By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 16, 2014 at 11:9AM
When the Tribeca Film Festival was launched in 2002 with the expressed purpose of bringing business back to lower Manhattan after 9/11, few insiders were more skeptical about its long-term prospects than co-founder Robert De Niro. The veteran actor, who launched the festival under the umbrella of the Tribeca Film Institute along with producers Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff in 2002, knew they were entering a dense arena. "I love film festivals and there are so many great ones," De Niro told Indiewire last week, anticipating Tribeca's thirteenth year, which begins tonight. "We had no idea it would last this long."
Indeed, few large scale festivals have faced a continuous wave of skepticism on par with Tribeca, which squeezed itself into the festival calendar between Sundance and Cannes while attempting to add yet another major film event to incessantly crowded options on New York City screens. But like De Niro himself, who managed something of a career rebound with last year's Oscar nomination for "Silver Linings Playbook," Tribeca continues to chug along and improve as it goes. De Niro's presence throughout the festival is like a symbolic reminder: He's still here, and so's Tribeca. Deal with it.
Though Rosenthal balked at the notion of her business partner as a "figurehead," De Niro shrugged. "Whatever," he said. "I'm not running it, but I'm here, I'm there, I'm very much a part of it."
By virtue of his movie career, De Niro also signals the spirit of New York cinema and sensibilities that the festival strives to incorporate — and which has now become its most promising ingredient. "Over the years it was about bringing a diversity of voices from around the world to some of the most diverse audiences in the world, which are right here in the city," Rosenthal said. "I think we've accomplished that."
Tribeca's quality still has nothing on the range of discoveries at Sundance and it has yet to achieve a hip brand like SXSW, but like both festivals, it includes enough gems hidden in the lineup to justify a close look each year. Aided by artistic director Frederic Boyer, Tribeca unquestionably offers a robust platform for many smaller foreign titles and a handful of scrappy New York indies alongside some of the less satisfactory star-filled world premieres included to beef up the red carpet factor.
This year, buzz-worthy films range from the New York City ballet portrait "Ballet 422" and the Brooklyn gang drama "Five Star. International selections worth a look include the dark Israeli comedy "Zero Motivation" and the Irish haunted house tale "The Canal." If you look closely at the lineup, it's the least showy titles that tend to impress, and there are enough of those included to shield discerning viewers from less satisfactory entries added for commercial reasons.
But Tribeca remains an easy target. A for-profit venture hoisted up by several major sponsors, it has never been able to accrue the street cred of scrappier New York screening series like Rooftop Films, or the cinephile prestige of the New York Film Festival. That branding issue isn't going anywhere: Last month, Tribeca announced that the Madison Square Garden Company had purchased a 50% stake in the company. Insiders say the deal caught many staffers at the festival by surprise, and the full plan behind the partnership is foggy at best.
Whether or not any good comes out of it, Tribeca must still contend with its image as a massive business in search of greater profit, rather than a festival by and for film lovers. But Rosenthal has grown weary of such concerns. "First of all, a number of film festivals get enormous support from states or cities," she said. "We don't get that kind of support, and we run a festival in probably one of the most expensive cities in the world. So we have to depend on sponsorships and other means." She added that, this year, the Madison Square Garden deal helped usher in the festival's opening night event, a screening of the Nas documentary "Time Is Illmatic" followed by a performance by the rapper at the lavish Beacon Theater, which MSG owns. "Unlike a number of festivals, we don't have our own venue, so every year, we have to reinvent the wheel," she said. "The mentality of the first year was literally, 'OK, we'll put up a sheet and screen a movie.'"
But what about those movies? The programmers have notably slimmed down the lineup to 87 features, 55 of which are world premieres. It's still a lot to take in, but a far more agreeable mix for discerning viewers that leaves room for a handful of festival favorites, such as Ira Sachs' Sundance-acclaimed "Love Is Strange" and the Berlin-winning Chinese noir "Black Coal, Thin Ice." Asked which movies he's anticipating, De Niro singled out documentarian Alex Gibney's untitled James Brown documentary, but quickly added, "I know I'm missing other movies."
According to De Niro, whose early career was formed around collaborations with the movie brat generation in early seventies, the field for discovering new talent has grown more crowded than ever. "There are so many more films now then there were when I was a kid," he said. "So there are many more opportunities for actors and directors — if they have the will. It's a daunting task, but it can be done." But he admitted that the scale of Tribeca alone showed just how much the degree of competition had grown. "It's daunting, with all the new material that comes in, all these submissions," he said. "There's always a new terrific filmmaker coming in. I wish I could keep up with it, but I can't. I know that they're all over the place, and that's great."
Rosenthal cautioned that the ease of production hasn't necessarily yielded better movies, a candid acknowledgement of the challenge every content-hungry programmer must face. "It's simple," she said. "Technology has made it easier for you to shoot a film, but that doesn't mean the quality of films is better." As a remedy, she plugged the festival's Innovation Week, which provides filmmakers with a window into the change landscape of the industry, as well as an upcoming talk by Martin Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. "Everybody should take that class," she said. "Just because you have a camera and you have the technology doesn't mean you know how to tell a story."
Whether or not Tribeca continues to find enough strong examples of new movies to fit its needs, De Niro said he was more confident than ever about the festival's future. "It's great for the city," he said, and tacked on a cryptic goal: "I hope it lasts for as long as we're here, which is forever."
The figurehead has spoken.