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Tribeca Film Festival Enters Its Rebellious Phase

Fest delves into transmedia and interactive storytelling, aiming for titles outside of typical filmmaking

The Tribeca Film Festival turns 12 this year, and like most adolescents on the doorstep of puberty, it has a voracious appetite for new experiences, little sense of its own limits, and a healthy rebellious streak: try to tell it what it is or what it should be and it’ll just slam the bedroom door in your face. It even plays videogames.

(From the pages of the April 16 issue of Variety.)

Call it an identity crisis of sorts. Certainly, few would deny that Tribeca, which generates hundreds of millions in revenue for the city, has yet to carve out as distinctive a perch in the New York festival circuit as its storied crosstown rival, Lincoln Center’s half-century-old New York Film Festival.

But what some in the media may see as drawbacks, Tribeca’s leaders see as virtues. “I think of Tribeca as a young festival that hasn’t been able to have a vision that was stable and clear, and now has that in a real way,” says Geoff Gilmore, chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises and former director of the Sundance Film Festival.

Tribeca, co-founded by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, also has suffered in recent years from a lack of leadership stability.

When Gilmore joined Tribeca in 2009, direct from a two-decade stint at Sundance, he was, by his own admission, looking for a change. He wanted to get his hands out of programming and take a leadership role in some of Tribeca’s other enterprises, like the nascent Tribeca Doha Film Festival and the Tribeca Film distribution label that launched shortly after his arrival.

Then, in November of 2011, David Kwok stepped down after a decade as Tribeca’s director of programming, and Rosenthal and De Niro asked Gilmore to get more involved in programming.

He did, by hiring artistic director Frederic Boyer, a veteran French critic and former head programmer of Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, and assigning increased responsibility to Tribeca’s programming director, Genna Terranova, who joined Tribeca in 2007, after working in acquisitions for Miramax and the Weinstein Co.

“When I first talked to Frederic about getting involved with Tribeca, I said, ‘You know what’s liberating about this? I don’t have to program with my Sundance hat and you don’t have to program with your Cannes hat,’ ” recalls Gilmore, who during his Sundance tenure saw the festival alternately exalted and castigated in the press for its influential impact on the American indie film scene.

(Pictured Above: Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep at Tribeca’s post 9/11 launch.)

At Tribeca, Gilmore hastens, he’s still only a part-time programmer. “These guys watch a lot more than I do,” he says of his colleagues. Spend a couple of hours talking with the Tribeca team about the past, present and future of the festival, and a few key buzzwords emerge. One is “choice,” Gilmore and his cohorts’ response to the perception that Tribeca’s placement on the festival calendar — one month after SXSW and one month before Cannes — puts the event at a disadvantage insofar as securing high-profile premieres is concerned.

“We feel like we have a lot of choices to make, and have to make some really tough choices,” maintains Terranova, noting that the festival receives more than 6,000 short and feature-length submissions annually.

Gilmore concurs.

“We’re not picking from the bottom of the barrel,” he says, pointing to such recent Tribeca breakouts as last year’s “War Witch” and 2009’s “Let the Right One In” as examples of films that premiered at other festivals but generated their greatest buzz, and sold to North American distributors, at Tribeca.

Another key word is “boxes,” as in the ones the Tribeca programmers are resolved to thinking outside of. On one hand, they don’t see Tribeca as a cinephilic “festival of festivals” like the New York Film Festival (where this reporter served for six years as a programmer). On the other, they don’t see themselves as a market, even though Gilmore takes obvious pride in the fact that 37 of 60 available titles were bought out of Tribeca’s 2012 edition. The only real organizing principle, he says, is to “make quality our first and foremost criteria across the spectrum, and do things that catch people’s attention.”

As Boyer points out: “A festival should be a show, an excitement, a fiesta of the cinema.”

Finally, there is “innovation,” a nod to special screenings and events devoted to exploring new models of storytelling, including the U.S. premiere of “Tricked,” directed by Paul Verhoeven from a crowdsourced screenplay; and Storyscapes, an inaugural sidebar of transmedia projects.

Another decade from now, Gilmore says, he hopes to be able to look back and feel that the festival has been integral to what emerged. “I really want to look at us as an organization that helped to establish the future of film.”

Terranova adds: “Some of the things we’re doing now don’t fit into boxes, they’re a little experimental, but experimental in a good way, where you can see a form, you can see a function. I think that’s what’s exciting.”

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