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Reality Checks: How Tribeca Became a Major Documentary Festival

Reality Checks: How Tribeca Became a Major Documentary Festival

READ MORE: 12 Must-See Films at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

In the public’s eye, the Tribeca Film Festival is synonymous with Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and celebrity-strewn red carpets. But for the indie film industry, there’s something far sexier to see in New York City starting this week: New documentaries. Over the last 14 years, Tribeca has soared to become one of the top nonfiction film markets in the United States.

Ever since claiming the premieres of eventual Oscar nominees, such as Marshall Curry’s “Street Fight” (2005) and Alex Gibney’s “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007), and box-office winners, such as Lee Hirsch’s “Bully” (2011) and David Gelb’s “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (2012), the festival has become a significant destination for documentary filmmakers. Now, the blossoming nonfiction industry has sprouted up to support them.

Embracing their position as a premiere documentary platform, the festival has given its opening night slot to a documentary over the last few years and shines a spotlight on many documentaries as special event screenings (this year’s galas include two documentaries, “Live from New York!” and “Play it Forward,” and half of this year’s Special Screenings are docs).

Also consider that two top indie sales agents, Cinetic Media and Preferred Content, are each selling six films out of Tribeca this year — five of which are documentaries. And Submarine Entertainment, the sales company known for its docs, will be representing a total of five documentaries (out of six films).

“That is a testament to the quality of the nonfiction films that Tribeca has been able to program,” said Preferred Content’s Kevin Iwashina, whose company is repping such buzzed-about docs as the Italian horse-racing chronicle “Palio” and “Crocodile Gennadiy,” a riveting portrait of a Ukrainian childcare activist. “From a B2B perspective,” explained Iwashina, “they’ve succeeded in proving value to the marketplace.”

Last year, for instance, of the 12 docs in competition, several went on to garner distribution (“1971,” “Ballet 422,” “Dior and I”), critical acclaim (“Ne me quitte pas,” which won IDFA in Amsterdam), and awards attention (“Virunga,” “Point and Shoot”). This year, the festival will host the world premieres for 34 documentaries.

Tribeca’s documentary rise is something of a function of both position and timing. Despite its high profile, it has never been able to compete with Sundance for narrative premieres. The festival’s period of growth also very much coincides with the ascension of nonfiction in the entertainment marketplace.

As Showtime President David Nevins told Indiewire, “The cultural currency of documentaries has increased dramatically in the last 5 to 10 years. We feel we can make news with documentaries,” continued Nevins. “They’re great buzz generators if you do the right ones.”

For that reason, among others, Showtime, along with an array of other broadcasters such as HBO, CNN and Netflix, have recently become bullish in the indie nonfiction space, which has only boosted Tribeca’s importance.

“I think the competition is fierce for documentaries at places like Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca, because the appetite is pretty substantial,” said CNN VP of development and acquisitions Vinnie Malhotra.

Many of these broadcasters are also getting involved in the development of projects, which has created a race to not only acquire documentaries, but also fund them and take ownership of them early. “You have a great amount of outlets at this point,” explained Malhotra, “and I think the broadcasters and the money coming out of them is really driving a lot of the documentary industry.”

Many of Tribeca’s documentaries are already attached. For example, “Thought Crimes” and “The Diplomat” are HBO docs. ESPN has rights to “Down in the Valley.”

If Sundance and Toronto remain the top-tier launchpads for documentaries with domestic commercial prospects, Tribeca is now running a close third, perhaps even surpassing long-time music doc favorite South by Southwest.

“It’s definitely on its way to the top, mostly because of the way Tribeca takes care of the docs,” said Linzee Troubh of Cinetic, which will be unveiling such docs as Patrick Creadon’s “All Work All Play,” David Gelb’s “A Faster Horse,” Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s “In My Father’s House,” Leah Wolchok’s “Very Semi Serious,” and Jonathan Hock’s “Fastball” — all of which are generating buzz. “[Docs] don’t play second fiddle to the flashy narratives as they do at many festivals,” added Troubh.

READ MORE: Meet the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival Filmmakers

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we came away with more films out of Tribeca this year than SXSW,” said Danielle DiGiacomo, director of acquisitions at The Orchard, which purchased successful docs “Dior and I” and “Point and Shoot” out of last year’s festival. “Over the last few years, the nonfiction lineup has been very strong. It has become an important market for us,” she said.

IFC Films’ SVP Acquisitions Arianna Bocco agreed. “Tribeca has grown into its own as place to launch documentaries on a national level, because of the kind of national publicity they can get,” she said. “It’s valuable for filmmakers.”

It also helps Tribeca that documentary filmmaking is operating at such a high level of quality these days. Showtime’s David Nevins noted the “exciting” filmmaking that is currently going on in nonfiction. “I think there’s more and more formal breakthroughs happening on the documentary side,” he said.

Indeed, while Tribeca has gained a reputation for launching premier pop-culture and art-celebrity docs with crossover potential — such as this year’s “Live from New York,” or new films on Roseanne Barr and Peggy Guggenheim — the festival is also putting a spotlight in its international competition on such bold nonfiction works as Erik Shirai’s beautifully crafted and contemplative non-narrative portrait “The Birth of Saké” and David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s profoundly moving “Thank You For Playing,” which rides a delicate balance between video game design and the devastation of parenting a terminally ill infant.

The breadth and health of Tribeca’s documentary programming is an indication, then, of not just the festival’s attention to the form, but the burgeoning of the form itself. As IFC’s Bocco put it, “There’s a lot of quality documentaries, and I feel there’s enough to go around.”

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