“Live from New York!,” the opening night feature at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, offers a reminder of the fest’s tumultuous origins, as well as an illustration of how it and New York City have changed in the 13 years since it was conceived.
The behind-the-scenes look at “Saturday Night Live” brings to vivid life the days after 9/11, when parts of lower Manhattan were left a smoldering ruin. On the first show back, “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels asked Mayor Rudy Giuliani, “Can we be funny?” To which the mayor replied, “Why start now?”
“It broke the ice and it started the healing process,” remembers Tom Broecker, a producer on the film and the costume designer on “SNL.”
The Tribeca Film Festival emerged from a similar impulse. The brainchild of Robert De Niro and producer Jane Rosenthal, it aimed to encourage New Yorkers to venture south of Canal Street to celebrate film and support an area still digging itself out from the towers’ collapse.
The festival’s films and filmmakers are global, but the City remains entwined in the festival’s DNA. Even the retrospective screenings, such as “GoodFellas” and “On the Town,” have a New York swagger.
Today, though, the festival’s mission has changed. The World Trade Center complex is largely rebuilt, with the gleaming One World Trade Center rising where the towers once stood.
While lower Manhattan was once a place where artists lived and worked, the creative community’s zip code has increasingly shifted across the Hudson to Brooklyn, Queens and other boroughs, in search of cheaper lodging.
“I’ve watched the city gentrify,” Broecker says. “The CBGB’s energy that existed in the ’70s and ’80s has been replaced by yoga studios.”
The Tribeca neighborhood may be out of reach for young artists, but the Tribeca fest can showcase their work, reflect shifting tastes and morph to fit the new contours of the movie business. TFF will host virtual reality demonstrations and showcase interactive installations. It’s also continuing to recognize online storytellers through its Tribeca NOW program.
“We’re at this thrilling moment in terms of storytelling and how you define it,” says Paula Weinstein, exec VP of Tribeca Enterprises. “What will this new media look like?”
The emphasis on digital entertainment is in keeping with a festival that is younger than rivals such as Sundance and Toronto, and often feels younger in spirit. Genna Terranova, the festival’s programming director, says: “We want to see new voices taking risks. We’re a discovery festival and we support the talent at an early stage.”
That’s a key difference between Tribeca and the Big Apple’s other major cinematic gathering, the New York Film Festival, which is an awards season stop for the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher and Spike Jonze. This year’s Tribeca features some veteran filmmakers such as Michael Winterbottom, but there’s a large number of debut features such as Pamela Romanowsky’s “The Adderall Diaries,” Natalia Leite’s “Bare” and Ben Palmer’s “Man Up.”
“It’s down and dirty,” said Leslye Headland, whose “Sleeping With Other People” will screen at Tribeca. “There’s this sort of figuring it out as they go along. It’s like New York in that it’s nurturing, but you also have to fend for yourself.
Rather than migrate with the bohemians or dissolve into a larger Manhattan landscape that is becoming blandly upscale, the Tribeca fest is doubling down on lower Manhattan. Yes, it will venture outside its geographic perimeters by once again screening films in the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side. But it’s also returning to the Regal Battery Park location for the first time since 2007, as well as creating its first festival hub with its Spring Studios exhibition space. The hope is that Spring Studios will host talks, exhibitions and serve as an area for talent and festivalgoers to mingle.
“We’ll be able to welcome our filmmakers to a central space where they can have a great meal and a good movie talk,” Weinstein says.
They’ll also be able to gaze out over a radically altered landscape — a reminder of a city and a filmmaking community that’s in a constant state of metamorphosis and in a perpetual state of tension.
“New York is the cultural center of the world and that has everything to do with the artists here,” says Pamela Romanowsky, the director of “The Adderall Diaries.” “The energy of the city is thirsty and driven, and that can be motivating and exciting, but it can also be hard.”
What: Tribeca Film Festival
When: April 15-26
Where: Lower Manhattan, New York