Tribeca finds footing as buzz incubator

Fest balances appeal to industry, Gotham public

The Tribeca Film Festival kicks off its 2011 edition tonight with “The Union,” Cameron Crowe’s docu about the collaboration between musicians Elton John and Leon Russell. Rather than an exclusive gala, the event is a public, outdoor screening that incorporates a live performance from John.

It’s that slant toward accessibility that, industry types say, has come to define a festival that has struggled, in its decade of existence, with the perception that it’s a fest in search of an identity.

“Tribeca is a real populist festival,” said Tom Bernard, co-topper of Sony Pictures Classics, which has Tribeca screenings for upcoming releases “The Guard,” “Higher Ground” and “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest.” “They’ve kind of found their identity.”

Tribeca may not have gained a rep as a high-profile marketplace like Sundance and Cannes but instead has evolved into a media-magnet launchpad for films targeting a summer release.

“In the same way that Toronto takes advantage of being in September to be a kickoff for fall films, I think Tribeca does the same in the spring,” said Arianna Bocco, head of acquisitions for Sundance Selects/IFC Films, which will screen Michael Winterbottom’s Steve Coogan comedy “The Trip” and Yves Saint Laurent doc “L’Amour fou” in the fest.

Thanks to Tribeca’s annual publicity blitz — not to mention the marketing muscle of the fest’s numerous sponsors, including American Express — New York press pays attention to the fest. And with so many Gotham outlets exerting national influence, that’s a handy thing for distributors looking to build buzz for a summer pic.

“There’s a lot of press attendance,” said Peter Goldwyn of Samuel Goldwyn Films, prepping for the world preem of Jason Sudeikis starrer “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy” during the fest ahead of a theatrical release later in the summer. “By having the cast of ‘Orgy’ come out for Tribeca, it’s a good way to start the hype on it.”

As for acquisitions activity, most observers agree Tribeca remains a tier below Cannes or Sundance. Still, some say the fest has become an important stop for the more indie-minded film sales agents and distributor scouts.

“Over the past 10 years, it’s become a real market,” said the Film Sales Co.’s Andrew Herwitz, who last year sold pics including “Meet Monica Velour” and “Spork” out of Tribeca. This year he’s hawking Kathleen Turner topliner “The Perfect Family” and documentaries “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life” and “Semper Fi: Always Faithful.”

What Tribeca hasn’t had, according to a number of industry types, is a major, fest-defining sale. “They haven’t had their ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ yet,” noted Ed Burns, the filmmaker who has bowed a total of five films in past fests and returns this year with the world preem of “Newlyweds,” the comedy that closes the festival.

It’s often the broad variety of offerings that bizzers cite as a major factor in the fest’s identity uncertainty. According to organizers, though, the inclusiveness has always been part of the point.

“We’ve always been very consistent in the types of films we program, from experimental to international to New York independents to studio films, and everything in between,” said Tribeca programming director David Kwok. “We never called ourselves an independent film festival. For us, we always look to create a balanced program of contemporary world cinema.”

Due in part to the fest’s concerted outreach to auds beyond the usual fest circuit, more commercial fare and star-cast projects tend to attract plenty of attention.

Thesps on Tribeca screens this year include Ryan Phillippe (“The Bang Bang Club”), Adrien Brody (“Detachment”), Orlando Bloom (“The Good Doctor”), Chris Evans (“Puncture”) and Jeremy Piven (“Angels Crest”). There’s also Michael Sheen and Toni Collette in comedy “Jesus Henry Christ” and Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington in drama “Last Night” to attract festgoers looking for recognizable faces.

But among industry auds, many see the fest’s docu offerings as the most interesting element of its lineup. Docs that have turned heads already include “Bombay Beach,” Alma Har’el’s experimental nonfiction hybrid about the idiosyncratic inhabitants of the Salton Sea, and the latest from Alex Gibney, the baseball-themed “Catching Hell.” (Gibney’s then-untitled doc “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” was one of the buzzed-about titles of the 2010 festival.)

Also drawing attention are docus about well-known figures looking to break out of the fest in the same way as last year’s “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” That lineup includes the Channing and Saint Laurent docs, as well as “God Bless Ozzy Osbourne.”

Complaints about the scheduling of Tribeca can still be heard, especially among those for whom the late-April Tribeca skedding impacts their prep for Cannes. This year the fest faces the added hurdle of coinciding with Good Friday and Easter, which fall unusually late.

Tribeca launched in 2002 in an effort to reactivate downtown Manhattan in the wake of 9/11. Because of those roots in community rejuvenation, public events — including the annual street fair and outdoor screenings such as “The Union” and, in coming days, “Fame,” “When the Drum Is Beating” and “The Muppets Take Manhattan” — have come to be considered as integral to the fest’s identity as the rest of its slate.

“We have three broad communities: the Tribeca neighborhood, the New York community and the industry community,” said fest exec director Nancy Schafer.

Fest organizers also hope the event will be defined by its online initiatives, including this year’s Tribeca Festival Films Online. There’s also the affiliated distribution platform Tribeca Film, which aims to benefit from the brand established by the fest.

“The whole idea is to use the festival as a platform to extend film to a larger audience,” Kwok said. “I think that’s the direction we’re going to go in the future.”