If everything had gone according to plan, the Tribeca Film Festival would have just wrapped its 19th edition, celebrating the best of indie film in the heart of New York City.
Alas, the coronavirus had other ideas, shuttering the festival and leaving its backers without a clear way to move forward. Founders Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro and staff had to scramble for ways to innovate. In a matter of weeks, Tribeca launched several digital offerings meant to highlight filmmakers and creators who had hoped to premiere their latest works at the spring gathering.
“We just looked at each other and said we know there’s a way of doing this, so let’s make it happen,” says De Niro.
But Tribeca isn’t stopping there. It has also partnered with festivals such as Cannes and Toronto to create a 10-day digital film festival, dubbed We Are One, which will air exclusively starting May 29 on YouTube. Planning is still taking place, but the hope is that any money generated from the event will go to support the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 relief efforts.
“Tribeca has always looked for alternative ways to use technology to bring audiences together,” says Rosenthal. “We just saw this as an important way to support our filmmakers and to show their films to the press and industry. In unorthodox times, we need to do what we can to preserve art and culture.”
Tribeca, of course, knows a thing or two about operating a film festival during periods of national tragedy. It was formed in 2002 to bring people back to downtown Manhattan at a time when the city was in the midst of rebuilding from the 9/11 attacks. Once again, New York has been hit hard by catastrophe. As of May 4, the city has seen more than 170,500 people diagnosed with COVID-19; over 13,500 have died from the disease — both the case numbers and the death toll far exceed those of any other city in the nation. De Niro, who has been a frequent and fierce critic of President Trump, blames the White House’s slow response to the outbreak for the devastation that New York has experienced.
“The whole thing is unimaginable,” says De Niro. “This administration made everybody suffer so needlessly. What the president has done is beyond infuriating. He could have stopped this and he didn’t, and he doesn’t show any empathy for people. Every day, he demonstrates his ineptitude and idiocy. I can’t wait until Election Day.”
In the meantime, Tribeca dove into the digital realm, figuring ways to make its programming available at a time when public health officials have prevented large gatherings. On offer: a selection of projects from its virtual reality and branded storytelling arms, as well as talks with industry figures such as the creative teams behind shows like “Normal People” and movies including “Bad Education,” which will be broadcast digitally. To give filmmakers a chance to get their movies in front of critics and distributors, the festival has made many of its short films and features available online to accredited press and industry figures. It also has decided to recognize top talent by having its jury hand out prizes.
The issues that Tribeca and other film festivals have been wrestling with are the same ones being debated across the industry. Movie theaters are trying to figure out how they can safely reopen, while television and film sets are coming up with novel ways to resume production without exposing their casts and crews to the virus.
“We have to retrain everyone and rethink everything,” says Rosenthal. “We need to get our industry back to work, because so many below-the-line workers are hurting. Hopefully, what we come up with will be safer and better than what was there before this.”
Unlike other events, Tribeca has postponed its festival, but it has stopped short of canceling it outright. Rosenthal says it’s possible that the event will happen in the fall at a time when Tribeca usually hosts a TV-centric festival. However, she acknowledges that it won’t unfold as it would have in April had COVID-19 not interceded.
“It won’t be the 19th edition that we had planned with the same films and programs that we’d scheduled,” says Rosenthal. “First and foremost, we will do it in a way that puts the health and safety of our guests and filmmakers first, but we will also do it in a way that celebrates New York and honors what we’ve been through.”
De Niro, who lives in New York and, thanks to his roles in masterpieces like “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” is synonymous with its cultural pulse, believes that the city will be able to reemerge from the terrible disease and deaths.
“New York is tough, and we’ll get through this,” he says.