To most festgoers, Tribeca remains “the Robert De Niro festival.” But as the city’s movie scenesters know, the man who has done more than anyone to elevate TFF to major-player status—its behind-the-scenes architect—is Peter Scarlet, executive director since the festival’s second edition. A native New Yorker who enjoyed a nearly two-decade tenure heading the San Francisco International Film Festival, Scarlet was the first American to preside over the Cinémathéque Française in Paris—a post he left in 2002 to take on Tribeca. On the eve of TFF’s fifth anniversary, Scarlet spoke to the Voice about Tribeca’s multiple identities, cinephile snobbery, and why bigger is better.
There is a sense in which Tribeca, with its big-tent programming, tries to be all things to all people. Do you think it’s taken a while to define its identity?
When I talked to the folks who had put on the first year’s festival, I was intrigued because it seemed like they wanted to do something different. I’m as skeptical of new festivals as I am of beta versions of software—let somebody else test it out. As I’ve said before, festivals have become so widespread I often wish a chemical manufacturer would come up with something you could shake on a town to prevent a festival from putting down roots—it could be called “Festicide.” But it seemed to me that Jane [Rosenthal] and Bob [De Niro] and their team had started the festival for a very generous reason, and I still feel that way. It’s really quite unique to have something that’s tied to the community.
The U.S. film festivals have always been at a disadvantage because the studios are very eager to put their films in Venice, Cannes, Berlin, but with a few exceptions they don’t want them in American festivals. And we’ve been able to break that mold for a number of reasons.
I assume you’re talking about celebrity connections.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Robert De Niro is the founder of the festival. There are always people in the industry who’ll say, “Well, that’s not a festival film.” Well, who determined what is a “festival film”?
But are you concerned that the flashier premieres might overshadow the smaller entries—the indie and foreign films that really do need fest exposure?
I wonder about that, but ultimately I don’t think so. Festivalgoers tend to break down into the people who just want to see the films that are going to open. That’s one tribe, and there’s a very different tribe who want to find out what’s opening so they can avoid those films; they want to see things they might not have another chance to see. But there’s no reason why they can’t all sit in the same building, maybe watching different films.
I’m sure you’ve heard the complaints from the industry and the press about festival sprawl. Do you really need 200-plus films?
It’s funny that a city as large as New York has never had a festival this large. I’m a great admirer of [New York Film Festival co-founders] Richard Roud and Amos Vogel, and the model that they started here, with a small selection of films, has worked very well. But I do think a festival like this is more in tune with New York and its huge, diverse population. It’s what you see in London, Berlin. To have a large festival in a large city is more the rule than the exception.
Your competitive sections require that the entries have not been previously shown in the U.S. I know this isn’t unique to Tribeca, but does this festival game—the insistence on premieres—deprive audiences of the best possible slate?
I go back and forth. I think it’s important that Tribeca continue to establish a presence as a market, where films are discovered and bought. To premiere films here is one way to do that. But we’ve created the Showcase section, where films don’t have to be premieres and they can be hopefully just as visible as something that’s in competition.
Tribeca seems to have muscled its way onto a crowded festival schedule, both locally and nationally. How competitive and aggressive do you get in terms of programming?
The films we like we want to show. We don’t break kneecaps. There are festivals that take place just before us: Full Frame, South by Southwest, New Directors. I think the cards are on the table for the filmmakers to decide what the advantages and disadvantages are.
Do you have any idea how the film-buff community here has responded to the festival?
I don’t know that world as much as I used to. That possibly has to do with my running the Cinémathéque Française, in a way realizing every little film buff’s dream of being in the center of film buffdom. It was disillusioning in the extreme. I began to feel that there are many cinephiles who are interested simply in toting up notches on their gun—”I’ve seen every such and such.” And the old line about New York—”Nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there”—is really truer of Paris, particularly when you’re working inside a French institution.
I grew up in New York, as part of the film-buff world, and it’s interesting to see in certain ways it hasn’t changed. If you go to the National Film Theater in London or to MOMA here, you see some of the people you saw 40 years ago. Which I think poses a danger to that world. Those of us who care about film—and about different kinds of films—we’ve got to play every game in the book to try to get younger people hooked.
Do you see Tribeca playing a role in that regard?
We’ve done a number of experimental programs with [archivist and programmer] John Gartenberg, and the audience is not the one that sees these films traditionally in New York. Many of them have not heard of Stan Brakhage or Ken Jacobs, and that to me is educational, but without the capital E.
Your programs have had a strong emphasis on films from the Middle East and the Muslim world—maybe even more so this year.
My first year, I had two films from Afghanistan in competition. At our press conference the following year, there was a guy who, unforgettably, stood up and said, “Last year, you showed a lot of films by the people who brought us 9-11. Do you intend to do that again?” And I said, “Well if you mean, do we show a lot of films from the Middle East? Yes I think it’s the job of the festival.” Even in as cosmopolitan a city as New York, most people don’t know what’s happening in the rest of the world and film is the best way to understand. Even flawed documentaries have the potential to communicate more about what’s happening in Iraq or Afghanistan than newspapers or television.