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by Eric Kohn
May 2, 2011 4:51 AM
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Wrapping Tribeca: Hesitant Reasons To Root For the Festival

Tribeca Film Festival co-founders Rober De Niro and Jane Rosenthal at the festival's awards ceremony last Spring. Photo by Brian Brooks.

There's a simple formula for grousing about the Tribeca Film Festival: Take a few potshots at the tedious 9/11 references embedded in the festival's origin story, point out that the insistence on world premieres comes at the expense of quality, add some examples of how red-carpet glamour buries the prospects for smaller entries to find an audience. Bake on high for the 10 days; serve hot with frustration.

I know this recipe because I made it last year, after seeing virtually every movie that received buzz but only finding a few of them worthwhile. Many others I ran into during the festival echoed my complaints. I didn't want to play the bully, but criticisms about the festival were ubiquitous.

This year, Tribeca showed improvement. While continuing to cope with many of the same issues, the festival had enough positive buzz to suggest a shift in the conversation surrounding its purpose. There were some better choices than the 2010 edition and a few solid distribution deals.

Although I reviewed 15 movies and saw several more at the 2011 festival, I'm not in the position to reach sweeping conclusions about the overall quality of such a large event. But after a decade, this much is clear: The festival has influence, it isn't going away and that means it matters. Here are some additional thoughts about that verdict, with some insight from Magnolia Pictures exec Tom Quinn, one of the more active buyers at Tribeca 2011.

International cinema gets a platform. Programmers David Kwok and Genna Terranova spend a good portion of their year traveling around the world and finding smaller examples of world cinema that weren't nabbed by the likes of Sundance or Berlin. As a result, strong features that run the risk of slipping through the cracks get a platform. This year, that included the Norwegian teen sex comedy "Turn me on, goddammit," a gently amusing work that played through the roof. Additionally, another movie dealing with teen sex -- but in much darker, unsettling ways -- was "She Monkeys," the feature-length debut of Swedish director Lisa Aschan. It won the Best Narrative Feature prize, which should help raise its profile. The same prospects exist now for the Rwandan narrative "Grey Matter," which won both an acting award and a special jury prize.

Quinn points out that his company's decision to screen "Let the Right One In" at Tribeca 2008, when it won Best Narrative Feature, was a gamble that paid off. "We'd been urged to hold off for the fall festival circuit," he recalls. "But that award instantly put the film on the map and sent us on our way towards a great word-of-mouth campaign." Of course, word of mouth travels fast in New York, which leads to another Tribeca virtue...

New York brings the industry. Buyers are ubiquitous at Tribeca, even when there's not a whole lot worth seeing, simply because many of them live and work in New York. "Sure makes life a little easier having such a robust grocery store in your own backyard," says Quinn. "I’d be pretty surprised not to come out of here with at least one acquisition." This year, the company had three: Sam Shepard western "Blackthorn," culinary documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" and "Limelight," a documentary about New York's '90s club scene under Peter Gatien.

The red carpet really does bring out the stars. The opening night featured Martin Scorsese introducing Elton John. The jury included Whoopi Goldberg. Festival co-founder Robert De Niro was around, as usual. While reports of A-listers usually represent the more vapid side of media coverage, in this case it also means that people with influence are going to see movies. For distributors, it makes the possibility of getting talent to show up particularly easy. "The red carpet feels pretty photo worthy, so your publicity dollars go far," says Quinn. But that's just for one aspect of the festival...

It's not just one festival. Tribeca has numerous components to its program, from the glitzy premieres to the documentary competition. Some sections are better than others. Narratives that received world premieres were largely considered underwhelming, but the ESPN sidebar (which included Alex Gibney's "Catching Hell") was quite impressive. Other nonfiction premieres, such as "Despicable Dick and Righteous Richard," also stood out. "Tribeca is still like the new kid at school with connected parents and a whole lot of fancy toys at its disposal," says Quinn. "Maybe it's an asset that it's always evolving."

Tribeca adds to the conversation about cinema's future. As the first festival to launch its own distribution label, Tribeca plays an active role in examining new ways for festivals to have an impact. It also hosts industry panels about distribution and stretches its programming beyond the festival itself with other events throughout the year. "You've got to applaud Tribeca's ambition and growth in such a short amount of time," says Quinn.

Well, maybe with one hand; I'll keep the other on deck to see how next year plays out.

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9 Comments

  • bob hawk | May 3, 2011 3:47 AMReply

    I frankly don't have a clue as to what you mean by "the tedious 9/11 references embedded in the festival’s origin story." 9/11 WAS the reason that the first Tribeca Film Festival transpired, and at its inception there was no surety as to whether there would be more than one. What is "tedious" about these references? And they aren't "embedded" (what a strange word to use), they're intrinsic.

    I've attended every Tribeca Fest but '08 (because of a death in the family) and I consider this the strongest year ever -- while fully acknowledging your very correct assertion that no one is "in the position to reach sweeping conclusions about the overall quality of such a large event."

  • erica abeel | May 3, 2011 1:56 AMReply

    good stuff, thanks Eric

  • Richard | May 2, 2011 9:53 AMReply

    Tribeca does a good job but I would liked to have seen gems like DOGS LIE. Something well crafted,independent and original. The organisation of such a large event is impeccable

  • Stanislaus | May 2, 2011 9:19 AMReply

    Turn Me On, Goddammit was definitely the best movie at the entire festival.

  • dwayne brownstein | May 2, 2011 8:20 AMReply

    Geoff is slowly but surely enhancing the curation of Tribeca. It takes time. The calendar placement makes it difficult as well, since South By is growing as well.

    My only issue would be that they may want to push the exhibitors a bit harder in town. I was a little bit irritated when I accidentally stood in a box office line which turned out to be selling tickets to SOURCE CODE and YOUR HIGHNESS instead of Festival Films. Considering how small the per-screen averages were for those mainstream movies downstream in their theatrical runs, it seemed ridiculous that the Fest didn't have the theater exclusively.

  • herbert katz | May 2, 2011 7:52 AMReply

    Great piece Eric.

  • Moishe Friedman | May 2, 2011 7:42 AMReply

    Nice balanced view. Thanks Eric!

  • Stewart Nusbaumer | May 2, 2011 7:23 AMReply

    Strong article, Eric. A real contribution to our understanding of film fests.

    Speaking only for myself, it did seem Tribeca was stronger this year. On the other hand, I was sequestered in the docs section, which, traditionally, is a stronger section.

    I believe to comprehend these huge festivals we need to break them down, as you say, "it's not just one festival."

  • Susan W. Woods, ELFF Director | May 2, 2011 7:05 AMReply

    I have attended 8 Tribeca Film festivals and found this to be by far the best in film selection, venues, having visiting directors, rush tickets and volunteers. I saw 15 films and only 1 I could have spent my 2 hours doing something else and 2 were so-so. The others were 4's or 5's. I also didn't see the winners because of scheduling.

    Complaint: I was pretty peeved when I went all the way down to Varick Street, ordered tickets and didn't find out until afterwards that i was given the wrong times. I know, I should have doublechecked.

    I run a small film festival in East Lansing, Michigan and will definitely try to bring some of the films I saw.

    Congratulations, Tribeca. Can't wait till next year!