We all know the criticism leveled at Tribeca each year: It's the event that all the girls really like but never date.
The Tribeca guy is decent and well-groomed, has real personality, he's cultured and bilingual, he's fun, family-friendly and tries to cater to everyone's needs.
But there's always the spontaneous, crazy guy (SXSW); the older, experienced guy (Sundance); the sexy European guy (Cannes); the elegant, borderline pretentious guy (Telluride); and the non-threatening business guy (Toronto). Even Tribeca's roommates, the New York Film Festival and New Directors/New Films, seem to get luckier.
But why does that seem to be the case? People genuinely like and appreciate what the directors — who include chief creative officer Geoffrey Gilmore, artistic director Frederic Boyer, executive director Nancy Schafer and programming director Genna Terranova — bring to New York's theaters for the 12-day event, which ended Sunday. They work hard and they have strong tastes, even as they are perpetually hamstrung by the festival's timing.
Gilmore was definitively more involved in programming this year and had a larger presence throughout; as for Boyer, observers are still waiting to see what he can do with a full year to prepare, assuming his contract is renewed through the 2013 iteration.
"I want to talk about quality of filmmaking, I want to talk about quality of stories," says Gilmore, who sees the marketplace as just one piece of a festival pie that is equally about the jury decisions, audience reaction and press/criticism. "I feel very strongly about the quality of what we did this year. A deep range of filmmaking is what we achieved."
But assessments from industry players — including a collection of theatrical and VOD acquisition execs and distribution reps — seem to break down into two distinct groups: Those who had films to peddle, and those who were looking for films to buy. In general, the former were exceptionally pleased; the latter came away with a resigned shrug.
One executive with films in the program declared the 2012 fest "pretty spectacular," with Gilmore's increased participation in press and screenings a boon for the filmmakers. Organization was smooth and the decrease in the number of films meant the festival could give better attention to those it chose to highlight (just 89 features at the 2012 edition).
At the same time, the Tribeca fest's eclectic audiences, which totaled some 116,000, were able to find the films they wanted to see — particularly the ever-strong documentary selections.
IFC Films, Paladin and Sony Pictures Classics all saw their earlier acquisitions get a nice bump from their Tribeca premieres. IFC played "Your Sister's Sister," "Polisse" and "Trishna," which drew broad multi-cultural viewers; Paladin launched Morgan Spurlock's new documentary "Mansome" and SPC screened "Hysteria" and "Chicken With Plums." In each case, a Tribeca launch either provided much-needed awareness in a specific community or places the film in the bloodstream of a larger cultural conversation.
On the other hand, most buyers found the program lacking in strong prospects. "It's 'South By: The Sequel'," cracked one would-be buyer, who described the selection as "a disappointment." At the same time, he noted that the public platform Tribeca provides new filmmakers, with attendant press and flash, is one of its strongest assets. "Tribeca programs around ideas for the people of New York, not just for the industry, which is good," he says.
There was limited consensus on individual films, though Ramona S. Diaz's Journey documentary, "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey" hit a populist chord that a targeted distributor could parlay into a minor hit. Among the other films that prompted praise beyond award-winners "War Witch" and "The World Before Her" were Alex Karpovsky's "Rubberneck," Eytan Fox's "Yossi," Lucy Mulloy's "Una Noche," Arnon Goldfinger's "The Flat" and Kat Coiro's "While We Were Here." The young Latina actress who stars in David Riker's "The Girl," Maritza Santiago Hernandez, also received high accolades.
Another buyer noted the festival's heavy cross-promotion of its VOD initiatives, with every screening proceeded by countless bumpers promoting Tribeca titles. "It feels more and more couched in the overall strategy of Tribeca's distribution initiatives while the festival itself is skewing somewhat artier on the high end, in part due to Boyer, and somewhat broader on the low end (i.e., "The Avengers")."
Gilmore admits that they are still trying to balance their self-promotional efforts, something that Toronto and Sundance have sought to do as well. "I wish we had talked about Tribeca Institute as a year-round business," he says. "Maybe in hindsight we could rethink how we play our trailers."
Perhaps the festival is angling for a Toronto feel in its attention to both lowbrow/highbrow programming that brings a certain amount of red-carpet action if not hot-market action. The market's slow pace stemmed in part from buyers' preparations for Cannes. With that ticking clock, it's simply hard to focus on Tribeca's program.
"No one's been eager to make a deal, that's for sure," said one VOD buyer. Buyers such as IFC Films, Magnolia, Oscillscope, Radius-TWC and others will inevitably find Tribeca projects to scoop up; Gilmore claims nearly 20 are in different stages of negotiation with distributors.
"It's absolutely important," says Gilmore, who points to a dealmaking environment that demands patience. "We also understand it's just one part of evaluating what a festival is. Of course we'd love to see more announcements. But that they'll take place in the near future is what I'd expect."
But even if the sales don't come, "you discover a lot of major talent there," says one exec. "We'll hear from them later."
And if one of those filmmakers turns out to be a Tarantino or Cholodenko or Soderbergh, Tribeca will finally be putting on a tux for the prom.