You can’t accuse the Tribeca Film Festival (April 19-30) of bandwagon jumping: Back in 2005, it screened the series finale of “Friends” outdoors on a Hudson pier for rapturous fans. Today, TV is a fait d’accompli as Tribeca expands its second annual TV program to 15 shows and five series. Golden-age TV draws viewers, Hollywood filmmakers, and a wider audience.
Last year, the TV program included world premieres of “The Night Of” (HBO, from Oscar-winning executive producer Steve Zaillian), “The Night Manager” (AMC, directed by Oscar-winning Susanne Bier), and “O.J.: Made in America” (ESPN, directed by eventual Oscar-winner Ezra Edelman).
This year’s highest-profile debuts include the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu) starring Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes, and directed by indie filmmaker Reed Morano (“Meadowland”), and Oscar-winner Ron Howard’s Albert Einstein biopic “Genius” (NatGeo), starring Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”) and Emily Watson. They will screen in Tribeca’s biggest venue, Manhattan’s MCC Theatre (900 seats), with creators and casts onstage for interviews.
“The initial impetus to add TV was about the audience and also the filmmaker and the work,” said programming director Cara Cusumano. “It was exciting to create a space where we were curating content in that format. There’s so much TV work online that audiences need an access point, a curator telling you, ‘Here’s how to get started.'”
The TV programming is a mix of new and established shows geared toward luring attendees, such as Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik’s “Episodes,” and Zander Lehmann’s “Casual.”
“We’re putting together new things that audiences haven’t heard about yet,” said Cusumano, “along with more familiar launchings of new seasons they’re excited by. I watch ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ in bed on an iPad alone, but now we can have the experience together on the big screen and bringing the cast and creators there.”
A premiere at Tribeca can also build awareness and prestige. “Like any great New York premiere in conjunction with the festival, we’ll get a lot more viewers,” said Morano by phone from the set of her new film “I Think We’re Alone Alone Now.” “Anyone can come to it, people who are fans of the book or just curious.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” showing is just ahead of its April 26 Hulu premiere, and CNN will debut at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum the 9/11 episode of executive producer Dwayne Johnson’s “Soundtracks: Songs That Defined History,” which explores how music responds to moments in history, just ahead of its April 20 broadcast premiere.
Other networks are building longer-term buzz. “I Am Heath Ledger,” a portrait of the late star coming from Spike TV in May, “gives you a fuller sense of Ledger as an artist and photographer and director,” said Cusumano, “other aspects of him, sensitive and beautiful.”
Antonio Campos’s USA crime anthology series “The Sinner,” starring Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman, won’t air until August. And the festival is honoring Ken Burns with their first Citizen Filmmaker Award and screening a sneak peek hour of Burns and Lynn Novick’s ten-part 18-hour “The Vietnam War,” which PBS will broadcast in September.
With Kickstarter-funded variety show “The Eyeslicer,” Dan Shoenbrun and Vanessa McDonnell (collective: unconscious) devised 10 one-hour episode frameworks to showcase 55 shorts from rising indie filmmakers like Amy Seimetz and David Lowery. Tribeca will show the second episode, “Episode 2: Facial Reconstruction,” featuring shorts by Jillian Mayer, Lauren Wolkstein, Shaka King, Erin Vassilopoulos, Ornana, Yen Tan, and Leah Shore.
Tribeca is also launching an independent television market with a TV pilot program. For the first time Tribeca called for entries for independent pilots without TV homes via public announcement, searching TV markets and Kickstarter projects, and checking in with filmmakers they knew like festival alumnus Onur Tukel (“Summer of Blood”), who straddle different platforms.
Culled from all submissions are three promising indie pilots including Tukel’s dark Greenwich Village comedy “Black Magic for White Boys,” about the characters intersecting around each magic show. “Lost and Found” is a Los Angeles story about a couple who are breaking up; instead of being sad, they host a big party to celebrate their disunion, where different characters come together and dredge up secrets and dreams. “Manic” is about a high school girl in a group home for troubled youth.
“The pilots that premiere here are looking for broadcasters to discover them,” said Cusumano. “They will definitely go on to be real series. We’re bringing that curatorial sensibility into the TV world, creating a space for the industry.”
A virtual reality sidebar will premiere NatGeo’s “The Protectors,” Kathryn Bigelow’s first stab at VR, a short doc about park rangers protecting endangered elephants from poaching. “Seeing a filmmaker take on a new format like VR is exactly the kind of thing we create space for,” said Cusumano. “Bleeding and blurring boundaries are evident in the festival this year and we designed its structure to reflect that.”
“There is more fluidity between film and television,” said Morano, who directs the first three episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “TV pilots premiering at Tribeca show there’s a greater level of creativity and pushing the envelope. TV is where the exciting projects are and, frankly, the most demand for content. And the people in charge are more willing to think outside the box, not just commercial. With so much consumption, you can take more risks.”
TV experience helped Morano with directing her independent films. “Directing episodic television is a good exercise in adapting to different styles, expanding, and stretching as a storyteller,” she said. “There’s still a huge difference in the creative process of directing TV and movies. As a filmmaker you have way more control over a movie, depending on how big it is, than you do over a TV show. On an episodic, while you are a director for hire, they do want directors to bring something to the table.”
That was especially true on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she said. “When you do a pilot, it’s closer to making movies. On ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ they really wanted my input and creative vision, and got me involved in the process as we imagined and created a whole world.”
Tribeca will screen the pilot, but Morano wishes the festival was showing more.
“It leaves you hanging—what happens next? But I wanted to leave people with a sense of empowerment. I did not want people to think there’s no hope. There has to be hope, when everything seems impossible, and ideals are falling apart, and the world doesn’t seem right, you can change it, fight back. What we’re leaving the audience with at the end of episode three is, ‘this is really bad, but guess what? The women are going to fuck shit up.'”