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Tribeca Film Festival Kicks Off With Storytelling for Every Size Screen

As feature filmmaking continues to compete for resources, talent and audiences with television, digital storytelling, video games and virtual reality, film festivals face a growing dilemma. How do you embrace the increasingly diversified field of filmed storytelling, without losing your identity?

For the Tribeca Film Festival, which returns to Manhattan for the 16th year this week, the answer is philosophical: While ensuring that film remains the centerpiece of its offerings, Tribeca has endeavored to look at the festival as a “convergence” point for narrative storytelling, rather than siloing its offerings into strict platforms.

“I would say that we’re screen-agnostic,” says Tribeca Enterprises CEO Jane Rosenthal, who started the fest with Robert De Niro back in 2002. “We have unusual timing,” she says by way of explaining the fest’s approach to unique programming. “We’re right before Cannes and right after SXSW — and we’re not a destination-based festival. We’re in New York City, so my competition here is ‘Hamilton.’ We’re competing with a hundred different things on a given night. So I guess we’ve never really had those strict boundaries.”

So while Tribeca is preparing to screen 98 films over its 12-day-run, it also looks to double-down on less-traditional platforms. Its television component has grown — after screening “The Night Of” and “The Night Manager” last year, Tribeca will offer 15 episodic screenings, as well as its new Pilot Season showcase, spotlighting three independent television productions that have yet to snag a home. VR, video games and small-screen content will also feature throughout the fest, with a VR experience directed by Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow scheduled to debut.

Per Rosenthal, incorporating new technology and alternative media into the programming has been a mandate throughout Tribeca’s history. In 2011, the festival became the first to integrate video games into its official program, premiering footage from Rockstar Games’ “L.A. Noire,” and in 2005 it launched a pre-YouTube user-submitted digital short film competition with Amazon.

“We’ve always been into VR, going back to the data glove,” Rosenthal says. “Bob [De Niro] and I produced a CD-ROM back in the ’90s. We’ve always been into non-linear storytelling.”

And following an emergent tradition that has seen the likes of Nas and Alicia Keys perform right after credits roll on Tribeca screenings in recent years, opening-night film “Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives” will be followed immediately by performances from Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Hudson. Other music programming includes the Whitney Houston documentary “Whitney. ‘Can I Be Me’” and “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: The Bad Boy Story.”

For veteran film producer Paula Weinstein, who joined Tribeca as executive VP back in 2013, broadening the festival’s purview can serve as part of a proactive approach to some of the newer challenges facing the traditional Hollywood model.

“You can look at this time period from the Hollywood viewpoint and see all the difficulties [film] is facing,” she says. “Or you could take a glass half-full perspective and see all the new opportunities for different types of storytelling that exist.”

Yet fest organizers are quick to note that for all the next-gen programming, feature film section remains by far the largest element of the event, albeit one that saw a tightening in its lineup over the past year. Tribeca’s film slate is 20% smaller than last year’s, predating a similar slimming down from the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

In addition to a gala premiere of the Tom Hanks-Emma Watson-starring “The Circle” and a closing-night screening of “The Godfather” and “The Godfather: Part II,” which will reunite Francis Ford Coppola and most of the films’ surviving casts for a special Q&A, the festival hopes to put a spotlight on emerging filmmakers in its U.S. competition program.

Director of programming Cara Cusumano notes the festival’s history of offering exposure to unheralded youngsters, from Damien Chazelle (who premiered his debut, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” at Tribeca back in 2009) to “Kicks” director Justin Tipping last year, and has similar hopes for some of the first-timers in this year’s program: From “Love After Love” helmer Russell Harbaugh to 22-year-old wunderkind Quinn Shephard, who wrote, directed, produced and stars in her debut drama, “Blame.”

“The challenge is to simultaneously have a festival that’s broad and encompasses all these [non-film] fields, but at the same time is really curatorial and focused,” Cusumano says. “That’s why our film program this year is much tighter. We’re 20% lighter in terms of features, and that’s because we wanted to be sure that everything has its space, everything feels like it’s here for a reason, and that it’s not a film portion overtaking the other sections. Film is always going to be the centerpiece of what we do, but those satellite worlds — music, the talk series — have to mirror that same curatorial approach.”

Ideally, these more tightly curated selections will also help build on one of the more unheralded aspects of Tribeca — its market. Last year, 52 of the festival’s film entries ended up finding distribution and release.

“As we reach out to filmmakers and agents when we start to program the festival, they do want to come here for sales reasons,” Cusumano says. “That’s a big appeal in choosing to premiere here, so word is starting to get out there.”

For Weinstein, bridging the divide between the coasts is a prime objective going forward. “I spend a lot of time in L.A. talking to buyers and agents,” she says. “That’s the sort of relationship that takes a while to build, and we’re still a very young festival. It’s a growth-evolution process.”

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