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Tribeca’s Nancy Schafer: The power of cinema to foster change is still what Tribeca is at its roots

Tribeca's Nancy Schafer: The power of cinema to foster change is still what Tribeca is at its roots

[In a first person, Nancy Schafer, executive director of the Tribeca Film Festival, shares her thoughts on TFF’s 10 years with indieWIRE.] One of my nephews is 10, and of course because he is my nephew, I think he’s awesome. A little brash, a little cocky, sometimes misbehaving, but he’s fun and lively and makes people around him happy. As I sit contemplating Tribeca’s ten years, it’s hard for me not to compare this festival to that kid, and also hard not to think back to who I was ten years ago and what I wanted to do.

Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff started this festival with (so much) passion and determination, but no real idea what they were getting themselves into. They were fortunate to have immediate support and belief in the idea from American Express. The festival for them was an act of defiance – after the Towers had fallen, they were going to do all they could do to bring the downtown community back. Needless to say, most festivals don’t start out this way.

Our agenda was so pure and simple. For these first few years after 9/11, our guiding principle was that cinema can heal our community. This focus on the power of cinema to foster change is still what Tribeca is at its roots. What those of us who were here ten years ago learned is how hungry New York audiences were for what the festival offered – a broad spectrum of films and filmmakers and actors and talent that spoke to them and their lives.

At the premiere of “Yacoubian Building,” the Egyptian community waited patiently to fill a 1000 seat theater over and over again as we added screenings into the night. At the premiere of the documentary “Divan,” the audience was filled with Hasidem, some of whom perhaps had rarely been in a theater. Right before the premiere of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” we were notified by the filmmakers that Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, the President of Liberia was coming to the screening, because she wanted not only to see the film with an audience but with people who wanted to hear her story and support her mission.

Viewed through a traditional festival lens, Tribeca was speaking to a very different set of constituencies. We did things differently and took risks that did not fit the customary festival mantra.

But, like my nephew, growing up meant change. It meant looking at the larger community we are a part of outside of New York and determining where we fit into the broader festival and film landscape. We began to examine what the real issues facing our industry were and how to address them. How could we get more work funded? How could we increase the audience for independent film? What do filmmakers really need?

As a festival with strong support not only in the New York community but with the backing of organizations that supported our vision, we were in a unique position. In 2005, we started Tribeca All Access, a funding program for underrepresented filmmakers. TAA is now one of the signature programs of the Tribeca Film Institute, which funds and supports filmmakers throughout the year. In 2006, we created the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival, firmly believing that one of the best ways to increase audiences for films is to tap into an audience realm that had been seriously underserved: sports fans. These ideas worked. Some others didn’t. But we kept working on new ideas.

Perhaps we’re finally beginning to mature, and to even find our stride, although this doesn’t mean we aren’t still evolving. The festival continues to provide a strong platform for filmmakers in New York City, the media capital of the world. Screenings are full. A significant number of films are bought and enter the larger marketplace. And with Tribeca Film and the Tribeca (Online) Film Festival, we’re experimenting with new ways to extend the reach of festivals, to utilize the promotional power of the festival platform, and to reach consumers in the age of the internet and VOD.

I believe New Yorkers comprise the smartest audiences in the world – I’m biased. (Though it’s not exactly true that films that make it here can make it anywhere, success in New York is a significant badge of honor.) And like New York itself, Tribeca brings together a remarkably diverse audience of people from many cultures, enables them to talk about things that are important to them and see movies they might not otherwise. We are part of the DNA of New York City, and I believe that our festival is helping to address the concerns of the city and the industry that is so much a part of it.

When I started at Tribeca nine years ago on that first festival, we were just focused on the immediate festival, and that seemed right for me to work on. I had just moved to New York from Austin, Texas, and while I had no interest in working on another film festival long-term (I spent eight years at SXSW), Tribeca seemed like a great temporary gig to be a part of something that was going to make a difference to the city and also was a great way for me to meet more of the New York film community.

What keeps me here is the reactions to and the discussions around the films we show. Nothing makes me happier than a lively debate after a screening or seeing a film that teaches me something about the world or the human condition that I didn’t know. Thankfully there is still a lot to learn! Tribeca has developed into a community festival that’s not just for New Yorkers, but tells the stories of the world.

In 2001, when the festival started, the mantra was “look left.” Do that upon leaving the Tribeca Film Center, and you would see the spot where the World Trade Center had been. That alone made the hard work of pulling off that first festival meaningful.

This is our 10th festival. We’ve had much success and accomplishment in serving our original goals, and yet we cannot forget that life is often tragic. When I sat down to write this, I had just heard about the death of one of the directors, Juliano Mer Khamis, from our 2004 festival who was killed in an attack in the West Bank. His film, “Arna’s Children,” opened our eyes in the festival’s early years to the redemptive, connective possibilities of cinema. I remember our jurors talking to patrons standing in line, telling them how powerful the film was, and the impact these screenings had on our audiences.

Tribeca’s central mission is to show films that bridge cultures and open opportunities for understanding. There is no better reason for a festival to exist.

[Check out indieWIRE’s profiles/interviews with dozens of 2011 Tribeca Film Festival filmmakers here.]

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