a destination in the way that other festivals are,” said fest exec director Peter Scarlet. “But that means our audience is different from the audience you have at Park City. We can really use the city as a compelling backdrop.”
Meanwhile, the entertainment biz is paying more attention to Tribeca. The number of industry attendees has risen from 273 in 2003 to nearly 800 registrants this year. Total attendance and screening ticket sales both hit records last year, at 465,000 and 203,000, respectively.
One reason they pay heed is the possibility to tie a preem with the rollout of a pic. That strategy picked up steam last year with “United 93” and “Mission: Impossible III” and continues this year with “Spider-Man 3” and a work-in-progress cut of Sony Pictures Animation’s “Surf’s Up.”
Rosenthal said the fest’s openness to Hollywood is such that it once considered shifting its entire schedule to accommodate the premiere of the last “Star Wars” installment.
“Bob spoke to George Lucas, who told him the movie wasn’t ready, and Bob said, ‘Let’s try to do it.’ ”
It didn’t, in the end.
Although it was no Oscar party, the annual Vanity Fair opening-night party Tuesday night produced some of entertainment’s most prominent faces.
The mag’s Graydon Carter greeted an eclectic group of guests including Lauren Bacall, Leslie Moonves, Harvey Weinstein, Chistopher Walken, fest judge Edie Falco, model Christy Turlington and tennis star John McEnroe at downtown’s State Superior Court.
While Tribeca founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal chatted, James Schamus and Sheila Nevins mingled with Mira Nair.
The starry turnout, usually unmatched by the fest itself, got things off to a media-friendly start.
A Spidey-themed week of events that stretches from the Bronx Zoo to the New York Public Library is not the only populist ploy. There’s also the unlikely creation of the ESPN Sports Film Festival, a showcase for 14 pics covering everything from poker (“The Grand”) to soccer (“The Power of the Game”) and a May 5 collection of athlete appearances and kid-friendly athletic events.
“We certainly don’t view sports and film in a singular way,” said Geoff Reiss, senior veep of ESPN Original Entertainment.
Though the fest-within-a-fest mainly culls movies from the festival, execs at Tribeca said the fest received a much higher number of submissions of sports films than it normally would because of the ESPN connection.
Deal also provides a number of other benefits for both parties; it gives the fest a national platform at essentially no cost, as ESPN will tout Tribeca through its television, radio and online properties.
And it allows Tribeca to associate itself with big players in the media and entertainment space: Mark Cuban and the Farrelly brothers are among those who have joined an advisory board at the festival.
For ESPN, the fest offers the ability to forge stronger ties to the film community, as it tries to become a bigger player on the acquisition and production fronts. Eventually, insiders said, the sports film fest could be spun off into its own entity, possibly even paving the way for other niche festivals to spring from Tribeca.
One reason that Tribeca, a fest known for a smattering of noteworthy preems from “Roger Dodger” to last year’s “The Yacoubian Building,” can balance those efforts with glitzy, big-name events is that it has 22 sponsors from the corporate and nonprofit world, not to mention uber-sponsor American Express.
Big names also tend to beget big names. For Thursday’s premiere of “Gardener of Eden,” for example, producer Leonardo DiCaprio’s involvement is attracting a crowd including stars from “Entourage.”
The juries who will vote on the awards, announced Tuesday, are another indication of the fest’s unusual DNA.
The main jury for the world narrative category is made up of Chris Cooper, Falco, Goran Paskaljevic, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Barry Sonnenfeld. Heidi Ewing, Whoopi Goldberg, Jehane Noujaim, Raoul Peck and Gideon Yago will serve on the world documentary jury.
Awards will be presented May 3.