Tribeca pulls off stunning start

Can fest rival Sundance, Toronto and Cannes?

NEW YORK — “This is amazing,” stuttered a humbled Robert De Niro, standing on a massive stage for the Tribeca Film Festival/MTV concert and comedy festival May 10 in Battery Park.

Eight months earlier, on the morning of Sept. 11. Battery Park had been the destination of thousands of scared office workers.

Now New Yorkers were euphoric, watching MTV musicvideos or short films on a mammoth screen, listening to David Bowie, Wyclef Jean and Sheryl Crow, laughing at Jimmy Fallon and Robin Williams.

For five days the Tribeca Film Festival spread from City Hall to Battery Park and all along the West Side’s Greenwich Street, where more than 100,000 people rediscovered the neighborhood known as Tribeca, which fest founders Jane Rosenthal and De Niro had helped put on the map.

Ticket sales were twice what was anticipated (about 30,000), and a screening of Warner Bros.’ “Insomnia” was so overbooked organizers hastily commandeered two overflow theaters nearby.

But as calm returns to Tribeca, the film biz has begun to wonder: Can this new festival compete with Sundance, Toronto and Cannes to land high-profile films and become a stop for making acquisitions?

Whatever it finally becomes, its organizers clearly believe it has a future.

Martin Scorsese, flanked by De Niro and Rosenthal at the fest’s closing ceremonies, announced the formation of a Tribeca Institute, which will function in much the same way as the Sundance Institute: fostering film talent year-round while keeping the fest’s name in the public eye.

For the moment, TFF seems likely to bear more similarities to Toronto than other fests, with its healthy mix of local filmgoers and industry dealmakers.

Certainly it will continue to attract a star quotient on a par with Sundance and Cannes. But Tribeca must prove itself a viable place to pick up product before the hustling crowd of agents, managers, producers and distribution execs deigns to descend — and some filmmakers who attended this year hope they won’t.

This year the acquisitions and distribution community, in its usual pre-Cannes frenzy, didn’t seem terribly interested in the pics TFF had to offer.

Many attendees said the pickings were slim, with the exception of winning narrative film “Roger Dodger,” helmed by Dylan Kidd.

But that may well be due to the lack of prep time; next year, fest organizers have the opportunity to attract top filmmakers who might prefer to premiere their pics in Gotham rather than shlep them to the glitzy Croisette, where it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.

Certainly TFF has already shown that a well-supported Gotham film festival has unlimited potential. No film festival, in any economic environment, can top what Tribeca achieved in just 120 days of planning.

Waving the Sept. 11 flag, the powerful De Niro and Rosenthal galvanized support for New York. Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and dozens of celebs were all too willing to play their part. But Rosenthal and De Niro’s biggest coup was roping in American Express, which committed roughly $10 million for three years.

Such financial muscle helped TFF get the word out. The organizers bought full-page color ads in newspapers across the country, banners throughout lower Manhattan and local radio spots. They also created a wide array of TFF merchandise.

The PR machine clearly worked: A rep for U., whose “About a Boy” opened the fest, said the studio normally shies from Gotham premieres because they don’t attract as much media attention as those in L.A. But launching “Boy” at TFF was “huge,” he says. “The press presence was enormous. We’d do it again in a New York minute!”

And the fest achieved its goal of bringing business back to Tribeca. One bartender at a Greenwich Street restaurant, who had became used to lazy afternoons, called business “insane.”

The owners of the 15-plex UA Battery Park, shuttered since Sept. 11, must have been counting their lucky stars, as were hotel managers for the nearby Embassy Suites, whose atrium overlooking ground zero was packed at the premiere after-party for “Insomnia.”

Even in its infancy, the TFF looks poised to compete aggressively with the New York Film Festival, a staple on the fall fest landscape. Suddenly, the NYFF seems a stodgy uptown affair that has failed to find ways to open its fine films to a broader public.

Not that TFF has yet achieved the kind of democratic ideals it purports to celebrate. As Rosenthal went from table to table greeting filmmakers at a brunch in their honor, filmmakers quietly argued amongst themselves about just how inclusive and supportive fest organizers had been.

But no film festival was born without flaws. In an era of movie sequel mania, the question that lingers is, Can the TFF produce an even better installment next year?