Fest makes major shifts in philosophy, lineup

Gotham denizens make great sport of complaining. To the lengthy hit list, ranked somewhere between the New York Knicks management and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, can now be added the Tribeca Film Festival.

The 7-year-old event takes heat for raising ticket prices; for lacking a home base; for screening either too many films, too many studio blockbusters or too much indie arcana; and for not being a true acquisitions market.

In the lead-up to this year’s edition, which runs April 23-May 4, organizers took a long, hard look at their shortcomings and made some significant changes.

Movies will screen this year in one of two downtown hubs, with participating coffee shops attempting to give festgoers a smaller-town communal experience. Winnowed from 2,327 submissions, 120 features screen this year, down from last year’s 160, making the fest leaner by 25%. Ticket prices are down, too, from $18 to $15 for evenings and weekends and $8 for weekdays and latenight screenings.

Logistics and that intangible thing known as the “festival experience” might well improve, but seven years after its founding as a call to bring the city together post 9/11, the fest is still seeking a clear identity.

Art cinema fans feel the fest is meant to be a showcase for films that otherwise wouldn’t be seen, and resent mainstream fare like this year’s “Speed Racer” taking a slot that could be reserved for the next “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Fest co-founder Jane Rosenthal counters that Tribeca is hardly unique in including tentpoles, “Cannes and Toronto have big pictures and small pictures; we’re not precedent setting,” she says.

Even Sundance has its splashier mainstream fare, typified last January by the Barry Levinson-helmed “What Just Happened?”

“What Tribeca lacks is that it’s so big and so diverse, the flip side of them having lots of panels and so many films is a lack of specificity,” says Jawal Nga, topper of Tiny Dancer films, a Gotham-based co-producer of Sony Classics’ “Married Life.”

Tribeca artistic director Peter Scarlet thinks people need to get with the program and just jump in. “New York is a city where there’s too much going on. I wish there was only one baseball team so I didn’t have to choose who to root for. Maybe the mayor should close down the subway lines so I don’t have so many to choose from. More films are being made in the world and there are different kinds of cinema. The diversity of our programs is the great thing about it.”

Tribeca’s lucrative sponsorship pact with American Express is certainly coveted by other festivals — it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, as Robert De Niro lends his star-wattage to both endeavors. Estimates for fest’s annual cost hover in the $10 million to $12 million dollar range. Even with Amex anteing up a few million dollars annually and additional revenue from companies like Target and Verizon, the fest has operated at a deficit reportedly in the range of $1 million a year, with Tribeca Enterprises covering the leftover tab. Rosenthal said she anticipates that through various restructuring and cost-saving measures, this year will be the first time the event finishes in the black.

The fest touts itself as being for and about the community, not simply in film picks, but with outreach events like a street fair, three free outdoor screenings and the ESPN fest-within-a-fest Sports Film series that screens competish-themed movies to lure in a sporty aud not generally associated with the indie crowd.

Unlike fests with mandates to screen what they perceive as the absolute cream of the crop, Tribeca wears its number of international and first-timer participants as a badge of honor. In competish this year, a total of 24 narrative and doc features will duke it out for cash prizes totaling $100,000. Of these two dozen films, 18 countries are represented, and more than half of the filmmakers in competition are making their feature directing debuts.

Most distributors agree the fest has not become crucial to the industry as an acquisitions venue.

Says one sales agent, “Buyers aren’t flying in from L.A. Buyers in New York go back to their families or their offices at the end of the day.”

“It would be great if it turns into a market, but there are certain things you can’t force,” Rosenthal says. “The business itself is changing. You don’t have the same kind of feeding frenzy coming out of Sundance; people are taking their time. We’ve had a lot of pickups from our festival, although we haven’t had that breakout hit.”

Peter Goldwyn, veep of acquisitions for Samuel Goldwyn Films, appreciates that the fest is in his backyard, and sees it as a marketing boon for acquisitions he’s gearing up to distribute. Goldwyn and Red Envelope preemed “2 Days in Paris” at last year’s fest. “You can get a fairly decent read with the critics and New York audiences,” Goldywn says. “You can get a sense of how a major market would respond to a movie.”

Says IFC Entertainment prexy Jonathan Sehring: “I was very skeptical the first two years. Initially, we didn’t supply movies to the festival, and now we look at it as critical to launching our movies.”

IFC has acquired four films out of Tribeca. This year, the indie distrib is launching three titles, Harmony Korine’s “Mister Lonely,” Tom Kalin’s “Savage Grace” and Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg.”

The fest has preemed some critically praised docs in recent years, like the Oscar-nommed “Jesus Camp” in 2006 and last year’s “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which won the best doc Oscar.

“Every specialty film buyer is right to be cautious about jumping into bidding wars,” says Liesl Copland, head of Netflix’s Red Envelope. Out of last year’s fest, Red Envelope picked up three docs and preemed two narrative features.

“Tribeca shouldn’t be expected to be a bidding-war type of festival,” Copland says. “They offer a great program. You’re not wrong as a buyer to go to Tribeca and then go to Cannes and like four or five movies but be thoughtful about which one or two you want to spend a year releasing.”

Endeavor’s Graham Taylor says it’s not important whether the festival serves as a market. “It’s not the floor of the Merc, particularly as we move into an age where you see more partnerships to buy and release and market a movie; it takes more time,” Taylor says. “A quick sale to the wrong partner may not be best for the life of the film.”

Tribeca says it has generated more than $400 million dollars in economic activity for Gotham since its inception. Nearly 1,000 filmmakers worldwide have debuted new work at the fest.

Rosenthal hopes the media keep a sense of perspective when covering the fest. “It’s a film festival, as opposed to a peace accord in Darfur or people losing mortgages. Let’s get real here.”

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