Tribeca documents its identity

Distributors use media coverage of the fest to launch pics

The 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, kicking off Wednesday with Universal comedy “The Five-Year Engagement,” has a diverse lineup geared to both industry denizens and general moviegoers, encompassing world preems, fest-circuit vets, small-scale indies and a four-quadrant studio tentpole in the form of closing film “The Avengers.”

What the festival doesn’t seem to have anymore is much of an identity crisis.

Since its launch in 2002, Tribeca has battled the contention that it was a fest in search of an identity — particularly as a marketplace inconveniently sandwiched between Sundance and Cannes.

But the success of two of last year’s pickups — “Bully,” the Weinstein Co. release getting a PR boost from its recent ratings-board controversy, and Magnolia Pictures’ “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” the first documentary to top $1 million this year — underscores the fest’s growing rep as a market for docs.

“It’s become very important, especially in the last couple of years, in our calendar of festivals,” said Dan Guando, senior veep of acquisitions at TWC. “Their documentary section is probably the best in North America, and it’s where we expect to find something each year for our slate.”

Tribeca has helped launch narrative successes as well, such as 2005 drama “Transamerica” (another TWC pickup) and Anchor Bay’s 2009 sleeper “City Island.” But attention-grabbers including “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” and last year’s opener, Cameron Crowe-helmed Elton John backstager “The Union,” have helped cement the fest’s standing as a notable showcase for new docus.

“Historically, Tribeca has been an amazing launch pad for documentaries,” said Nick Quested, exec director of Goldcrest Intl., handling sales of four films in the festival including doc “The List,” about an American’s efforts on behalf of Iraqis seeking refuge in the U.S., and international rights to “Burn,” a look at Detroit firefighters exec produced by Denis Leary.

“Tribeca gives you a chance to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond,” he added. (Among narrative features, Goldcrest is handling foreign sales for Felicity Jones topliner “Cheerful Weather for the Wedding” and all sales for Abbie Cornish starrer “The Girl.”)

“It’s hard to get attention around docs, and Tribeca is really focused on them,” said Ben Silverman of Electus, the production company behind Tribeca offering “Mansome,” the Morgan Spurlock documentary about male grooming exec produced by and featuring Will Arnett and Jason Bateman.

Paladin’s theatrical release of “Mansome” aims to exploit the broad publicity footprint of the festival, which generates a wave of coverage in the Gotham and national media outlets that call New York home. “Mansome” hits theaters May 18, less than a month after its April 21 festival premiere.

Distributors have long realized that the hometown advantage with New York’s major media means the festival is an excellent launch pad for films soon to hit screens.

“This is a festival about launching and marketing films as much as it’s about discovering talent and world premiering films,” said Tribeca director of programming Genna Terranova. “It sticks to the philosophy of the festival, which is to use the festival to launch and publicize your film.”

It’s a strategy even Tribeca Enterprises’ distribution branch, Tribeca Film, can get behind. This year four of its movies to screen in the fest will hit VOD the same time as the festival bows.

Among them is “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story,” a doc by “City Island” writer-director Raymond De Felitta about a Southern black man and the fallout of a controversial interview he gave in a 1960s documentary made by De Felitta’s father.

The fest was the first arm of Tribeca to be interested in the film, but when it became clear the distribution team also had its eye on the movie, De Felitta and producer David Zellerford worked out a sked that sees the film bow at Tribeca April 27 just after an April 26 VOD release aiming to capitalize on fest coverage. Both the filmmakers and Tribeca Film then hope to get a second bump a month later, when “Dateline NBC” plans to run a segment on the film.

As for the pics without distribution yet, filmmakers and sales agents at Tribeca don’t expect the kind of overnight deals that used to characterize the market-hotbed days of Sundance. Sure, it happened for “Bully,” but even the two parties involved in that sale, Quando and sales agent Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment, acknowledge that it was a rarity for the festival.

This year Braun has two docs in Tribeca, Morton Downey Jr. bio “Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie” and “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey,” about the Filipino singer who joined the band Journey. Heading into the festival, Braun is optimistic about both pics.

“Tribeca always has sales,” he said. “It’s just not always a huge volume during the festival.”

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