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Back to Its Roots? Evolving Tribeca Fest Emphasizes Escapism, Activism

Indiewire By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire April 21, 2009 at 6:5AM

A "smile and a hug" is how Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal recently referred to her eight year old event, reiterating the role it has played -- particulary in Lower Manhattan -- since launching in the aftermath of the tragic 2001 terrorist attacks. The festival has been both envied and criticized by industry insiders since boldly arriving on the scene. Backed by the high-profile support of corporate sponsor American Express, and with actor Robert DeNiro as a figure-head, the festival drew immediate media attention and audiences alike, despite some skepticism. This year, organizers seem to be trying to reign in expectations while at the same time re-establishing the event's roots.
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A "smile and a hug" is how Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal recently referred to her eight year old event, reiterating the role it has played -- particulary in Lower Manhattan -- since launching in the aftermath of the tragic 2001 terrorist attacks. The festival has been both envied and criticized by industry insiders since boldly arriving on the scene. Backed by the high-profile support of corporate sponsor American Express, and with actor Robert DeNiro as a figure-head, the festival drew immediate media attention and audiences alike, despite some skepticism. This year, organizers seem to be trying to reign in expectations while at the same time re-establishing the event's roots.

"We're just a film festival," Jane Rosenthal has said a few times already this week, noting that the young event can play a role in lifting spirits now just as it did when it launched in New York City in the spring of 2002. The current economic crisis has been particularly hard on Lower Manhattan, Rosenthal noted, causing the loss of even more jobs than in the immediate wake of 9/11.

"We hope that, especially when you look back to what our original mission was and is, that in these trying economic times that we can help, through film, restore some hope and inspiration," Jane Rosenthal told indieWIRE yesterday, sitting in her office at the Tribeca Film Center on Greenwich St.

Rosenthal and her colleagues are noting this week that the festival is emphasizing escapism in '09, aiming to offer, "some much needed levity," as event executive director Nancy Schafer put it this morning at the festival's opening press conference. To that end, the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival will open tomorrow night at the Zeigfeld Theater in Midtown with Woody Allen's "Whatever Works," a New York comedy starring Larry David.

Leaner Festival

Some eighty-four other films are set for the '09 festival lineup, including 46 world, five international, 13 North American, 3 U.S. and 11 New York City premieres, as well as eight titles, which are part of the eventaO(TM)s third annual Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival. The drop in the roster follows a trend in recent years for the event. The fest was at 174 features in 2006, dropping its size to 159 feature films in 2007 before getting to 122 last year.

On Monday afternoon, Rosenthal gave her first public welcome to the 2009 event, at a lunch for the annual Tribeca All Access program, a concurrent sidebar of meetings and networking for filmmakers of color, run by the sibling, not-for-profit Tribeca Film Institute.

"The nation has embraced a fundamental change," filmmaker Warrington Hudlin, a TAA advisor, highlighted yesterday, citing the current national mood for this change that lead to the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Aiming to inspire the room full of emerging and established filmmakers, the veteran offered, "Be the change that we are looking for."

"This was always very much of an activist film festival," Rosenthal reiterated yesterday, during the conversation with indieWIRE, "A film festival that started as a response to an act of war." Along the way the event has expanded and contracted, exploding beyond the small TriBeCa neighborhood to venues all around Manhattan, but ultimately then returning to downtown Manhattan in recent years, with a much leaner program. And in recent months the event has also seen a leadership shift. Longtime artistic director Peter Scarlet left the festval just as this year's program was locked. Rosenthal continued, "As a festival, we had to find our footing."

Expected to play a large role in the vision of Tribeca Enterprises, the umbrella organization that guides the festival and other Tribeca initiatives is Geoff Gilmore, the longtime director of the Sundance Film Festival who left Redford for DeNiro earlier this year. Insiders maintain he will not have an active role in the annual festival but will instead work on broader global, digital and educational initiatives.

Looking Ahead

During this morning's press conference at Manhattan's Community College in Tribeca, a rep from founding sponsor American Express referred to a sense of "nostalgia" for the early days of the festival. A short promo clip for the festival highlighted the positive impact on local businesses from customers drawn to the annual festival. Organizers and sponsors are aiming to reiterate that role during the current downturn.

In challenging times, "you always turn to the arts," Rosenthal told indieWIRE, "You turn to filmmakers. You can find inspiration, you can find the truth, or a version of it."

Inevitably, the conversation turned to where the festival goes from here. "We're happy with the way its going," the perpetually soft spoken festival co-founder Robert DeNiro said on stage this morning, "How it will wind up who knows. Sometimes you can't predict where things go, only that it's positive and great."

One big question that emerged recently involves the future spot the Tribeca fest will fill on the crowded annual calendar. Would it move to the fall as a recent report in Variety suggested? Event insiders have discounted the talk as pure speculation, saying that the rumor was spawned by an industry big wig and then fed to the trade paper.

Asked today, by a reporter from The Globe and Mail, whether the festival would move to the autumn to play a larger role in awards season, Rosenthal was asked to categorically deny the talk. After listening to the question, she moved to the podium.

"I can't categorically state what I am having for lunch today," Rosenthal smiled, curtly, "I've been hearing the same rumors you have. That's all I can say."

This article is related to: New York, Features, Festival Dispatch