In current fest glut, it's adapt or perish

In the Darwinian universe of New York City film festivals, mutation means survival. Adapt or perish. After all, even in Manhattan, the means of subsistence (audiences) is finite. It’s a jungle out there.

“I had a student last year who came up with a list of 63 different film festivals going on in New York,” says Richard Pena, an associate professor of film at Columbia U. as well as executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “These are all worthwhile events, and you wish them well. But what can you say?”

If you’re the Tribeca Film Festival, you say “Change! Shrink! Move!”

And continue to seek a niche among your neighbors and their staked-out claims: the all-star-game ethos of the New York Film Festival; the showcase of discovery that is New Directors/New Films; the eclectic, year-round programming of Film Forum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the American Museum of the Moving Image.

And the parade of ethnic festivals that are as ubiquitous as street fairs, pizza joints and Starbucks.

“I always tell people that we are a film festival for movie lovers,” says Paola Freccero, executive co-director of Tribeca, alongside Nancy Schafer. “We are a populist film festival. No joke. If there can be such a thing as a world-class film festival for the broadest possible filmgoing audience, we are it. In this, we’re a reflection of the city we’re in. And I think it distinguishes us from a lot of film festivals around the world.”

Or in New York, presumably, where Tribeca’s image among its peers has been about star power (co-founder Robert De Niro), big money (a la American Express) and an irrepressible desire to succeed against all odds. That Tribeca was also founded in the wake of catastrophe gave it an added marketing edge, as cynical as that may sound, although the festival now seems to be shaking off the dust of the World Trade Center.

“The mission has been and will be to support filmmakers and bring those films to the widest possible audience,” Schafer says. “There was an original mission of supporting downtown after 9/11, that’s true, and we still do that through community events and other things. But the simple logistical fact is there aren’t enough screening venues downtown, so we did have to look for other venues. For the last three years we really have been all over the city. So we are trying to find another home, even if it’s just for 2008.”

The festival will now, with some exceptions, be situated in the Union Square area of Manhattan, considerably north of Ground Zero. Identity, of course, can’t be found on a map. But peaceful coexistence is apparently a possibility.

“There’s been a real settling down in a way,” says Rajendra Roy, head of the film department at the Museum of Modern Art, which, with the Film Society, co-produces ND/NF — the series with the closest proximity to Tribeca, hence the one it competes with most.

“Tribeca has demonstrated what it can do, what it’s interested in doing” Roy says. “I think people kind of got out of its way while it was figuring that out for a few years. But I think there’s a general consensus at this point that there’s not really a reason to do that — if in fact they were ever in that mindset. Some people probably never were. I bet Richard (Pena) probably never was.”

Pena, who recently celebrated 20 years at the helm of the NYFF and is a selector for New Directors/New Films, says the NYFF as been unaffected by Tribeca in terms of getting films, and that the impact on ND/NF’s program has been negligible.

“In any given year, we’re not competing with Tribeca for that many films,” he says. “A few years ago, we lost a Bulgarian film to Tribeca. What has been affected, though, is that the word ‘festival’ no longer has the charm or sparkle or whatever. I think the New York Film Festival has its cache, but I think New Directors has experienced some festival fatigue. What all these festivals do is make it seem like there’s one every week.”

When the Film Society held its Croatian show last November, Pena says, it had crosstown competition from a South Asian festival, a festival about films by Arabs in Israel and a festival featuring films by Arabs in France.

Two years ago, says Tribeca artistic director Peter Scarlet, Film Forum, MoMA and Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade were all hosting Japanese film series. “You could spend you whole life watching Japanese films,” Scarlet says, “and from different periods. But it’s part of what happens here.”

Scarlet’s competition doesn’t come strictly from his New York counterparts. SXSW and the Los Angeles Film Festival are in much stiffer competition for films. “We’re all bourgeois festivals trying to move up,” says one rival programmer, who adds that a festival grows in stature by attracting press and buyers. And you do that by having the freshest films.

“It’s an age-old question, isn’t it?” Scarlet says. “But there are a million film festivals. This is New York.”

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