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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

And Then There’s The Movies

As to the vision behind what they’re offering, in 2010 Rosenthal could only describe it as “a diverse group of films to a wide group of audiences.” That’s a good-enough intention, but it also suggests trying to be something for everyone. In recent years, it has branded itself as a showcase for the future of storytelling, as well as an early adopter of virtual reality, immersive storytelling, and television programming.

In 2016 the festival launched Tribeca TV with shows including HBO’s “The Night Of” and AMC’s “The Night Manager;” the closing night film was “The Bomb,” a “multimedia experience” about nuclear weapons. This year’s Tribeca Immersive program will feature 29 VR and interactive exhibits, including the world premiere of Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s first VR project, “The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes” about African rangers protecting elephants from ivory poachers. Bigelow co-directed the short with visual artist Imraan Ismail in partnership with African Parks, National Geographic, and Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures.

At different points it’s opened with premieres for anonymous blockbusters like “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” and “Mission Impossible III.” Recent years have favored the movie-and-a-concert model like this year’s “Clive Davis: The Soundtrack Of Our Lives,” which will feature after-film performances by Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Hudson and Earth, Wind & Fire. In 2013 it was The National documentary “Mistaken For Strangers,” with the band at the afterparty, and in 2015 it was Bao Nguyen’s “Saturday Night Live” documentary, “Live From New York,” which was followed, somewhat incongruously, with a performance by Ludacris.

The festival also continues to lean heavily on De Niro’s legacy: Last year’s edition closed with a screening of “Taxi Driver” and this year’s finale will involve back-to-back screenings of “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II.”

Tribeca has also successfully positioned itself as one of the best documentary forums on the festival circuit. While most of its A-list docs premiere elsewhere, Alex Gibney’s 2007 “Taxi to the Dark Side” had its world premiere at Tribeca before going on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary. “Jesus Camp” (2006) and “Street Fight” (2005) both earned Oscar nominations; other critically acclaimed docs that premiered at Tribeca include “The War Tapes” (2006), “My Winnipeg” (2007), “Racing Dreams” (2009) and “Bombay Beach” (2011).

Alex Gibney’s “Taxi to the Dark Side”


On the other hand, the 2016 festival came under fire for accepting the controversial anti-vaccination film “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe.” De Niro initially defended the decision to program the film, then changed his position and pulled the title from the festival’s lineup.

The festival’s narrative competition doesn’t spark major bidding wars, but films do sell. Recent acquisitions include “Adderall Diaries” (A24), “Always Shine” (Oscilloscope Laboratories), “Freakonomics” (Magnolia Pictures), and “Virunga” (Netflix). However, Tribeca has become an especially vital source for smaller distributors like VOD-driven provider Gravitas Ventures.

“It is a must-stop for Gravitas,” said founder and CEO Nolan Gallagher, who comes to this year’s festival having purchased the Elián González documentary “Elián,” a Tribeca premiere. Last year, Gravitas Ventures acquired the Leonard Nimoy documentary “For the Love of Spock” and Katie Holmes’ directorial debut “All We Had.”

“Tribeca is clearly an audience-facing rather than industry-facing festival, but it has gathered heightened prestige and curatorial credibility over the last few years,” said Kino Lorber president and CEO Richard Lorber. “We do business at Tribeca.”

Tribeca has also consistently succeeded in landing major sponsorships, particularly from AT&T and American Express. However, one would-be moneymaking endeavor, Tribeca Film, released a string of well-reviewed but underperforming titles before quietly folding last year. “That’s a really tough business,” said one former Tribeca executive. “I suspect it was just a lot of work and not a lot of financial gain.”

Launched in 2010, Tribeca Film released a few movies that broke $1 million at the box office, including 2014’s “Palo Alto,” starring James Franco and Emma Roberts and directed by Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter Gia Coppola, but the vast majority of the shingle’s more than 100 releases were commercial duds. Despite releasing well-reviewed films like Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” and the documentary “I Am Big Bird” in 2014, Tribeca Film’s output dropped sharply in the past couple years, releasing just five titles in 2015 and none in 2016.

Emma Roberts in “Palo Alto”

Tribeca Film

Rosenthal insisted that the company’s internal team members are its “harshest critics at how to improve the festival,” adding that they refine aspects of the fest every year. “We have always been passionate about new ways to tell stories and support artists and filmmakers as they test the boundaries of what film storytelling is,” she said. “There is always room for improvement.”

The 2017 Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 19 – 30.

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