Hollywood likes the look of slimmed-down fest

The title of the Woody Allen pic that kicks of the Tribeca Film Festival today could be the motto for the fest’s eighth edition. “Whatever Works” opens a decidedly leaner and less splashy affair this year.

Organizers had to scramble to replace sponsorship revenue while finalizing a pic lineup partly assembled by former chief programmer Peter Scarlet, who abruptly left two months ago.

And for a fest taking place mere blocks from the epicenter of the global financial meltdown, the mood is somehow cautiously upbeat. Organizers tout the caliber of pics and the roster of events, and the entrance in March of former Sundance fest chief Geoffrey Gilmore as chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises has put additional wind in the sails.

While Gilmore oversees more than the fest, it’s likely next year’s edition will look a lot different, which is an energizing prospect. One fest regular dubbed him the “secret sauce” that will raise Tribeca’s profile.

“They’ve become a better arena and figured themselves out,” said Kevin Iwashina, a former CAA agent who is now a partner in IP Advisers, a sales and consulting firm repping fest title “Don McKay.” “They tried to be all things to all people for a while.”

Andrew Herwitz, whose Film Sales Co. has four films at the fest, agreed. “It’s increasingly well-curated and where it falls on the calendar it is well-placed to play a bigger role.”

There still is a multifaceted feel to Tribeca because of its mission to serve the public and deliberately offer an alternative to Lincoln Center’s elite, uptown New York Film Festival. This year, Barry Levinson, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh and Eric Bana are among the top talent bringing films they directed. The ESPN Sports Film Festival continues to thrive as a fest within the fest. A Bon Jovi doc will screen as a work in progress.

With those name brands alongside the usual dozens of arthouse pics, Tribeca is proving a bit more popular with ticket buyers, organizers said. At a kickoff press conference Tuesday, co-founder Craig Hatkoff said ticket sales had improved markedly in percentage terms over last year — that is, houses are more full — but that’s partly a function of there being fewer screenings. The reduction was both a strategic and cost-cutting decision.

The festival has 86 features, a 28% drop from last year and less than half the peak level of a couple years ago. Along with a general scaling back, there is no major studio presence as in past years, when full-tilt bows for “Mission: Impossible 3″ or “Spider-Man 3″ dominated conversation. But the consensus is that that’s a good thing.

“I think if you look around, everything is a little bit leaner this year,” said co-founder Jane Rosenthal at Tuesday’s press conference. “We have a smaller schedule but we are still here. If we can’t do as many (films), at least we can still do what we do, and we’re very proud of that. And while we may have shrunk our programs, it’s still important to us to support the community with free events.”

Those events include the family street fair and the screenings of “drive-in” movies by the Hudson River.

Gone is the tension of a couple of years ago, when journos lambasted the ambitious, well-funded fest for boosting ticket prices and expanding into all five boroughs.

In its place is a new appreciation for a veteran programming staff who, amid the comings and goings of Gilmore and Scarlet, put together a solid roster of pics.

As with last year’s standout, top award winner “Let the Right One In,” several of the most anticipated pics are already spoken for in terms of distribution, among them Kirby Dick’s doc “Outrage” (Magnolia), Sam Rockwell-Kevin Spacey starrer “Moon” (Sony Classics) and the 2008 election-set “Poliwood,” Levinson’s take on stars and politics (Screen Media).

Tribeca may have scaled back, but a steady stream of stars, directors and industryites flowing through Lower Manhattan will offer a reminder that it could be a lot worse at this point: They could be stuck on Wall Street.

“The film industry is one of the few making money right now,” said Lee, whose Kobe Bryant doc and “Passing Strange” adaptation are both in the fest. “It’s them, Wal-Mart, and McDonald’s. Everybody else is looking for a handout — sorry, a bailout.”

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