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November 3, 2011 4:00 AM
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Tribeca Program Director David Kwok Reflects on a Decade at the Festival After Announcing Departure

Tribeca Director of Programming, David Kwok. Image courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

Earlier this week, long time Tribeca Film Festival programmer, David Kwok, sent an email to friends and colleagues officially announcing what some had already known. After a decade at the event - one he helped get off the ground in the wake of 9/11 in Lower Manhattan - he is stepping down:

"As many of you know, I have stepped down as Director of Programming of Tribeca after almost ten fantastic years. It has been a pleasure working with you over the years..."

Kwok has been a fixture on the New York film scene for over a decade, previously working as Development Director at Newfest, NYC's Lesbian and Gay film festival.

A Tribeca spokesperson told iW to "expect an announcement soon on the programming team at Tribeca" regarding how the organization plans to replace Kwok.

When Tribeca founders Robert DeNiro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff decided to do a film festival to help breathe life in a devastated downtown New York, a friend brought in Kwok who helped program the first event in 2002. He told indieWIRE Wednesday that he didn't know at the time the festival would become what it is a decade later - certainly one of the largest and anticipated festivals in North America. Kwok, who was appointed Director of Programming a few years back, said he has thrived on what he sees as the festival's ability to program a broad range of content, from the obscure to the very popular. He also noted that the number of films from both home and around the world have increased exponentially over the course of Tribeca's decade, augmenting the fest's possibilities and its mandate.

He notes on the Tribeca programmers profile page: "For me, that’s what makes putting together the program together exciting—the chance to view all these films from around the world—and bring them together in one place. Now, more than ever, we can say that our film program really has something for everyone."

While Kwok will leave his role as programming director, he will consult for the organization for the time being. He is also relocating to Europe.

Paying tribute to her colleague, Tribeca Film Festival executive director Nancy Schafer told iW via email:

"It has been my great pleasure to work with David for the past ten years. From the very first Festival, he had a strong vision for what he wanted the Festival to become, and he worked hard to make that vision come true. While David is not entirely leaving the Tribeca family - he will continue on as a programming consultant for the 2012 festival - I will miss our day to day sharing of successes, upsets and even our occasional squabbles. I'm excited to see where David will land - considering how many people love working with him all around the world, I'm sure he will leave as strong a mark on his next organization as he did on Tribeca."

Ahead of his departure later this month, iW asked Kwok about his time at Tribeca helping to pioneer one of New York (and America's) largest film fests, why he's leaving now, what he's most proud of, and and his observations on the festival and broader film landscape.

indieWIRE: I think people would like to know, why are you leaving?

David Kwok: [Chuckles] It's been ten festivals and I've been really happy with the ten years I've been here. But I thought it would be a good time to make a transition. I've been here since the first year and have gone through the first decade of the festival, so I figured it was good both personally and professionally to have a change time.

How did you get the job there? You are still quite young and you were even that much younger 10 years ago and yet you joined a festival that has experienced one of the biggest growth spurts of the decade.

After 9/11, [my friend] Keith Weckstein and I started working here. We kept in touch... He started working here and then I came in and ended up working on the filmmaker program - the filmmaker selection committee for the competition. We didn't know what was going to happen after the first year. When I first got here, there were three of us, including Keith, and Sharon Badal who now heads shorts programming.

There was a core group of us who stayed on after the first year, including Nancy Schafer.

Of course Tribeca had a big name behind it when it began in 2002, but did you imagine back then it would occupy such a big space on the general festival map?

The goal since the beginning was to grow the festival as best we could. And from my point of view [at the time], I couldn't perceive what would happen in ten years time. I think it was around 2004 when things were transitioning in the general festival landscape and also in the marketplace. Every year has been an adjustment. What I've been really happy about is how everyone at Tribeca have adapted.

We have at times been working on more forward thinking things. And that has also been in the grand scheme of how festivals have [evolved], and what I've really liked about being here is trying new things. That's one thing I've been proud to be a part of...

The marketplace was shifting [a lot] mid decade in terms of how films were being bought and distributed and that changed how people looked at festivals and what they should be doing. At the end of the '90s, there was such a huge boom in how films were being bought and then doing well at the box office. And then there was a shift with the kinds of films being shown at festivals because there was such a huge number of films being made.

To put in perspective, the first year of Tribeca in 2002, we had 1,300 submissions and in this last year, we had 5,500. So, in less than ten years, our submissions have quadrupled and I know that is the case with other festivals. We knew more films were being made, especially when digital [filmmaking] hit and more people could make films and more countries were making films than ten years ago.

Once all those things manifested themselves, it grew more exponentially both here and [in other areas of the film industry]. VOD is so prevalent now. When did IFC Films start doing that again? It's only been a few years... That's not a long time. In a lot of ways, that's a great thing for film. It depends on how people view the means of watching films and it is part of the conversation.

What are you most proud of in your time working at Tribeca?

The one thing I'm most proud of, though it's no longer directly related to the festival is Tribeca All Access. Getting that started and seeing how it's grown is the one thing I'm most proud of personally. It started out as a small program - a meeting - for filmmakers, and it's now moved into a year-round support program. And now we're showing their work at the festival and supporting them afterward. It's more than I had originally envisioned for the program.

What did you like most about being Director of Programming?

Anybody who programs a festival knows that we're fortunate to have our positions. It's a very special job. So I've enjoyed working with everyone here of course, but also working with all the other [people I've met] like filmmakers, sales companies, institutes, sales agents - all great people, and also with you guys as journalists. All are great people to work with every year. That's been the best part.

Do you have any suggestions for your still to be named successor?

[Laughs] Have fun... Whoever comes in here depending on how they restructure things - the best thing about working at Tribeca is that I've had no limits. Every type of film we have been open to. Whether we showed them was a different story, but [Tribeca audiences] have allowed us to be open to everything. That was the best part of it. For any program to be able to say, 'We're going to show this experimental film, and we're also going to show this romantic comedy…' To have that broad of a broad pallette is really a luxury!

Any suggestions for aspiring filmmakers who hope to show their work at Tribeca some day?

I think everyone has to adapt these days and be aware of what's happening and be realistic about their films, themselves and how festivals are. As time has gone on though, I think people have become more informed with how festivals work. In the beginning it was a lot of giving information to filmmakers. Sales agents weren't as prevalent before and now people are more informed about how to work with them and what the general options are. Also outside the U.S. filmmakers want to know how the [system] works here and how to access this country's various platforms.

What will you be doing now?

I'm moving to Berlin and will see what happens. I'll still be consulting for Tribeca and I'll also be taking it easy for a bit and not rush into anything. I'll be helping Tribeca though with coverage and with the transition here, and I'm going to a couple of festivals next month that I've already committed to.

It's not the end. I may not be at Tribeca full time anymore, but we'll see what happens in the next chapter - as generic as that sounds, but we'll see what happens with the next step...

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