What is the Tribeca Film Fest?


‘Peter who?’

Robert De Niro is grinning. Sort of the way he grinned at Joe Pesci just before beating the shit out of him in Raging Bull. But breathe easy: Everybody’s laughing. Jane Rosenthal is laughing. The publicity minions from Rubenstein Associates, lurking somewhere in the back of the darkened interview room, are laughing. And the ostensible feeling is that even if ex–artistic director Peter Scarlet had to run off to the Middle East to escape the Tribeca Film Festival two months before it opened, all is well, all is forgotten, we’re not replacing him, we’re moving on, and how about that festival lineup?

“We never knew where the festival would go when we started it,” De Niro said. “So it seems in not bad shape at this point.”

De Niro, Rosenthal, and Rosenthal’s husband, developer Craig Hatkoff, founded the Tribeca festival back in 2002, “out of the ashes” of 9/11. As Rosenthal has put it, TFF is the only festival outside of Sarajevo that was created because of an act of war. Neighborhood resuscitation was the stated goal. Whether or not the festival should get the credit, the neighborhood seems to be doing fine. In fact, the neighborhood might think about helping out the festival.

When TFF opens on April 22—with Woody Allen’s Whatever Works—it will do so without an artistic director. (Scarlet is now working for the Middle East International Film Festival.) Tribeca will also be operating with only half of what, last year, was a two-woman executive directorship. (The supremely capable Paola Freccero quit in January.) And it will have the No. 1 film festival draft pick—Geoff Gilmore, 19-year veteran of Robert Redford’s Sundance—newly installed as chief creative officer of the umbrella Tribeca Enterprises. (Scarlet confirmed by e-mail from Abu Dhabi that although the Gilmore announcement accelerated his departure, he had been talking to parties at the Middle East festival well beforehand.)

Tribeca is hardly the only film institution in a tizzy. The Sundance Institute, which oversees the Utah festival, just jettisoned Ken Brecher, its longtime executive director (and if anyone thinks the Gilmore defection had nothing to do with it, Redford has a ski resort he’d like to sell you). At the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the doting grand-aunt of the New York Film Festival, morale apparently couldn’t be worse, with executive director Mara Manus said to be making herself as popular on West 65th Street as she was at the Public Theater. “It used to be kind of like a family,” said one surviving staffer, sadly. “Some people who’d been here for years should have been allowed to retire, and they were just called in and fired.”

But as dishy as all this internal combustion is, what’s important is how movie-going in New York will be affected—even though no one at either the NYFF or Tribeca is predicting, or admitting, that it will.

“I think the Film Society went through a tough period economically, along with every other arts organization in the United States,” said program director Richard Peña, who called the recent staff cuts “painful.” “But there’s no thought at all to changing anything at the festival. I think we want to make it more dynamic, more exciting, but no changes to the tone or the kind of films we show, or even the size.” (Full disclosure: The NYFF selection committee now includes Voice writers J. Hoberman, Scott Foundas, Melissa Anderson, and former Voice film editor Dennis Lim, in addition to Peña.)

As for Tribeca, Gilmore remains vague: “There’s no question that we have a whole series of different options here to think about,” he said of his new undertaking, calling any big moves on Tribeca’s part “idle speculation.”

But the hiring of Gilmore is a big move—and indicates more big thinking to come. A major development would be a shift to the fall, about which Variety speculated at length recently and which is something that Rosenthal, while denying that it will happen, says she’s been urged to do. “Tom Bernard,” she said of the Sony Pictures Classics co-president, “is always telling me to move the festival.” Other industry figures concur. And it makes a certain amount of sense.

Right now, fall is the New York Film Festival’s turf. Started in the ’60s, the NYFF—built around about two dozen of what are deemed the best films of the festival year—represents a kind of classic, Cannes-style, two-week-long soiree: black-tie on opening night, an audience largely of subscribers, and a selection of films that have either gotten distribution already, or probably won’t. As such, it’s a purely cultural event.

Tribeca currently dwells in no-man’s-land: It hardly wants to be a springtime NYFF, but at the same time, it can’t be a major player in April because it doesn’t have the cachet to draw films away from next month’s Cannes, and is too long after January’s Sundance to get producers to hold off premiering there. If Tribeca moved to the fall, it could free itself from the spring season’s logjam, wherein SXSW, the Los Angeles film festival, and even less competitively minded fests like San Francisco and Seattle vie for the same films. “It would be a roll of the dice,” said Variety critic Todd McCarthy, “but if studios knew they could open films in November at Tribeca, they wouldn’t have to show them early in September at Toronto.”

Rosenthal makes the very valid point that much of Tribeca is weather-dependent—the annual street fair and even the drive-in movies are springtime events. But the cachet of a late-October/early-November TFF—when distributors would be falling all over each other to premiere their awards-season films at a major New York festival—might be more than its organizers could resist.

“I think there are old models here,” said Gilmore, asked to survey his new city and the future of festivals in general. “To be honest, that’s the kind of question I think about a lot: how to reinvent festivals, what they should be doing, whether or not their agendas—which have evolved greatly—need to be rethought completely.” When one considers what’s going on technologically and commercially, he said, there’s a real question about whether festivals “are going to be obsolete in a decade, because people won’t find them valuable anymore—they won’t be the platform from which people need to operate.”

It’s worth noting that one of the things that occurred over the course of Gilmore’s tenure at Sundance was its transformation from a “discovery” festival to a market and showcase. It’s probably a symptom of success, but thanks largely to Sundance, there’s no such thing as a discovery festival anymore. The feeding frenzy goes on all year long.

Meanwhile, Tribeca maintains its traditional split personality. The presence of directors Allen, Spike Lee, and Steven Soderbergh—and movies featuring such celebs as Meg Ryan, Jessica Biel, James Gandolfini, and Hilary Duff—is how the festival sells itself. At the same time, executive director Nancy Schafer says that Tribeca still has a “something-for-everybody” ethos and a “mandate” to support filmmakers all year round; how it does that “is what Gilmore’s here to figure out.” Presumably, Schafer means those independent filmmakers to whom TFF was theoretically devoted and with whom the festival could have carved a real niche, had its devotion to them been pure. Scarlet was quite open in recent years about ridiculing certain films programmed in the very festival he was supposed to be programming. Perhaps as West meets East—à la Gilmore—the festival will find its true orientation.