Surveying Year Two of the Tribeca Film Festival
by Eugene Hernandez
As an event designed to jumpstart the economy in a Lower Manhattan neighborhood still suffering after September 11, the second-annual Tribeca Film Festival was a rousing success. However, still unclear is the Festival’s ability to become the sort of world-class film event that is expected from founders and organizers with such esteemed reputations.
A Festival spokesman said that 72,000 tickets for films and panels were “sold and distributed”; organizers said 85 percent of films were sold out, but filmmakers noted that “sold out” didn’t always mean there weren’t empty seats. An estimated 250,000 people attended the Festival’s annual family-oriented street fair on the second weekend, and 6,500 people attended the drive-in film screenings at a local pier over three nights. Last year’s fest sold about 25,000 tickets, with about 125,000 people attending free outdoor events.
“What I really like about Tribeca is that it’s a populist event,” offered Ryan Werner, head of distribution at Palm Pictures. He presented his upcoming release, “The Eye,” at the festival. “You find all kinds of people watching films that they normally wouldn’t see and for that it’s providing a real service. If it can spur interest in the kinds of films that we work on, that is a great thing.”
Film rep and producer Josh Braun of Submarine agreed: “I thought this year’s Tribeca had great energy and it was inspiring to see a lot of big crowds. Most of the screenings were sold out, so many filmmakers had a chance to show their films in front of a full audience.”
Producer and rep Steven Beer, who used the event to launch Damon Dash’s “Death of a Dynasty,” said, “I think its great when a festival attracts audiences that have never attended a film festival before.” Continuing he explained, “For me and my clients, Tribeca represents a breath of fresh air and an exciting bridge from art house to main street.”
For filmmakers like Liz Garbus, the opportunity to screen the film for a large, mainstream audience is a major highlight. “My experience at Tribeca was excellent,” said documentarian Garbus, who screened her new film, “Girlhood” at the festival. “My film played to diverse and sold-out audiences — not just the usual film-festival types.”
With so many films on offer, finding quality work was sometimes challenging. Yet, consistent with the lineups at a number of other American festivals, the documentary programming sampled was generally stronger than dramatic work. “A Boy’s Life” from Garbus’ business partner Rory Kennedy (“American Hollow”) turned out to be a wholly different film than expected after the first few minutes (and that’s a good thing). This movie, about a young boy’s mental demons, turned out to have an unlikely villain, and some unlikely saviors.
No doubt the buzz documentary of the festival was Dana Brown’s surfing film, “Step Into Liquid.” The film’s graceful and stunning high-def shots transported viewers to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and even to a sand dune in China. The film, dubbed the “Dogtown and Z Boys” of surfing, caught the eye of Artisan, which is currently in negotiations to acquire the movie for distribution.
Jim Sheridan’s “In America,” due out at the end of the year from Fox Searchlight, was one of the higher profile (and higher quality) narrative films shown. The movie brought on some hearty laughs and audible sniffles from the crowd. The story, written by Sheridan and his daughters, is a largely autobiographical look at an Irish family’s move to New York, dealing with troublesome neighbors, poverty, and the loss of a son. Look for awards nods for the lead actors, Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine. Sheridan entertained the audience at one screening with tales of his own immigration to the U.S., along with some priceless stories about casting two precocious sisters in the film, Emma and Sarah Bolger. “Maybe that’s the reason it’s a good film; the kids took control,” he said. Most of “In America” is true, he said, although there were some shifts in characters, in that he made the father figure more like his own father instead of himself. And the daughters’ personalities were adjusted as well. “The characters are all kinda you,” Sheridan said. “You’d need to go to a psychiatrist to work out the problems.”
Joseph Pierson’s “EvenHand” was another delight. This was a cliché-busting look at two small-town Texas cops, helped by excellent performances by Bill Sage and Bill Dawes, and a note-perfect script by Texas-born screenwriter Mike Jones (a former indieWIRE editor).
Adam Bhala Lough’s “Bomb The System” featured a standout performance by Mark Webber (“Storytelling”) in the role of a downtown New York grafitti artist. Above and beyond Webber’s performance, the film introduces a talented young team of filmmakers (Bhala Lough and producers Ben Rekhi and Sol Tryon), among them cinematographer Ben Kutchins.
Joe Maggio’s sophomore film, “Milk and Honey,” about a middle-aged couple going through a rough patch, was reminiscent of last year’s Tribeca entry “Roger Dodger” in that both films present complicated portraits of not-so-likable New Yorkers. After the wife turns down the husband’s proposal for a re-engagement following 10 years of marriage, both wander the streets of New York in search of answers. It is ultimately a sad story that provided some wonderfully comic moments, even if a few plot points did seem forced.
Among the other festival films worth noting are Maziar Bahari’s “And Along Came a Spider,” Alfred Leslie’s “Cedar Bar,” Angela Christleib and Stephen Kijak’s “Cinemania,” Thom Fitzgerald’s “The Event,” David C. Thomas’ “MC5, A True Testimonial,” and Ken Loach’s “Sweet Sixteen.”
Showcase entry “Bringing Rain,” despite a particularly memorable performance by Paz de la Huerta as a fucked-up boarding school princess, ultimately said nothing new or interesting about the teen situation (yet went to great lengths to seem arty, with no luck). Even more disappointing was Damon Dash’s “Death of a Dynasty.” The satirical look at the world of a hip-hop empire had a few funny moments, but far too few.
LACK OF FOCUS
While the festival’s all-inclusive nature was presented as an advantage in advance of the event, the fact that it offered “something for everyone” was seen by many as problem. Indeed, this is especially an issue with members of the film community who are still seeking clarity on the Tribeca Film Festival’s mission and goals.
“It lacks the cohesive identity of the New York Film Festival or New Directors/New Films simply because the program is so unwieldy,” offered Palm’s Werner. “Those two events still remain the benchmarks of artistic quality for the city, but I think in time that the three events can complement each other in many ways. Tribeca needs to pare down a bit first. It’s trying to be too many things to too many people.”
Braun said, “As an industry event, it does not have a clear identity and there’s room for organizational improvement. But putting on a festival of this size and scope is a daunting task so I applaud them for presenting an event that seemed to generally work very well.”
Udy Epstein of Seventh Art Releasing said that Tribeca clearly is not a Toronto or Sundance, but perhaps it should mold itself after the model of the Montreal World festival. Continuing he explained, “Tribeca is a great opportunity to establish a festival that would add to the major American festival scene — not by trying to compete and upstage festivals in NYC like the New York Film Festival or New Directors/New Films, but to create something different (like Montreal).”
ThinkFilm’s head of distribution Mark Urman weighed in: “I still think it is more of a promotional event for the city and the neighborhood than it is a free-standing celebration of film. It is so massive and eclectic that it overwhelms all but a few of the bigger films being presented and it’s organization has a lot of kinks that need smoothing over. The money is there as is the will, but the apparatus is still in its infancy and I felt a lot of stumbling as it attempted to take giant steps in every direction.” Concluding he added, “There’s nothing wrong with baby steps!”
There were some steps forward, for sure. Filmmakers were treated to a number of special perks at the second annual festival, including a new forum of panel discussions and cocktail parties complemented by a pair of morning brunches that fostered networking among other filmmakers and the film industry. Still, press and industry relations remained a challenge for the event, and the return of the lavish hospitality suite on Greenwich Avenue softened the concerns of some. However, still a sticky issue for some in the industry is the exclusive nature of the event’s opening and closing parties, which left them out of the loop. A separate “party within a party” on both evenings bookended the festival with an unwelcoming vibe. Of course, throughout the week, filmmakers and the film industry hosted dozens of private parties at venues throughout Manhattan.
“I feel a lack of identity (at the Tribeca Film Festival) simply because it attempts to be all things to all people — populist, elitist, au courant, retrospective, etc,” concluded Urman. “But, it takes time for a festival to find its voice. It’s still amazing that the event has come as far as it has in just two years. But it has to be prepared to be something solid after the novelty wears off.”
[Wendy Mitchell contributed to this article.]