The last few years have been especially complicated for Frédéric Boyer, the affable Parisian movie buff who used to run a video store in Paris and went on to run a film festival in Cannes. After assisting with the programming at Cannes' Directors' Fortnight sidebar for several years, Boyer took on the reins as artistic director of the festival in 2009, replacing the revered Olivier Pere when he headed to Locarno.
The arrangement was short-lived: Facing criticism from a mob of French press perturbed by Boyer's aesthetically challenging Fortnight program, the Society of Film Directors dismissed Boyer from his position earlier this year.
And now, only a few months later, Boyer has a new plan: The Tribeca Film Festival announced yesterday that it hired the French programmer as its artistic director, a new position.
Geoff Gilmore, the chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises who previously spent 20 years running the Sundance Film Festival, approached Boyer about the job during the Toronto Film Festival in September. Boyer, who also serves as the Artistic Director for Les Arcs European Film Festival at Les Arcs ski resort in the Alps, spent some time thinking about the position before accepting it during a visit to New York last week.
"I told Geoff that I don't want to be a programmer and just bring films," Boyer said in a phone conversation with Indiewire yesterday. "I want to bring my passion and share my taste."
That means he won't have to dive into every programming detail alongside Genna Terranova, a longtime senior programmer who has replaced departing director of programming David Kwok. But Boyer hopes to infuse the festival with his sensibilities, which include several emerging names on the festival circuit. He cites Julia Loktev, Ronnie Bronstein and the Safdie brothers as the part of a "new wave" of work he would like to bring to the festival, which shrank to 85 slots a few years ago.
"It's not just about programming 85 films," Boyer said. "It's about finding a current, an argument for why I want to show these films that I can explain to my programmers."
Boyer will have little time to settle into his new gig, which is not a year-round position. His contractual arrangement with the festival begins in January and runs through July, providing him with only a few months to prepare for the April festival. He's currently working on securing his work visa and plans to spend the first month of the year in New York. He won't attend Sundance, but hopes to make it to Berlin in early February.
In the meantime, Boyer has to do his homework: Because of Tribeca's closeness to Cannes on the calendar, he has never attended the New York festival before. "I have a lot to learn," he said, although obviously the festival will learn a lot about him as well. "I don't want to impose anything," he said, "but I will have the last word on the films there."
If the shift marks a major change for Boyer, it also reflects the intense period of evolution taking place at Tribeca, a festival that has been in an identity crisis since its inception over a decade ago. Founded by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal with the initial stated purpose of bringing business back to Lower Manhattan after 9/11, the festival has faced repeated scrutiny for a vast, sometimes unfocused program that threatened to alienate members of the public and the industry alike.
However, more recent editions have seen noticeable improvements to the lineup, and Tribeca continues to explore new avenues such as distribution. Kwok's departure, which was announced last month but known to the festival long before, instigated discussions about restructuring the festival. The end result was both Gilmore's offer to Boyer in Toronto and the chief creative officer's own decision to take "a more active role" in the festival's program.
Nancy Schafer, Tribeca's executive director, met Boyer for the first time in September through Gilmore. Boyer, whose reputation in the European film industry precedes him, needed no complicated introduction. "I was nervous when I met him," Schafer said, "but he's such a nice guy." Now, she said she's certain of his qualifications. "Programming really boils down to a keen sensibility and a good eye for films that audiences will like," she said. "The other part of it is having a deep roster of contacts. Frederic has those things."
For Gilmore, approaching Boyer was a no-brainer. "When I talked to colleagues about it, there wasn't a single person who thought I could find a better person at this moment," he said. "He's got terrific perspective and knows that programming Tribeca isn't exactly the same as programming Cannes." Of course, it also helped that Boyer was on the market for a new job. "It was a very opportune moment for us," Gilmore added.
Tribeca has long identified itself as "a discovery festival," a term Schafer used once again when speaking with Indiewire this week. While that definition may run counter to the ubiquitous American Express sponsorship and red carpet glitz, Boyer's reputation certainly does not. When speaking about his mandate to program only films he loved at Fortnight, Boyer told Indiewire back in May: "When I feel like a professional, I'll quit."
Eventually, it wasn't his call. The programmer calls his clash with the French press over the past year "a very bad experience," but mainly bemoaned the limitations of the program. "At Fortnight, I could only program around 24 films," he said. "I had to say 'no' every day. Now I can be more open."
He also hopes to move beyond the mandate for exclusive programming content. "In Cannes, we mostly needed world premieres," he said. "In Tribeca, we can have New York premieres, North American premieres and world premieres. It's more important to have a wonderful film with a New York premiere than a less important film as a world premiere."
Gilmore, a divisive figure in the festival world but also frequently credited with putting Sundance on the map, has stayed away from the programming arena since his arrival at Tribeca two years ago. "It's really been a church-and-state thing," he said. "Now, I'm trying to add my voice to a range of new ideas. I'd like to contribute to how to make this a better festival." In other words, he will play an active, daily role in the programming process, but Boyer will choose the lineup, working closely with Terranova.
None of this means that Tribeca will go through any major transformation come next April. "Are there big changes afoot for 2012?" Schafer asked rhetorically. "No. We continue to want to bring the best films possible, but we're not radically shaking things up."
Boyer feels the same way about his career. For the time being, he will remain onboard as the head of Les Arcs European Film Festival. However, while Gilmore wouldn't comment on specific long-term plans, he did say he would like to see his new hire work for Tribeca year-round in the foreseeable future. As for Boyer, he's keeping his options open. "I feel very comfortable with Geoff and Nancy," he said. "We'll see. I'll do my best."