Former Sundance leader takes on New York

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival is a tale of one city. Eighty-five features. Two happy men.

“I’m very happy,” says a beaming Peter Scarlett at a recent Saturday evening film soiree in Manhattan. Happy? “Yeah, I am,” says Geoff Gilmore. “It’s great to be in New York.”

For all the glee, this year’s eighth annual Tribeca fest (April 22-May 3) is opening with the kind of drama usually reserved for third acts. Artistic director Scarlett was gone with the abruptness of a sneeze after longtime Sundance honcho Gilmore was installed in February as chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises.

(Co-executive director Paola Freccero had already left, peaceably, on Jan. 9; Scarlett has since joined the Abu Dhabi fest.)

Bobbing on the wake of the Scarlett and Gilmore speedboats-in-the-night routine is a festival that has struggled for identity since its birth out of the ashes of 9/11 but whose founders think their something-for-everyone ethos is watertight.

“It’s constantly evolving and changing,” says Jane Rosenthal, who with actor Robert De Niro and her husband, real estate investor Craig Hatkoff, started the festival in 2002 as an antidote to the commercial/spiritual slump that followed the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. “But the core of our festival is still our free community events, the drive-in and the family festival; that’s a fundamental part of our program; that will never change.

“That said, we’re a relatively young festival, so we continue to evolve and refine our slate, and it’s very, very exciting.”

That the festival opens with a film called “Whatever Works” (the new Woody Allen) is too ironic. Once again, the Tribeca neighborhood will be the site of community events, but not the bulk of the festival menu (which will be shown further uptown, mostly around Union Square). There’s also been a Depression-style belt-tightening since last year, when 120 features were screened (down from the previous year’s 157). This year the number is 85, and, if logic applies, will be followed — as was 2008 — by a drop in attendance.

At the same time, executive director Nancy Schafer says the festival achieved a real sense of community last year, highlighted by postscreening discussions that continued long after the movies had ended, and a sense that even in the cultural maelstrom of Manhattan something special was going on. The emphasis on conversation — between filmmakers and filmgoers, and filmgoers and filmgoers — is a big part of this year’s fest.

“I feel like we’re Festival Two-Point-Oh,” Schafer says, “because we’re only 8 years old, and we’re about bringing the community together in big events like the drive-in and through little events, too. As for the something-for-everyone strategy, I think now a lot of festivals have adopted it. People used to look at the street fair and say ‘Why are you guys doing a street fair?’ Retailers say it’s like Christmas for them.”

She says if the fest seems to be wielding a big stick, it’s partially true. “Tribeca has a mandate to be a stronger presence for filmmakers year-round,” she says. “That’s what Gilmore’s here to figure out.”

For Gilmore, the changing of the Bobs — from Redford to De Niro — offers multiple motivations.

“A lot of it was personal,” he says. “A lot of it was due to the fact I’d done Sundance for 19 years and I wanted to try something else. I wanted to come to a place where I could reinvent myself, which is what I feel like I’m doing here. I’m doing things that I was anxious to do at Sundance that I wasn’t able to do, which includes thinking about distribution issues, various education programs, global issues. In that sense, I feel wonderful. But I haven’t begun to feel like I’ve gotten to the bottom of it all.”

Gilmore’s new duties reflect Tribeca’s place in the world, not just the world of film festivals.

“There’s very much a crisis going on now in the distribution arena,” he says. “I think the number of films that will get produced are surely going to drop in the next couple of years — that’s been speculated about, you know, that the chickens would come home to roost, and they certainly will now, given what’s going on in the economy. But the real issue is finding audiences for all the work that does get made.”

The star power of Tribeca and the hot light of New York keep the films coming. “Tribeca is one of the four or five top international festivals,” says Stephen P. Jarchow, chairman of Here Media and Regent Releasing, which chose Tribeca for the U.S. premiere of “Departures,” their out-of-nowhere foreign-language Oscar winner. “We see a real opportunity in world cinema right now.” And a perfect showcase in Union Square.

But there are industry professionals who say that Tribeca needs to move its dates closer to awards season if it’s going to increase its influence and options. Right now, the fest lies in the SXSW-Los Angeles Film Fest nexus, and while no one among those three events ever acknowledges a conflict, their proximity to each other keeps them … well, in proximity to each other. Not just in time, but in status and choices.

Schafer says Tribeca would be a spring festival “next year”; her colleagues dismissed the idea that a move has been discussed. “We’re not currently considering changing our dates,” says Rosenthal, who has little to say about her former artistic director (“I would quote Mr. Scarlett: He had a ‘seven-year itch'”), but much about the rumors.

“There are very few film festivals, with the exception of Sarajevo, that started because of an act of war,” she says. “People say, ‘You have to be in the Oscar race’ but you have to go back to the founding mission of our festival. We were bringing people back downtown in the aftermath of 9/11, and we did that through film and free community events. When you see how many film festivals are on the calendar, it’s hard to say we needed another film festival, but Tribeca needed another film festival. Our economy needed another film festival.”

Besides, she says, “It’s a chance to escape — in your own city.”

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