Still Making Sense of Tribeca? Indie Execs Weigh in on 3rd Tribeca Film Festival
by Eugene Hernandez
“What are you hearing about Tribeca?” many people in the New York film industry ask, often in hushed tones. It’s safe to say that quite a few industry types in the city’s independent movie business still don’t quite know what to make of the Tribeca Film Festival. The third edition of the Festival kicks off in Lower Manhattan tomorrow (Saturday) with a larger event than last year, spreading out over nine full days of screenings and events aimed, primarily, at again drawing customers to the streets of Tribeca. Large, diverse crowds did fill festival screenings in the first two years, and even though many people in the local film biz are unclear about the goals and direction of the festival. A few in the community were willing to weigh in with their thoughts this week. Some specifically stated that they hope their comments will help shape the direction of the Tribeca Film Festival.
Good for The City, But What About the Movies?
“It’s good for downtown and in that sense it’s good for New York,” explained Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, who cautioned, “It is for people who like popcorn movies and mainstream movies — the festival is not a place where film buyers flock or film critics flock.” Bernard, who’s company will screen Mario Van Peebles‘ “Baadassss!” at the fest, added that the festival programming is part of the problem, saying, “The festival is not getting the cream of the crop.” He concluded, “Their goal is to try and get people going to downtown, they have done a tremendous job at that.” He is referring to the festival’s premieres. Thirty films will have their world premiere in Tribeca, part of a program that mixes American independents lacking distribution and unseen international films, as well as movies made here in New York City. There are 13 North American premieres and 10 U.S. premieres on the roster. Securing premieres has been a rule among programmers at the fest, aimed at making the festival a must-attend event for the film industry.
A buyer at a leading Indiewood company, who requested anonymity, gave indieWIRE an even harsher assessment of the festival. “It is better for New York itself than it is for the industry,” the exec said. “The festival does provide a great platform for debut films as the festival is highly attended by NY (talent) agencies. The films may not get theatrical distribution but the directors could fare well as far as representation is concerned and find financing partners for upcoming projects.” This exec’s biggest criticism was the film selection, calling it a “mixed bag,” adding, “The programming is the weakest aspect of the festival — they are screening films that the Sundance Film Festival unanimously turned down in December! Right now it still feels like a fairly generic film festival that is just promoting the city and specifically the rebuilding of downtown Manhattan after September 11th.”
In its first two years, the festival has launched such films as Dylan Kidd‘s “Roger Dodger” in year one, setting the film up for deal that would close after the event in Cannes, and premiering the popular surfing doc, “Step Into Liquid.” Both movies were acquired by Artisan. Other films have emerged from the fest, but organizers are anxious to see deal-making happen during the event.
“It is a nice kind of bookend to Sundance: for those films that weren’t ready or did not get in for whatever reasons,” countered Marie Therese Guirgis, head of acquisitions at Wellspring. “They can still premiere in a prestigious, quality event heavily attended by distributors, press and ‘taste-makers.'” And Guirgis agreed that the new Tribeca All Access program, aimed at shepherding movies by people of color, is a good step for the event. “I think the All Access meetings are a great idea and will help form Tribeca into a truly NYC event. It is important to note that many filmmakers and producers don’t have opportunity because they don’t have access and this is a high-profile well-attended organization helping to facilitate that.”
Tribeca All Access
The All Access program, established and championed by Tribeca Film Festival programmers Nancy Schafer and David Kwok (who are fixtures within New York’s film and fest community), has clearly made an initial mark, giving a number of projects a platform at a time when diversity is a crucial issue facing independent film. “Any festival needs to stay connected to their community base,” noted Kelly DeVine from the Independent Film Channel, who said that she will be scouting the fest for movies. “NYC being so diverse, half of the battle for Tribeca will be deciding on what community that will be.” She said that the new Tribeca All Access initiative is a step in the right direction for the festival. She added, “It also highlights another way in which the ‘festival,’ originally an event to showcase films for fans, is increasingly fulfilling functions within film distribution, exhibition and, now, development that had previously only been accessible through more traditional structures.”
The festival’s aggressive marketing, driven by millions of dollars of support by American Express, has been hard to miss for people making their way around Manhattan to and from home or work. The high awareness for the event, and its sizable budget for an event so young, has made the festival an especially large target for criticism. “Like an adolescent whose feet and Adam’s apple get big before the rest of his body, this ‘kid’ has billboards and subway posters before it has other, more important things,” summarized Mark Urman, head of distribution at THINKFilm. “This year, if the premieres and the press coverage of the films (as opposed to the coverage of the events) comes through, the youngster won’t look so awkward.” Asked about the festival’s programming, Urman added, “Eclectic doesn’t even begin to describe the event — which could be it’s best eventual identity. Let’s see if this year’s crop is any good.”
Wrong Time of Year
“Although the timing and focus on studio pictures is unfortunate, the Festival remains a significant showcase for American independent films,” explained Micah Green from Cinetic. “Strong fiction and non-fiction work is having its premiere or industry premiere there,” he added, citing films such as “A League of Ordinary Gentlemen,” which he is repping for sale in Tribeca. “In the future the fest could be an ideal place for similar industry follow-ups for films that have garnered awards or strong reviews at regional festival premieres.”
For many, at the end of the day, the festival’s timing remains a big problem. It’s a subject that comes up in more conversations about the event. Organizers are determined to keep the festival during one of the few warmer months, to ensure a large crowd of people on the Tribeca streets and at outdoor free programs. Yet, positioning it the week before Cannes seems to be a deal-breaker for the film industry. June, July, or August might be a better fit with local industry types. “The timing of the fest is a little stressful for acquisitions executives and NYC-based companies,” explained Guirgis from Wellspring. “We are in the thick of preparing for Cannes and many people like to leave early for meetings in Paris but it is difficult because we need to screen films in Tribeca, as well as to host talent in town.”
The aforementioned anonymous film executive agreed, “The scheduling of the festival is grueling for most industry execs and critics as it is larger, longer and still only one week before the start of largest, busiest market… Cannes.” Concluding, the exec said, “You can’t have a festival with a high concentration of foreign-language films held right before Cannes unless the films selected clearly stand out or are prestigious enough to turn down a Cannes premiere.”
“My stamina needs help; that’s the real problem,” summarized Urman from THINKFilm, “Working this festival into one’s life as one is packing for Cannes!”
The great thing about the festival is that it really does bring film to the people,” offered Ryan Werner, head of theatrical distribution at Wellspring, “You will see thousands of people downtown seeing films that they might never have seen otherwise. There is definitely an important place for this.”
Concluding Werner added, “The one thing I find rather unfortunate is that the press tends to use this as a way to look down on festivals that focus on film as art. The New York Film Festival took a lot of unfair beating this year for it’s ‘stuffy’ ways. The fact is that the journalists that are generating this press are generally the same people that would rather see the latest Hollywood film rather than anything with any depth. Hopefully in time, they’ll realize that there is room for both.”
[indieWIRE editors will be in Tribeca to report on the latest from the Tribeca Film Festival.]