Tribeca: Gotham got gamut

Movie lovers can go downtown or plug in at home

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The shorthand on this year’s Tribeca Film Festival — maybe even a good marketing mantra — could be “Shrek and Spork.” On one hand, the nine-year-old event is opening with a 3D, animated studio tentpole (“Shrek Forever After”) courtesy of DreamWorks. At the same time, the festival menu includes an independent teen comedy (“Spork”), whose principal adolescent is a hermaphrodite.

Eclecticism? Populism? Provocative programming? Don’t even get us started on “Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives” (which has created its own little kerfuffle within the transgender community).

The new “Shrek” continues a tradition of sorts — Tribeca has regularly premiered big, shiny blockbusters (“Star Wars — Episode II: Attack of the Clones” and “Spider-Man 3” among them). But for all of TFF’s red-carpet glitz and celebrity-driven promotion, indie film has long been a focus of the festival, as well as the Tribeca Institute, the All-Access program, the documentary fund, etc. And yet the lack of conformity with the conventional art/foreign/experimental thrust of so many other festivals, combined with TFF’s community events and ESPN sidebar, has led in the past to a kind of identity crisis. Or, as fest cofounder Jane Rosenthal describes it, “cultural whiplash.” As a result, people picked on Tribeca.

“Not anymore,” says festival director Nancy Schafer, who’s been onboard since producer Rosenthal and actor/entrepreneur Robert De Niro launched the fest in 2002. “I think they definitely did, at the beginning. There was always this, ‘Why are you populist? Why aren’t you precious, the way film festivals are supposed to be?’ But I think we’ve always stood behind the reaction we got the first year, which was that New Yorkers want to get out and feel that buzz and that excitement: seeing movies, standing in lines and talking about films. That’s what we bring. There’s a film for everyone.”

Whether Tribeca’s trajectory has simply intersected with the zeitgeist, or whether it actually helped change the arc of moviegoing, this year’s developments are in keeping with the idea that change is here, even if we don’t know exactly what it all means.

Tom Bernard, co-chief of Sony Pictures Classics, which is unspooling “Get Low” and “Micmacs” at the fest, acknowledges the success of Tribeca’s original mission statement, but would still like to see more of a focus.

“They got great sponsorship and they showed a lot of populist films, and they accomplished that goal (of bringing people back downtown),” says Bernard. “I think the festival since then has been sort of searching for an identity.”

Bernard adds that he would like to see more of an official market component to Tribeca. “It’s very difficult with the festival stuck between Sundance, Cannes and Toronto to be able to get the type of quality premieres that would create an excitement in the market place,” he says. “One solution I think would be a great thing for the festival — but they don’t have it yet — would be to set up an independent film market, which draws buyers and creates business.”

With Geoff Gilmore, longtime Sundance director, completing his first year as its chief creative officer, the parent Tribeca Enterprises is moving into VOD and distribution with 12 titles being released under Tribeca Film, seven of which are in the festival (according to Schafer, there is and will be “church and state” separation between efforts).

What Gilmore sees in, say, the festival’s embrace of “Shrek,” is an effort to embrace the future.

“Why do we open the festival with “Shrek 3D’?” asks Gilmore, rhetorically. “Because we want to open the festival with — 3D! You can’t make those tremendous dichotomies between audiences anymore — you can’t say the indie audience is here, the studio audience is there. They’re thoroughly integrated, and we’ve been talking about ways of integrating too.”

It used to be, he says, that a festival would give a film a showcase, put it out there and an audience would come. “That hasn’t been happening for a few years,” Gilmore adds. “In some instances it’s been spectacularly bad. How do we refind that audience? What can festivals become? This is what we’re asking.”

Whether festivals have a purpose in the age of new distribution paradigms, VOD and outright theft is a question. What’s not in question is a continued hunger among audiences for a common, shared experience — in theaters or online, as in the Tribeca Film Festival Virtual, which will, for $45, provide eight features and 18 shorts to those who prefer to stay home and, perhaps, chat with each other.

“They get their own red carpets, they get their own Q&As led by Geoff, they can talk to each other (or) not talk to each other,” Schafer says. “We’re trying to capture that festival experience online.

“We’re trying to do something no one has ever done, with the virtual,” she adds. “And our hope is that there’s someone in all 50 states watching these films. I can’t say that ‘Tribeca’ means anything to people in Spokane, let’s say. So we have to get the word out.”

Meanwhile, the brick-and-mortar festival will present 47 shorts and 85 features, 44 of them world premieres.

“We have this HBO doc on salsa, which is actually made by a director who came out of our Tribeca All-Access program,” says Rosenthal. “That will be an extraordinary night with people dancing in the street. I’m looking forward to exposing people to ‘Dog Pound,’ a picture made with all nonfactors; it’s a powerful movie. Of course I’m looking forward to Alex Gibney’s Eliot Spitzer documentary (being shown as a work-in-progress) and his other film, “My Trip to Al-Qaeda.’ ”

Rosenthal is also anticipating the appearance of Joan Rivers, who will accompany the doc about her, subtitled “A Piece of Work.”

Elsewhere, the Irish drama “Snap,” the Canadian comedy “The Trotsky,” the Scandinavian “Metropia” and the transatlantic “Climate of Change” underscore the festival’s international flavor. Regardless, any festival that can host both Joan Rivers and the president of Rwanda — Paul Kagame, who’ll be here supporting the docu “Earth Made of Glass” — may actually achieve its aim be a little something for everyone.

“When you look back, from the first year to today, who could have imagined all this?” Rosenthal says. “It’s very exciting.”

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