Online offerings aim to lure in global film fanatics

NEW YORK — Many film festivals have experimented with Internet content, but arguably none have gone further than the Tribeca Film Festival’s latest venture, the Tribeca (Online) Film Festival. In addition to providing interactive content and webcasting many of its once exclusive panels, Tribeca is streaming six festival features, gratis.

While others have streamed select entries for a fee via YouTube (Sundance) and VOD (Slamdance), Tribeca may be the first festival to show features online for free.

Other festivals are closely watching the T(O)FF experiment, gauging whether the online screenings affect a film’s chances for distribution (all six are looking for distribution), whether offering big-name panels for free with online viewer participation will influence fest ticket sales or whether how new initiatives like the Future of Film blog will increase Tribeca’s global impact.

T(O)FF (tribecafilm.com/tribecaonline) is version 2.0 of an effort that began with last year’s Tribeca Film Festival Virtual, which offered online screenings of eight features, 18 shorts, live video of fest panels and other events for a $45 online pass. “The main difference this year is that we thought about what an online festival should and can be — how we can leverage digital technology, social media and an online platform to make the festival experience come alive and not simply take a physical event and transmit it online” says Tribeca Enterprises chief operating officer Jon Patricof.

Tribeca won’t reveal how many of last year’s 5,000 available passes were sold (“a lot,” says Patricof), so its success is hard to gauge, but its shift to offering similar content for free was clearly done with an eye towards growth.

“It was part of a concept saying ‘this has to be built,’ ” says Tribeca Enterprises chief creative officer Geoffrey Gilmore, who is overseeing T(O)FF with Patricof and TFF executive director Nancy Schafer. “Right now all we’re thinking about is ways you open it up so people experience it, engage with it and see what its values are, to give us a sense of how we can extend it.”

This year many new features are offered, including Gilmore’s baby, the Future of Film blog. He’s secured a number of industry bigwigs (such as Peter Guber and Todd Wagner), academics and filmmakers to join him in writing about film distribution, storytelling and technology, all in an effort to “build a community” online and create a year-round discussion.

American Express is sponsoring the digital initiative, designed in partnership with web outfits Big Live, Clickability and Kit Digital.

Each of the six T(O)FF features will be offered in three to five online “screenings” in addition to their TFF theatrical showings. This year’s features include the 9/11-themed doc “New York Says Thank You,” the U.K. test tube baby doc “Donor Unknown,” “Rabies” (billed as Israel’s “first-ever slasher horror film”) and three foreign-language titles: “Flowers of Evil,” “My Last Round” and “Neon Flesh.”

Tribeca programming director David Kwok and senior programmer Genna Terranova are tasked with finding and booking films for T(O)FF. Both Kwok and Gilmore admit convincing filmmakers to show their work for free online hasn’t always been easy. Among the challenges: it can be more difficult to assess audience and distributor reactions.

But online viewers can submit comments right after seeing a film, and Kwok notes that while prospective distribs can watch films with an audience first (online screenings are scheduled afterwards), some execs who can’t make it to New York have requested a chance to view films online.

The way limited free online screenings will affect a film’s chances for distribution is an open question. But can these online screenings help or a hurt a film’s chances at being sold? It’s too early to tell, and Tribeca, sandwiched between the Sundance/Berlin markets and Cannes, hasn’t seen many deals inked from bigger indie distribs. Most of the films offered online have already screened. But the platform can work, as shown by last year’s Virtual-screened comedy “Spork,” which was picked up in March by Wrekin Hill and movie merchandiser NECA.

“We know there are certain filmmakers willing to take risks doing this, and others that haven’t quite gotten used to it yet,” says Gilmore.

For “New York Says Thank You,” director/producer Scott Rettberg, who says he’s in talks with potential distribution outlets, the experiment is worthwhile. “There are a lot of people involved in the film from small towns that can’t make it to New York,” he says. “To give them the opportunity to feel they’re watching the premiere with their friends in New York, they’re going to talk about this with their whole town. … at the end of the day, word of mouth is how ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ got to where they did. Distributors realize that passion will drive audiences to whatever venue the film’s gonna be in.”

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