Tribeca sharpens focus

Fest streamlines programming, shifts duties

After last year’s heat over the Tribeca Film Festival’s shortcomings — too high ticket prices! too spread out! too many movies! — lowered to a simmer, some insiders were left wondering about the title changes among the rank and file.

There were rumors that fest chief Peter Scarlet had either been demoted or was departing altogether. But the underlying reasons proved to be more pragmatic than titillating.

When the fest launched in 2002, Scarlet’s title of executive director recognized his senior status as programmer but didn’t adequately speak to the overall challenges of running a festival. As other fests bear, the post is that of artistic director.

So when Scarlet was renamed artistic director, the operational side of the fest was put in the hands of new co-exec directors Nancy Schafer and Paola Freccero.

“Peter is one of the most respected film people in the world, he has impeccable taste,” assures IFC prexy Jonathan Sehring. “Tribeca is a public festival, akin to Toronto; they showcase a wide variety of movies and make them accessible to the public when most of these movies would not be seen.”

Schafer ran the South by Southwest film fest for eight years and joined Tribeca as a programmer in 2002.

Freccero cut her teeth at the Palm Springs Intl. Film Fest before moving to a senior programming post at the Sundance Channel. At Tribeca she covers Web content and special events.

In the tight, windowless office the two share in Tribeca, their chairs are nearly back to back. They’ve overheard each other’s conversations so many times they can, and do, speak for one another, frequently finishing each other’s sentences.

“Folks tend to think a fest is exclusively about the films,” Scarlet says. “Indeed, the films are the most critical part, but the idea that people hang a sheet on the barn and people come … a fest is as complicated a logistical task as landing people on the moon.”

Schafer and Freccero are quick to point out the challenges they face producing a film festival in a major city. “Other festivals are able to take over cineplexes,” Freccero says; “we are underscreened or overbooked. There’s not a theater that could hold the whole festival. And no exhibitor would let us take over 22 screens.”

They bemoan the lack of a building; partially due to the successful revitalization of the downtown area, a significant piece of real estate has proved both expensive and elusive. Several weeks ago, a deal to house Tribeca Enterprises and other arts organizations on Pier 40 hit the skids.

Still, some of the loudest criticism has come from those who say there’s no centralized area for filmmakers and filmgoers to converge. To that end, Freccero and Schafer have consolidated fest events into two major hubs, one in the Union Square area and the other at Pace U.

“We want people to see other people with badges and strike up a conversation, which is hard to do in New York City,” Freccero says.

While some have said the fest picks too many marginal movies, others have taken potshots at the inclusion of tentpoles like the “Spiderman” and “Mission: Impossible” sequels.

But Schafer responds, “Our films aren’t rejects from Sundance — we don’t know where they’ve applied, and we like all our films.”

Scarlet defends their esoteric slate with the argument that part of the mission is to screen films that would not otherwise be seen — and that blockbusters lure in audience members who, once there, check out other fare.

“I think it’s always interesting to just see some of those movies that for whatever reason didn’t appear at Sundance,” Miramax prexy Daniel Battsek says. “We definitely cover it to see some of those movies.”

“Every year we ask ourselves how can we do this better,” Scarlet says. “Nancy and Paola have done a fantastic job of ironing out the wrinkles.”

TIP SHEET

When: Wednesday thru May 4

Where: New York City’s AMC Loews 19th St., AMC Loews Village VII, City Cinemas Village East and others

Web: tribecafilmfestival.org

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