In 2007, the Tribeca Film Festival underwent a modern-day rite of passage: the backlash.
Co-founded by Robert De Niro after Sept. 11 to help heal his Manhattan neighborhood, the festival had previously enjoyed a thankful reception. But as it expanded further into New York and the number of screenings quintupled, some began to resent Tribeca’s growth into the already crowded festival circuit.
“You can’t please everybody,” De Niro said in a recent interview. “If everything’s going nicely, there’s always going to be somebody to say something.”
The seventh annual festival, which opens Wednesday night with the premiere of the Tina Fey comedy “Baby Mama,” has responded to the complaints of last year. To help moviegoers wade through the thicket of largely unfamiliar titles, the number of feature films has been cut from 157 to 120 (even though total submissions increased from 4,550 to 4,835). Screenings have been refocused geographically to a “hub” of downtown Manhattan, and average ticket prices have been brought down from $18 to $15.
Tribeca, it’s clear, is still trying to win over New York and the film community.
“There were some very valid criticisms and we’ve listened to our audience the way when you’re producing a movie and you have a test screening,” said Jane Rosenthal, De Niro’s producing partner. She is also a founder of the festival, as is her husband, entrepreneur Craig Hatkoff.
Though the festival trumpets its economic impact on the city (it says $119 million was generated last year), the Tribeca neighborhood no longer needs commercial help. One need look no further than the ultra-luxurious Greenwich Hotel that De Niro opened earlier this month.
“Would I have predicted sitting there on Sept. 12 that seven years from then, things would feel pretty normal in lower Manhattan?” said Hatkoff. “It’s rebounded very, very quickly.”
Tribeca still trying to find its focus
While the Sundance Film Festival is ground zero for quirky independent fare, Cannes specializes in international arthouse and Toronto launches studio Oscar contenders, Tribeca is without a specific identity.
Last year, Tribeca opened with a gala of short films on global warming, hosted by Al Gore, and Rosenthal declared it a “political festival.” While there are many politically oriented films playing this year, its centerpieces are a comedy (“Baby Mama”), a martial arts film by David Mamet (“Redbelt”) and a family action flick (“Speed Racer”). It also includes an ESPN-sponsored sports film component and outdoor “drive-in” screenings.
“I don’t know that we’re ready yet to say this is a Tribeca film, this isn’t a Tribeca film,” said festival programmer Peter Scarlet. “And indeed part of what makes Tribeca-ness — a word I’m not sure I want to be quoted on — is that we’re a very diverse festival.”
One quality unique to Tribeca is how its run. While other festivals get the majority of their funding from the government, Tribeca is a for-profit festival, run by a for-profit company: Tribeca Enterprises. The company, owned by De Niro, Rosenthal and Hatkoff, also funnels money into a not-for-profit division, the Tribeca Film Institute, which supports filmmakers through numerous programs.
In a for-profit model, Tribeca is free to have a much higher level of involvement from sponsors, among them American Express.
“The not-for-profit model is broken,” said Rosenthal. “The festival runs better and we’re able to get media and marketing dollars that we wouldn’t be able to get if we were strictly a not-for-profit only getting foundation money.”
‘Money-grubbing film festival’
But the more prominent sponsorship also riles those who — fairly or not — think film festivals should be less commercial and more artistic. Jeffrey Wells, who blogs the Web site Hollywood-Elswhere.com, last year called Tribeca “the nation’s most avaricious and money-grubbing film festival.”
Hatkoff said the Tribeca business model better reflects the current media environment where marketing partners work closer with the artist.
Said Hatkoff: “Everything is always done with an eye towards: How does this help the filmmaker? How is this good for our marketing partner?”
Festivals are also judged by how the industry regards them. Tribeca is still not the marketplace that Sundance or Cannes is, but it’s been successful with documentaries. Last year’s Tribeca was the starting point for the Academy Award-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side.”
This year, the festival’s high-profile documentaries include one produced by Madonna about Malawi orphans (“I Am Because We Are”), a behind-the-scenes look at the staging of a Bertolt Brecht play by Tony Kushner and Meryl Streep (“Theater of War”), the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch’s film about a high-school all-star game at the historic Rucker Park playground (“Gunnin’ for that No. 1 Spot”), and “Baghdad High,” which chronicles the lives of four Iraqi teenagers who were given cameras to document their lives YouTube-style.
It’s all an enormous undertaking, leading one to wonder just how involved the busy De Niro is. Rosenthal described him as the “touchstone” of Tribeca and the “sounding board” to all ideas, often insuring that the filmmakers’ perspective is looked after.
“I’m not experiencing what they’re experiencing,” said De Niro, referring to Rosenthal and other festival producers. “I’m there all the time, but I’m just not doing the nuts-and-bolts, day-to-day work.”
Of the festival, which runs until May 4, De Niro said, “What makes me happy is that people enjoy it. That’s what it’s all about.”