Compared to other sprocket operas of its size and stature, the Tribeca Film Festival is still an astonishingly young to-do. Founded in 2002, the event has only just entered its teens, and like any entity that age, its identity remains in flux. I say this as someone who sat out the festival for the past 10 years, but who was there for its inaugural three editions, back when the Tribeca Film Festival actually took place in TriBeCa — that downtown “Triangle Below Canal St.” neighborhood so close to the World Trade Center.
Over the past 13 years, the festival has shifted its geographic footprint several times, reaching from Battery Park (on Manhattan’s southern tip, just adjacent to Ground Zero) all the way up to Lincoln Square, before settling primarily in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. The programming has been similarly all over the map in that time, though it feels like Tribeca has finally figured out what it is — and isn’t.
New film festivals are born every year, but the launch of Tribeca back in 2002 was something special. There, in the wake of 9/11 terrorist attacks, just as the New York economy and morale had taken a huge hit, was a massive cultural event. Massive. And as its mascot, the festival had Robert De Niro, perhaps the most iconic of New York actors — none too articulate, but that hardly mattered, as Sundance founder Robert Redford had proven, essentially repeating the same platitudes at the outset of his Park City festival every year.
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But what was Tribeca exactly? The New York Film Festival already served the town’s highly refined cinematic tastes each fall, and tiny, hyper-targeted film festivals unspooled every weekend in town at venues like the Anthology Film Archives and Two Boots Pioneer Theater (now closed). The Tribeca lineup that first year sent so many mixed messages: There were restorations and premieres, family films and midnight movies, plus a handful of independent films that had clearly been passed over by more established festivals, including Dylan Kidd’s New York-set debut, “Roger Dodger,” which proved to be pretty darn good.
For years, that weird blend of offerings persisted, as Tribeca tried to be everything to everybody: a local festival for New Yorkers, featuring Gotham premieres of films that had impressed the programmers elsewhere on the circuit, as well as a market, where distribs might acquire diamond-in-the-rough indies. Of course, back in 2002, there were fewer diamonds to be found, which placed Tribeca farther down the ladder of importance (after Toronto, Sundance and SXSW in North America) than its organizers might have liked. Though buyers now attend in significant numbers, for years, it was a festival that many in the industry could comfortably skip — or one where they uncomfortably felt obliged to sit through pics of questionable quality.
These days, the sheer volume of indie films vying for festival slots has exploded, and Tribeca — which understands that the way to attract press and industry attention is to program world premieres — is no longer limited to the scraps left behind by other festivals. In numerous cases, such as Dito Monteil’s “Boulevard” (which some expected to premiere at Sundance, where rumor has it they can’t stand Robin Williams), that leaves some pretty good films up for grabs. Still, Tribeca’s weakness seems to be picking lousy movies with name actors over quality submissions from unknowns, as pics like “Murder of a Cat” (the directorial debut of Sam Raimi’s wife, Gillian Greene) and “Every Secret Thing” (from Oscar nominee Amy Berg) demonstrate, or opening with flashy music docs since they offer the excuse to kick things off with a concert, a la Nas’ “Time Is Illimatic” this year.
Pragmatically speaking, in a city like New York, organizers need a hook to lure people away from the city’s many other cultural offerings, lest they run the risk of being ignored by locals, the way the Los Angeles Film Festival has since moving downtown. Perhaps predictably, Tribeca programmers — led by Geoff Gilmore, Frederic Boyer and Genna Terranova — show a preference for New York-set stories, which has been a signature of the festival since the beginning. This year, the most unexpected surprise was Victor Levin’s beautifully written, only-in-Manhattan romance “5 to 7,” centered on the unconventional affair between a young American writer (Anton Yelchin) and a married French woman (Berenice Marlohe) whom he picks up smoking outside the St. Regis Hotel.
After a dozen years, the festival has been running long enough that relationships forged years ago continue to pay dividends, whether that means landing a punchy pic like “Glass Chin” (by Tribeca vet Noah Buschel) or being selected to premiere a “In Your Eyes,” the latest from screenwriter Joss Whedon (“The Avengers” closed the 2012 fest) and director Brin Hill (whose short “Morning Breath” played Tribeca’s first year). Whedon surprised fans by announcing afterward that “In Your Eyes” would be available for immediate download, a strategy that the festival itself is also pioneering, releasing three pics — “The Bachelor Weekend,” “Bright Days Ahead” and “Beneath the Harvest Sky” — on-demand via their distribution arm, Tribeca Film, earlier this month.