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Tribeca Festival Took ‘Film’ Out of Its Name and Captured the Ambiguous State of the Industry

While studio films spoke to the murky nature of the market, the first big in-person festival of the year showcased some promising work.

In the Heights Warner Bros.

“In the Heights”

Warner Bros.

Tribeca may have been the first big in-person film event of 2021, but it wasn’t clear what it told us about the year ahead. From anticipated premieres to lower-profile films, ambiguity loomed large.

The 20th edition launched June 9 with the world premiere in all five boroughs of Jon M. Chu’s movie of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “In the Heights,” from relaxed lawn chairs on the Oval in Battery Park to the mask-free 91-year-old United Palace in Washington Heights. Mostly, outdoor venues at The Battery and a reopened Pier 76 at the Hudson River Park were the main attractions during the festival, which offered 56 world premieres out of 66 feature titles. Many of them were also available online, along with shorts, VR offerings, podcasts, and conversations with the likes of Gina Prince-Bythewood and Bradley Cooper and his “Nightmare Alley” director Guillermo del Toro.

Needless to say, movies were only part of the equation, hence the new all-embracing name, “Tribeca Festival.” As an extension of that shift, Tribeca captured a transitional moment: Rather than delivering a roaring endorsement of moviegoing’s triumphant return, it was a backdrop for the uncertainty of the industry at large, starting with opening night and continuing into its second weekend.

Warner Bros. and HBO Max supplied three new releases, two of which reflect the murkiness of its current approach to distribution. The festival started with the studio’s higher-wattage-than-usual opener with “In the Heights,” a noisy marketing launch for the June 11 day-and-date release, which did not yield a big box-office weekend. While reasons abound for why the movie underperformed against inflated expectations (for starters, a Broadway show that was not a global phenomenon, an ensemble of unknowns, and a simultaneous release on HBO Max), it played better in New York than anywhere else. The studio also delivered Steven Soderbergh’s light-on-its-feet heist caper “No Sudden Move,” a charming vehicle for leads Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro, as a Tribeca centerpiece gala on June 18 ahead of its July 1 release.

It’s not the biggest box office draw, but has the sort of stacked cast and genre hook that could do well on VOD. (To that end, its prospects may even be better than “In the Heights.”) HBO Max also debuted at Tribeca Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine’s “LFG” (“Let’s F*cking Go,” June 24), about the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s fight for equal pay via the players’ historic gender-discrimination, class-action lawsuit against their employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation.

In any case — like the rest of the country — New York moviegoers are still getting used to the idea of returning to watching movies together, whatever the venue. Closing night of Tribeca marks an audacious interior no-mask, all-vaccinated, full capacity assemblage at Radio City Music Hall of “American Factory” Oscar-winners Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s new (still untitled) Dave Chappelle documentary. There will be a raft of buyers in the house, many of whom begged to see the movie ahead of the premiere, but were denied. At last, they get to see how the film plays. Critics, meanwhile, are being asked to hold their reviews for release.

Dave Chappelle on "Saturday Night Live"

Dave Chappelle on “Saturday Night Live”


As always, the packed documentary selection was more robust than the narrative, as the powerful market festivals Cannes (in July this year), Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York attract the higher-profile titles, even with a hefty backup of films seeking an amplified launchpad. Adam Leon’s third film, “Italian Studies,” proved a lackluster, meandering affair, even with the always riveting Vanessa Kirby at its center. She called Leon and said, “Let’s make a movie!” But she wasn’t able to show for the premiere, as she was filming the latest “Mission: Impossible” with Tom Cruise in London.

Theater-committed Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, who learned the ropes on Premium VOD during the pandemic, returned to Tribeca to showcase Andreas Koefoed’s documentary “The Lost Leonardo” (August 13), a glossy art-world exposé about Da Vinci’s controversial last painting Salvator Mundi, as well as long-delayed Sundance 2020 fiction hybrid “I Carry You With Me,” a moving true romance about Mexican emigres to New York, written and directed by documentarian Heidi Ewing (above, at the Supper Suite party with the film’s subjects, Ivan Garcia and Gerardo Zabaleta), which finally hits 150 screens on June 25. Ewing took advantage of the pandemic to write her next fiction project, another true story, this time spread across a limited series.

Documentaries seeking distribution included “The First Step,” Brandon Kramer’s portrait of Black progressive activist and political commentator Van Jones, and “Bernstein’s Wall,” Douglas Tirola’s fascinating examination of the cultural role played by celebrity-composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, though his narration is light on his struggles with his sexual identity.

CNN Documentaries supplied several high-profile non-fiction Tribeca entries, including Oscar-winner Morgan Neville’s well-reviewed “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” (July 16, Focus Features), which digs into the complex psyche of the creator of “Kitchen Confidential” and “Parts Unknown,” and Laura Fairrie’s entertaining “Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story” (June 27, CNN), an eye-opening portrait of the bestselling author who used her Hollywood access via sister Joan Collins to blaze a surprisingly feminist trail.

At the Battery “Roadrunner” party, CNN’s Jeff Zucker (in a grey sweatsuit) mingled with his media star Brian Stelter and NY1 traffic reporter Jamie Shupak Stelter, documentary czar Amy Entelis as well as Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski, who is taking Tom McCarthy’s Matt Damon mystery drama “Stillwater” and Korean American saga “Blue Bayou” to Cannes. If they were reminded of what it was like to be grilled by a reporter at a party, they took it with good grace.

As always, Tribeca’s ability to highlight and brand emerging titles and talent was on display. There’s more new movies to come, as the mighty festival showcases get underway with the Cannes festival, delayed to July.

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