With the Tribeca Film Festival wrapping up this weekend, Indiewire reflects back on the fifteenth year of one of New York City’s marquee film events. Three members of Indiewire’s film team — deputy editor and chief critic Eric Kohn, senior film critic David Ehrlich and film editor Kate Erbland — along with TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller, traded emails this week to share their thoughts on this year’s festival, and what the future holds for Tribeca.
ERIC: While much of the moviegoing world has debated Tilda Swinton’s questionable decision to play an Asian character in “Doctor Strange,” or whether they should bother with “The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” we’ve…well, we’ve been asking those questions, too. But we’ve also been juggling dozens of films at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which we debated last week from a bunch of different angles. But here’s one we didn’t discuss before: How does a festival of this scale, irrespective of its quality, provide a contrast to mainstream moviegoing options?
This week, I was pleasantly surprised to find a few examples: “Women Who Kill,” Ingrid Jungermann’s horror-comedy about a bunch of neurotic Brooklyn lesbians, isn’t exactly the kind of popular entertainment one would expect at the box office. But it’s a zillion times better than the market standard. What sort of contrasts did you find in this year’s lineup — and in the film-festival scene in general?
DAVID: The advantage of scheduling your film festival in the middle of April is that the contrasts between the Tribeca slate and the public box office kind of make themselves. This is perhaps the most dire time of year for audiences, particularly now that Sundance titles have started to pile up in the summer months and even the dog days of August have their fair share of exciting new releases. Neither large-scale anomalies (“10 Cloverfield Lane”) nor indie success stories (“Green Room”) can distract from a box office that’s crowded with cynical filler like “Batman v Superman,” “The Divergent Series: Whatever” and approximately 42 different movies about the holy trinity of God (“Miracles From Heaven”), Jesus (“Risen”) and their fanboys (“God’s Not Dead 2: Not Dead and Loving It”).
In other words, it’s hard not to appreciate how Tribeca offers a brief escape into a world where movies are allowed to take chances, contradict themselves and ignore Cinemascores. Irrespective of quality, it’s nice to be reminded that movies can surprise you. That may sound like faint praise, but my favorite stuff from this year’s slate each delivered a real “We’re not in Kansas anymore” vibe. From the fearless and incisive psychodrama of “Always Shine” to the utterly bonkers third act of “Vincent N Roxxy,” there were a handful of films that truly made me feel like I was watching someone walk a tightrope without a wire. It was there in the docs as well — “Keep Quiet” hinges on a truly jaw-dropping reversal, while each new morsel of information in “Untouchable” (a hard look at how America treats convicted pedophiles) lands like a bombshell. It was great to see these films play to packed houses — if only audiences could adopt the same spirit of adventure when they go to the multiplex.
Kate, what kind of surprises did you encounter? Did you hear someone say anything at the talks or lunches that made you think about the immediate future of film in a different light?
KATE: One trend I’ve been pleasantly surprised by are movies that aren’t afraid to inject some real pathos and pain into inherently comedic situations, from “Don’t Think Twice” to “Dean” or “Folk Hero and Funny Guy.” I very recently wrote about how the legacy of “Bridesmaids” isn’t the sudden creation of a bunch of films with women behaving badly, but women mixing emotion and humor in equal parts, but this year’s Tribeca featured a number of male directors and stars also doing that same thing. It’s great to laugh (obviously), but it’s also nice to have that edged with some bigger questions and deeper meanings. Like David, I also loved the complexity and cattiness of “Always Shine,” and “My Blind Brother” feels like a movie that was made exactly for me. There have certainly been some very pleasant surprises during what has been a somewhat uncharacteristically rushed and packed festival.
Although we previously talked about the future of VR and how Tribeca has dug into it, a number of the talks I’ve attended — like at Wednesday’s full-day event, the Daring Women Summit — have talked extensively about how social media is impacting the way our entertainment is delivered to us. Seems pretty canny then that Tribeca actually hosted a Snapchat contest this year for literally snappy little shorts.
ERIC: I’ll embrace Snapchat as the future of cinema as soon as I can figure out how to use it. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that the director of “Women Who Kill” produced two successful web series prior to making her debut, which points to a fascinating new paradigm in which movies bleed over into all kinds of different viewing experiences. Mostly, though, the elephant in the room with this conversation is television. So let’s acknowledge it. Tribeca, like Sundance, SXSW and Toronto before it, now has a dedicated TV section celebrating the medium from a bunch of different directions. And our TV editor, Liz Shannon Miller, came to town to explore the lineup.
So, Liz, tell us: What does this year’s Tribeca Film Festival have to say about the modern state of TV?
LIZ: When I first saw the lineup of programming Tribeca had planned, I was pretty impressed, because it had a great deal of range to it — at least two documentary series, some very high-profile premieres and some smaller/less star-powered shows that deserve some attention. Heck, thanks to “The Good Wife,” tribute was even paid to broadcast networks (which at times feel like television’s sad great aunt who can’t stop talking about her glory days in the chorus line).
And so as a Tribeca newbie, I stepped up to see how these shows played in this context — so far, the screenings and talks I’ve attended have been packed, with extremely engaged audiences. Having been observing the state of TV in a festival context for awhile now, I’ve been questioning what a fest premiere means for these shows, given that with only rare exceptions, the shows being screened all have secured distribution within the US; this isn’t a marketplace. And the biggest values, at this stage, seem to be attention and prestige, which everyone in the TV landscape is desperate for these days due to the impossibly large amount of shows out there. Any opportunity a network can take to get some extra press or some extra eyeballs, it’ll go after, which is why TV’s spread to unconventional realms like festivals has been so aggressive. But I wonder — from the film side of things, David, is there any resentment over the encroachment of these new mediums? Do you think Robert De Niro wishes that Tribeca could go back to just featuring films?
DAVID: Liz, after the whole “Vaxxed” brouhaha, I can make no claim to understanding what’s going on in Robert De Niro’s head (that “TODAY” interview was some of the most distressingly compelling documentary footage I’ve seen in the last two weeks). But, strong attendance notwithstanding, I do think that Tribeca has a hard time figuring out what to do with the TV stuff — most festivals do. It doesn’t do much good to play an episode of a show that’s premiering a few days later; it’s a very literal application of Tarantino’s soundbite about digital projection being the equivalent of watching television in public.
On the other hand, I applaud Tribeca’s efforts to spice things up and create unique live experiences. You couldn’t pay me to listen to Alan Ball talk over the finale of “Six Feet Under,” but an event like that has gotta be a religious pilgrimage for fans of the show. By the sound of it, it transformed the episode by reimagining it as a uniquely collective experience, not just blowing it up to a bigger screen.
KATE: I think this echoes our previous chat about what exactly the Tribeca Film Festival is these days, as it expands out into new mediums like VR and other avenues of entertainment. While I do think there is something a bit muddled about its current slate and its mixed offerings of seemingly everything, I admire that Tribeca is so engaged with finding what’s new and next and, moreover, what of that might work for them in the festival context. In five years, I suspect Tribeca won’t be quite so diversified, but I hope that this mixing bowl of projects allows them an in-roads to whatever that future festival will look like.
ERIC: My own experience with VR at this year’s festival has led me to wonder if this technology deserves a separate showcase. Preferably a cabin in the woods where one can commune with the meditative experience of wearing a headset that introduces you to a new world. David was right when he suggested last week that VR’s non-geographical properties make it somewhat disconnected from the communal vibe of a festival.