Tribeca finds its image

Evolving fest strikes balance between art, fun

It’s hard to do anything in New York in a small way. And the Tribeca Film Festival, which wraps its sophomore edition May 11, was no exception.

Easily the biggest show in town in Gotham last week, the festival was vast, frenetic and big business. Some 200 films, running the gamut from mass-market kids fare to Middle Eastern esoterica, ran over 10 days, compared to the highly groomed selection of 25-odd films at Tribeca’s more cerebral uptown cousin, the 40-year-old New York Film Festival.

And as befits any upstart in the Big Apple, Tribeca has something to prove: that a film festival can successfully blend community and corporate commerce with art and industry cred.

Its location, on the western edge of downtown Manhattan, where the World Trade Center once loomed, helps keep the focus on the founders’ cause of rebuilding the vitality of post-Sept. 11 lower Manhattan.

However, many feel that while the inaugural year rode a wave of goodwill, this year was the time to stand up and be counted as a film festival in its own right and not as a salve for a wounded downtown community.

The inordinate amount of publicity Tribeca garnered in only its second year is testament to the founders’ determination to create an event large enough in scope, fiscal strength and glitz to measure up to the city itself.

Perhaps even more so, it’s a testament to the corporate clout of its sponsors, the cachet of the founders’ celebrity supporters and the muscle of City Hall, which has been an unequivocal backer of the fest.

The mix, a potent blend of “festival with a cause” with a New York sense of scale, lured big-name backers including American Express, General Motors and Prada. Its eclectic palate of films had just enough of everything to appease the arthouse aficionados while drawing the crowds with sneak previews of such mainstream fare as “The Lizzie Maguire Movie” and “Daddy Day Care.”

With two big premieres, “Down With Love” and “The Italian Job,” bookending a fest that offered a sprinkling of work by downtown Gothamites, Tribeca fest director Peter Scarlet combed the globe to come up with the fest’s 200-title slate of features, docs, short films and restored classics. Founder Jane Rosenthal said the lineup had evolved from “credible to world-class.”

Many pundits feel Scarlet’s eclectic selections to some extent are swallowed up by the surrounding hoopla, which continues to galvanize media attention — the 10,000-seat Drive-In Cinema, celeb-laden panels, children’s events and the live MTV/VH1 concert.

If ever there were any doubt that this is not a fest along traditional lines, the kaleidoscopic mix of events at this sophomoric edition proved it.

“It’s like a food festival for film,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard. “You can sample many things from many different places, but you really don’t have any one focus, so you don’t necessarily get a good meal, just a taste.”

If, as its founders suggest, Tribeca’s mission is to create a new kind of festival, then its challenge is to streamline this smorgasbord into a more cohesive menu.

Having skipped over an awkward festival adolescence, Tribeca arguably has the clout to thrust itself into the big leagues commercially.

But it has yet to establish a single artistic mission within the filmmaking community, many of whom felt the films were secondary to the street-fair festivities of marching bands, live concerts, face painters, jugglers and stilt walkers.

Speaking at the opening-day press conference, co-founder De Niro dismissed the notion of the fest challenging either Cannes or Sundance. “We’re doing our own thing here and not competing with anyone else.”

Tribeca’s mission is unabashedly populist: a film festival to meet the tastes of both the connoisseur and the mainstream enthusiast, where building consumer buzz is as important as filling seats in cinemas.

With its corporate sponsors and underpinnings of spiritual and financial rebirth, founders are loath to muse about their longer-term ambitions for the event.

The festival was fast-tracked last year to inject some much-needed cash into local merchants’ depleted coffers, while rejuvenating some downtown spirit that was lost on Sept. 11.

The event succeeded in injecting some $10 million into the downtown economy, thanks to 78,000 additional taxicab rides, 90,000 restaurant meals and 3,600 hotel bookings. This year’s tally undoubtedly will be bigger.

The Tribeca Film Festival’s challenge is to move beyond its community concerns to forge a permanent place on the New York — and possibly worldwide — cultural map.

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