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Tribeca Film Festival Isn’t Really a Film Festival: How the New York Event Has Sought a 21st Century Identity

Now in its 16th year, Tribeca is still carving out a niche within the film festival ecosystem.

Tribeca Film Festival

This year, the Tribeca Film Festival will showcase more TV than ever before, along with robust virtual reality programming and immersive experiences, high-profile conversations with celebrities ranging from Barbra Streisand to Lena Dunham, musical performances from Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Hudson, and whole lot of panel discussions.

So what about the movies?

After years of struggling to find its footing in a highly competitive marketplace, Tribeca may have found its most successful bid for ongoing relevance. Now beginning its 16th edition, Tribeca has less to do with film and has staked its identity on becoming a major multiplatform media event.

READ MORE: Why ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Is the Most Anticipated Screening of the Tribeca Film Festival

A Revolving Door

Getting to this point has required a lot of trial and error. Tribeca has experimented with different ways of supporting filmmakers, including film distribution, and expanded its programming far beyond feature films. It’s been a launchpad for dozens of filmmakers, and instigated valuable conversations about the future of the moving image. However, it has also dealt with the pressure of new ownership, a tumultuous staff, and programming challenges — all of which speak to the daunting tasks facing any large film organization in the cluttered media landscape.

Tribeca’s management has been an ongoing puzzle. In 2015, chief creative officer Geoff Gilmore, a 19-year Sundance veteran hired to strengthen Tribeca’s profile, quietly stepped away. Officially, Gilmore held the title of “consultant” through the 2016 festival. He’s rumored to have taken on a job at a soon-to-be-announced venture.

Last November, festival director Genna Terranova resigned to take on a role at Amazon Studios in Los Angeles, overseeing a new division devoted to virtual reality project. Terranova had grown into one of the few faces closely identified with Tribeca’s lineup, having joined Tribeca as a senior programmer in 2007 and becoming festival director in 2014.

Geoff Gilmore and Genna Terranova at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.


Shortly after her exit, Tribeca announced that producer and distribution executive Jeff Deutchman joined the organization in a new position, as programmer at large. Deutchman was a savvy hire, but five months later he left to become VP of content and digital distribution at Tim League and Tom Quinn’s upstart distributor, Neon. (Deutchman will still participate in this year’s festival as he segues into his new role.)

Today, Tribeca’s CEO is veteran ad exec Andrew Essex and Tribeca has delegated director duties among its existing staff. Part-timer Frederic Boyer also serves as artistic director, although the veteran French programmer’s international sensibilities have not been prominently featured in recent lineups. The programming team continues to be led by Cara Cusumano, now in her 10th year at the festival and first as director of programming.

“We’ve avoided saying there’s a certain kind of film that is best for us, because we want those doors to be open,” Cusumano said. “We want to be the place where you can come when you’re doing something a little bit different or you don’t see a box out there that you fit into.”

Festival co-founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal are still with Tribeca, but festival leadership has changed hands frequently in its 15-year history. Previous head programmers and executives include Trina Wyatt, Peter Scarlet, Nancy Schafer, and David Kwok. (Turnover is normal at any festival, but by way of contrast, the New York Film Festival has had just three directors in its 54 years.)

In an email to IndieWire last fall, Rosenthal downplayed the importance of having a single individual at the top. “In 15 years, we only had one person with the title ‘festival director,’” she said. Past leadership posts have also included “director of programming,” “managing director,” and “executive director.” Veteran producer Paula Weinstein has served as executive vice president of the festival’s parent company Tribeca Enterprises since 2013.

Andrew Essex and Jane Rosenthal at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival


Identity Issues

After more than 15 years, Tribeca still seeks a consistent identity within the larger film festival ecosystem. “That was a complaint that was voiced about Tribeca from the beginning,” said Scarlet, who served as the festival’s artistic director from 2003 to 2009. “It was probably valid then, and it’s probably valid now.”

Tribeca’s timing between Sundance and Cannes limits its ability to land high-quality world premieres. “They’ve had moments when they really connected, either because of their focus on music one year or their focus on New York-oriented movies, but those were kind of blips in what appears to me to be a problematic point on the calendar,” said one veteran distributor.

Rosenthal said the biggest challenge facing Tribeca is simply “putting on a film festival for 12 days in the middle of New York City,” adding that the festival continues to fill its houses every year. “Our programming has to be really strong to get the industry to pay attention and leave the office.” Between 2015 and 2016, ticketed attendance grew from 138,000 to 150,000, while total attendance — including free events — stood at 280,000.

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