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Why You Should Care About the Tribeca Film Festival (Analysis)

Why You Should Care About the Tribeca Film Festival (Analysis)

With the Tribeca Film Festival kicking off this week, Indiewire will be covering the major New York event from every angle, from reviews to events and more. But why should you care? Three members of Indiewire’s film team — deputy editor and chief critic Eric Kohn, senior film critic David Ehrlich and film editor Kate Erbland — traded emails this week to address that question. 
ERIC: For most people, film festivals are a foreign concept. You either go see a movie in a theater or you don’t. But even among rarified groups of cinephiles and industry insiders, the Tribeca Film Festival has always been tough to figure out. Sandwiched in between juggernauts of the circuit Sundance and Cannes — and opening its fifteenth edition one day before the latter’s program makes international headlines — Tribeca has never been able to accumulate the prestige of its competition, despite its huge lineup of world premieres and high profile events. 
This year’s lineup was overshadowed by an anti-vaccine documentary that was seemingly forced into the program by none other than co-founder Robert De Niro, which points to another disconnect here. When Robert Redford founded the Sundance Film Festival, he had a real vision for how to stimulate more independently-produced feature films. Tribeca’s claim to fame has always been tied up in its post-9/11 origin story, which now feels stale. What’s De Niro’s vision for Tribeca? The absence of an answer to that question has been a thorn in its side from the very start. While others insist Tribeca is designed the pave the way for the future of storytelling, something well-represented this year with its interactive components, that edict alone resembles a lot of film festivals these days. 

Nevertheless, Tribeca draws a lot of media and industry attention simply by taking place in New York, and it would be unfair to the hard-working programmers if we didn’t acknowledge that the festival has developed a serious track record in showcasing a wide range of documentaries and smaller narrative features. The bigger, star-studded movies are usually not serious draws. Is anyone seriously excited about Eddie Murphy in “Mr. Church” or Katie Holmes’ directorial debut? Instead, it’s the studied thriller mechanics of “Always Shine” — from perennial festival duo Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine — and the swooning ode to teen rebellion in the unique documentary “All This Panic” that stand out as definitive Tribeca movies, at least to my eyes. The promise of these titles and others like them make me wonder if the festival does itself a disservice by even accommodating bigger films that obviously didn’t make the cut at other festivals. More than that, this festival takes place in New York City and yet still doesn’t take advantage of its best independent venues. While the festival has certainly left a mark in the calendar, it doesn’t exactly have street cred.
KATE: As Eric notes, when Tribeca was founded in 2002, it was envisioned as a direct response to 9/11, a joyous gathering of Gothamites teaming up to enjoy a classic New York art that also so happened to inject much needed money and people into areas directly impacted by the attacks. It was a lofty idea, and a good one, but also one that hinged on it not always being necessary. How sad would it be to create a film festival around the idea that it could bolster communities and still find yourself banging that drum 15 years later? Tribeca needs a new identity, and it’s struggled to do that, as evidenced by some of its biggest programming picks. Just look at 2012, when the festival closed out with a screening of “The Avengers.” This year? The fest is wrapping up with immersive film about nuclear weapons. 
What does Tribeca want to be? As Eric notes, the festival continues to build up a solid documentary repertoire, and it’s long proven its premiere worth to some of indie film’s best and brightest voices. Films like “The Avengers” simply don’t make sense here anymore, and while this year sure as shooting doesn’t include a film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or its ilk), Tribeca could go further into setting itself apart at New York’s greatest festival to find bright new talents, blockbusters be absolutely damned. But big names bring in big crowds, and the closest that Tribeca has come to marrying indie sensibilities with recognizable names is with its stellar events and conversations, which often feature huge stars talking about, well, all kinds of things, not just the next superhero movie they’re making. Those are some of the best bits of the festival, and other sections should take that same lead.
DAVID: Tribeca has always been stuck in a difficult spot, as the calendar simply can’t stretch to accommodate another major fest in the wake of Sundance and SXSW, or in the time between Berlin and Cannes. And the fest certainly hasn’t done itself any favors by placing its emphasis on world premieres. But De Niro’s baby was never going to be a minor league player (its corporate backing and celebrity shimmer were clear from year one), and going from 0-60 with an event of this size is like launching an expansion sports team in a well-established league; it takes a long time and a lot of embarrassment to find an identity, bring a city together, and send a competitive team onto the ice. 
So if the emphasis on world premieres has led to a number of debacles across Tribeca’s infancy and adolescence (see “Jesus Henry Christ” — better yet, don’t),  the festival is beginning to justify that commitment. With every passing year, the festival seems like a more viable place for prominent filmmakers to launch their latest features. Eric mentioned Sophia Takal, and she’s a perfect example: A rising star in the indie world, Takal presumably could have launched the wickedly smart and unsettling “Always Shine” at SXSW or New Directors / New Films, but she didn’t. Perhaps she recognized that it’s easier for a good movie to get noticed when we media types aren’t constantly salivating for the next big thing, just as it’s easier for a good movie to get noticed when one monolithic breakout isn’t overshadowing the entire fest (as tends to happen at Sundance and Cannes). It’s tough to be the little guy when “Boyhood” is premiering down the street, and I love how palpably the excitement for “Almost Shine,” or “AWOL,” or “All This Panic” s eclipsing that of star-studded unveilings like “A Hologram for the King” or the aforementioned Eddie Murphy movie that I’m still not entirely convinced is a real thing. 
Kate, I think you’re right that Tribeca has an identity crisis, and the most frustrating part about that is how so many of the fest’s best movies are liable to get lost in the shuffle. The not-so-secret secret about Tribeca is that it’s quietly emerging as one of the world’s best forums for new documentaries, but that can be hard to notice because of how the fest wears that mantle like a cross to bear. It’s true that Tribeca’s ambition requires a certain focus on glitz and glamour, and that docs about Yugoslavia’s space program (“Houston, We Have a Problem!”) or Hungary’s history of anti-semitism (“Keep Quiet”) aren’t quite as sexy as Katie Holmes’ directorial debut (who could have suspected that Joey would get there before Dawson?). And yet, just under the surface and around the corner, Tribeca is a testament to the polyphony of voices that comprise the doc community. Last year’s fest provided a launching pad for any number of great non-fiction films, from the sobering “In My Father’s House,” to the sensational “Palio,” and — best of all — the spectacularly beautiful final film from Albert Maysles, “In Transit.” These are all movies that any other festival would have been lucky to program, let alone premiere. If you can’t make it out to one of the fests that specialize in such fare (e.g. True/False or Hot Docs), you can hardly do much better than Tribeca. 
One of the big advantages of those more narrowly focused fests is that they’re able to cultivate the sense of place that Tribeca is still struggling to achieve. For years, a running joke with the fest has been that it doesn’t really take place in Tribeca; so many of the screenings are in Chelsea or Battery Park. Last year, the opening night film screened at Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side, which is like hosting the opening night of Telluride in Aspen. For an event that was created to celebrate and revitalize a devastated pocket of the city, the festival is still oddly amorphous. It’s hard to carve out and own a sliver of space in New York — in fact, it may be harder to do that here than it is anywhere else in the world — but Tribeca won’t solve its identity crisis, become a more coherent festival, and establish a real presence in this city until it finds a home for itself. 
ERIC: Well put, David, though I wonder if Tribeca’s ultimate home isn’t in this city or any others, but rather in the amorphous arena of digital innovation. Tribeca’s Storyscapes section, like New Frontiers at Sundance, seems to be generating a lot more interest than many other areas of the festival. And perhaps there’s some real value in a big festival committing its resources to exploring the creative possibilities that virtual reality and high concept installation work offer up. I’m certainly excited to check out Guy Maddin’s “Seances,” a randomized sequence of old films that generates thousands of narrative possibilities, as well as “Allumette,” Eugene Chung’s 20-minute immersive animated narrative that’s a part of Tribeca’s Virtual Arcade. But these are early days yet for this art form, and it’s almost too easy to confuse innovation and quality, at least until we’ve had the chance to dive into this year’s next-level offerings. 
Still, I have to wonder if this focus on the next generation of storytelling isn’t the red herring it might look like, but actually Tribeca’s best chance of finding its relevance. Of course it’s great that Tribeca is a home to some strong documentaries, but I do wonder if it’s really contributing anything all that different from the preponderance of doc-focused gatherings clustered around this time of the year — True/False, Full Frame, Hot Docs — which have more street cred on this front. But what do you all think about the idea of a major film festival in which “film” isn’t even the biggest selling point?
KATE: Tribeca is certainly digging hard into VR, installations and unique events to bolster sections like Storyscapes and their Virtual Arcade — hell, even their “closing night film” is a “multimedia experience” (“the bomb”), which might be the best indication we have of how Tribeca sees itself these days — and while that’s nothing we haven’t already seen at other festivals, Tribeca does seem more intent on making these sorts of things available for wider audiences. Positioning a VR experience as an “arcade” is smart little step, because it plays up the interactivity, not so much the sometimes unapproachability of things like this. 
If this sort of thing becomes Tribeca’s biggest selling point, it will actually put the festival head of the curve for the first time. As people who cover film and the digital space for a living, the sudden growth and seemingly widespread nature of VR and its ilk is something we’re still struggling to get our arms around, but Tribeca seems to be with it in way that no other festival can match. Now they just need to spotlight some technology that convinces people that this really is the next way of the future — cinematic or otherwise — and they may have finally cracked it.
DAVID: I agree with everything you guys are saying, but as much as I’m excited for the future of VR, doesn’t the format seem fundamentally opposed to the very idea of a film festival? I’m admittedly a bit of a neophyte when it comes to the subject of virtual reality (unless the fact that I once owned a Virtua Boy puts me ahead of the curve), but festivals — film or otherwise — are defined by the type of shared experience that VR fails to offer by design. “To each his own cinema” is a nice concept, but this seems like taking it a bit too far. So while I’m more bullish on the potential of this emerging technology than ever before, Tribeca strikes me as an awkward showcase for the art that results from it. If anything, I fear that it might contribute to the festival’s identity crisis that Kate diagnosed earlier. 
Not to be too much of a buzzkill, but Tribeca doesn’t seem like a great venue for any of these multimedia projects. Take “the bomb,” for example. If that thing is half as immersive and exciting as it sounds, it will be one of the fest’s marquee moments (given the involvement of Radiohead artist Stanley Donwood and his track record with apocalyptic imagery, I’m confident that the event will exceed expectations). And yet, how is anyone supposed to make time for it in a festival that’s propped up by a zillion other things to do? This is a festival with nearly 100 films, and it often feels as though there are twice as many things to do when you consider all of the scheduled talks, concerts, parties, and installations. 
Tribeca brass likes to think of this as a small festival because they program fewer features than many of the regional fests, but that logic is really hard to square with the avalanche of stuff they make available to us. Press can barely find time to squeeze in a visit to “the bomb,” let alone members of the public (Indiewire is able to offer coverage because we have someone dedicated to the digital beat). By the looks of things, “the Bomb’ would be more likely to blow up as the centerpiece of its own event rather than the last gasp of a much larger one.
ERIC: Easy there, David. I hear your gripes in theory — and yes, this kind of anger is healthy for our little corner of the culture space, so let it all out — but part of the disconnect is that for a long time that’s all these kind of installations amounted to: theory. As someone who attended Henry Jenkins’ Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT back when it was still hip to throw around the word “transmedia,” I think emerging platforms for storytelling have been so hobbled by hypotheticals that it’s hard to envision any genuine aesthetic merit associated with them. And yet now we have a new format for experiencing moving images that, while tough to categorize, is a natural outgrowth of cinematic expression. A week doesn’t go by where we don’t hear about another filmmaker experimenting with this technology. Just because much of it can be processed as an individualistic experience, does that mean it shouldn’t wind up in a curated environment that celebrates moving images? After all, when it comes to more traditional moviegoing experiences, we’re all alone in the dark. 

READ MORE: 2016 Tribeca Film Festival Lineup: 6 Hidden Gems

But all of these points are pretty insular. Unless you’re a New Yorker willing to shell out tickets for some screenings or events, Tribeca is itself a hypothetical, its existence largely formed by coverage in places like this. At the same time, this is a large-scale event with over 100 movies, 77 of which are world premieres. That’s a lot of new material being unleashed at once. If you’re not going to be there, why should you care?

KATE: Even if you can’t attend an event like Tribeca, one that is becoming so much more dependent on actual experiences as it applies to their push into VR and its ilk, there are films, events and talents to get excited about. In my mind, the best thing about any festival is the venue that it provides for people to discover new things. Even if you can’t actually attend, if you keep your ear to the ground, you can still stay hip to what’s new and next. There are new actors to find, emerging filmmakers to read up on and a bevy of anniversary events that should spawn some pretty damn great pieces about the works they’re honoring (put it this way, if you’re a fan of “Taxi Driver” or “Six Feet Under,” get ready). Yeah, being there is great (and, again, if you’re into VR, pretty much required), but there’s no reason you can’t stay at home and learn a whole lot about the kind of projects and people who are on the cusp of jumping out of the festival frying pan, into the box office fire.
DAVID: Yeah, forgive me for getting a bit overexcited for a second there — without blowing smoke, I do feel like it’s important to recognize how vital it is that Tribeca is even trying to allocate such tremendous resources towards new frontiers of digital storytelling (they’re doing good stuff, and if they continue to make such an aggressive push into that space, it’s really only a matter of time before they figure things out). And yes, it’s great to have a major springtime festival in New York City, especially now that we seem to be enjoying a renaissance in local moviegoing thanks to new venues like the Metrograph, the Cohen Media Center, and the Alamo Drafthouse. 
I think Kate really hit the nail on the head: Any decent film festival is bigger than its physical footprint, and Tribeca has done a great job of raising awareness and enthusiasm among locals who otherwise might not care. I heard the announcers talking about it during a Rangers game; last night, I was sitting at my desk writing about one of the fest’s small acquisition titles when that same film’s director popped up for an advertorial interview during one of Fallon’s commercial breaks. Yes, Tribeca is a flush, hyper-corporate event, and they’ve always worn that on their sleeve. But that’s ultimately not the face they put forward. So far as New Yorkers are concerned, the fest is a ubiquitous annual reminder that film still matters, and that it will continue to do so even if it’s just one part of a larger conversation about the future of storytelling. 
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 14-24.

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