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Tribeca Sale: From Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal’s Festival to ‘Attention Economy’ Player

James Murdoch and former Fox executive Joe Marchese are betting the company can shape the future of commerce and culture.

Tribeca Film Festival at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.'It Takes A Lunatic' film premiere, Tribeca Film Festival, New York, USA - 03 May 2019

Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

The sale of Tribeca Enterprises to investment firms run by James Murdoch and Joe Marchese is a seismic shift for the Tribeca Film Festival, which Robert De Niro and his producing partners started in the wake of 9/11. Under its new owners, it is now only one piece of a much larger revenue equation.

For Attention Capital CEO Marchese, the decision to buy a controlling stake in Tribeca Enterprises with Murdoch’s Lupa Systems came down to this: Curation is a compelling business model in the attention economy. In an August 5 Medium post, he wrote: “With the vision, people, and partners in place, the next most exciting part about the Tribeca brand is its incredible potential. In a world where amazing stories are getting lost in a sea of ‘content’ and filters are determined by AI, there is a massive market opportunity for curators.”

Sources in the film festival world had another perspective. While some saw a rare opportunity for a film festival to grow its reach with the help of private capital, others wondered what would happen when Tribeca’s success is determined by corporate overlords.

Of course, corporate concerns aren’t new for Tribeca. Unlike most film festivals, it’s always been a for-profit entity with deep ties to the commercial world, and founding sponsorship from American Express. (One distributor who spoke to IndieWire recalled seeing Amex lighted signage in theaters, glowing like exit signs after the lights dimmed for the film.)

And Marchese’s vision doesn’t seem that far afield from the Tribeca mission: “to provide artists with unique platforms to expand the audience for their works and to broaden the access point for consumers to experience independent film and media.”

The biggest difference, perhaps, is Marchese foregrounds the market opportunity for the curator, rather than the artist. Of course, curated and celebrated works certainly stand to benefit, and curation is meaningless without access to art. Still, it’s a different calculus. While Tribeca was founded with the backing of a multibillion-dollar, multinational financial services corporation, Amex never viewed Tribeca as a revenue stream: Sponsoring the institution was a marketing cost. Under Attention and Lupa, curation is the product.

Lupa is in the process of investing a portion of the $2 billion James Murdoch made when Disney bought much of 21st Century Fox, which he led until the deal closed in March. (He launched Lupa the same month.) So far, he’s reportedly invested $20 million in the virtual reality company The Void and $5 million in comic book publisher Artists, Writers and Artisans.

The price for acquiring the controlling stake of Tribeca Enterprises from Madison Square Garden was not disclosed, but in 2014 MSG purchased 50% of Tribeca in a deal that valued the company at $45 million.

Marchese spent four years as a top ad executive at Fox Networks, a role he maintained while also operating VC fund Human Ventures. The Tribeca deal coincides with the launch of Attention Capital, which he founded with Nick Bell, a former VP content at Snapchat, and Ashlyn Gentry, a former executive at data analytics firm Palantir.

The so-called attention economy treats eyeballs like a scarce resource. Marchese has contended that traditional measurements like views, clicks, and impressions fail to convey whether content has actually captured a viewer’s attention. Brands that can become savvy operators in the current attention economy by becoming trusted curators will shape the future of commerce, he argues.

“What people buy and how much they will pay for it is shaped by what stories have captured their attention, and even more importantly, that the buyer believes others around them will know the same stories,” Marchese wrote in a Redef post.

In addition to its namesake festival, Tribeca Enterprises owns the fledgling Tribeca TV Festival and Tribeca Studios, a branded entertainment content business. In 2015, it launched curated streaming platform Tribeca Shortlist with Lionsgate, which hasn’t gained traction; SlingTV announced in June that it would no longer carry the service. Last month, De Niro and his son, Rafael, partnered with investors to build a $400 million production studio in Queens.

Over the years, Rosenthal has contended with questions about juggling the art and commerce of the festival. “First of all, a number of film festivals get enormous support from states or cities,” she said in an interview with IndieWire in 2014, shortly after the MSG deal. “We don’t get that kind of support, and we run a festival in probably one of the most expensive cities in the world. So we have to depend on sponsorships and other means.”

This year’s 12-day Tribeca Film Festival, which wrapped in early May, counted 146,000 people who attended 618 screenings and talks.

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