For some who lived or worked in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001, the event inspired a visionary response: Rudy Giuliani imagined himself president, Art Spiegelman created an oversize comic book, and within an hour of impact, a hundred people are said to have rushed into a drugstore on Vesey Street and purchased cameras.
True, the couple who operated a funky newsstand café around the corner from my place closed up shop that day and vanished, never to return. But other business people embraced the moment: Tribeca restaurateur Robert De Niro and former Tribeca resident Jane Rosenthal started a film festival in the name of neighborhood morale. It was a nice idea, although it did seem to some that Chinatown was the truly wounded neighborhood and New York needed another film festival about as much as it needed another Duane Reade.
That was then. Opening tonight with Shrek Forever After, the Tribeca Film Festival is an established part of the city’s landscape, even as that landscape has shifted. Now in its ninth year, the TFF has essentially relocated uptown to the East Village and Chelsea, and even staked out a bit of virtual space, this year offering video-on-demand. Tribeca has dropped its foundation myth, but it hasn’t abandoned its grand ambitions or resolved its identity issues. “They’re not sure who they want to be,” Geoff Gilmore remembers thinking of the Tribecans from his Park City eyrie. Gilmore, who directed the Sundance Film Festival for nearly two decades before joining Tribeca Enterprises last year as its chief creative officer, was surprised to discover that the TFF was actually a big deal: It “changed the culture of film festivals in New York,” he told me.
With two international competitions—narrative and documentary—offering $125,000 in prize money and its new 12-film “virtual festival,” Tribeca certainly brought something new to the scene. (This year, according to Gilmore, there’s also “a lot of comedy . . . and a lot of it young.”) But ultimately, a festival is only as newsworthy as its films and, even with 85 features—all of them at least local premieres—Tribeca struggles to create any anticipatory buzz. At least, I’ve never met a journalist or cinephile or New Yorker eagerly speculating on or even awaiting the TFF lineup. (For me, it’s not so much what they got but what I can find. Last year: The Girlfriend Experience and In The Loop. This year, perhaps: Please Give, The Killer Inside Me, new films by Raoul Peck and Brillante Mendoza, and the experimental documentary The Arbor.)
Anticipatory excitement, let alone a clear identity, is not easily obtained. So far as the festival universe goes, Cannes is in a class by itself; programmed by scouts who scour the planet, it’s an international news event at which nearly every filmmaker in the world wants to premiere his or her movie. The other European destination fests, Venice and Berlin, survive largely on Cannes’ oversights and missed opportunities; the only other festival remotely capable of generating comparable hysteria is Sundance (still our Cannes despite being out-hipstered by Austin’s SXSW). The rest are either special interest or basically local. Almost every major city now has its own film festival and, although some are excellent and others essential, one stands alone—the locafest gone galactic in Toronto.
Originally known as the “Festival of Festivals,” Toronto began in the mid-’70s as a cannily stocked showcase for the cinematic riches of European (and later Asian) film festivals. Within a decade, it was the poor North American’s Cannes and then, after attracting journalists from throughout the English-speaking world, the Oscar Wannabe Parade, as American distributors looked to preview their fall prestige product before a notoriously appreciative crowd. In Toronto, the audience gives the award. Despite an increasingly massive press presence, this non-competitive, 120-film event is the ultimate people’s festival. More than a few locals time their annual vacation for the first two weeks in September.
During a conversation with TFF’s executive director Nancy Schaefer, she admiringly cited Toronto’s example—and Toronto would be a viable model for Tribeca except that, taken as a whole, New York’s annual film scene is already Toronto on the Hudson. Local film fests traffic in local premieres, and in this town, there are several specialized festivals presenting premieres nearly every month, with the cream skimmed by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s boutique local fest, the New York Film Festival. Indeed, not just helping itself to the best of Cannes and Venice each fall, the Film Society maintains an in-house Salon des Refusés for NYFF rejects with its annual “Film Comment Selects” program as well as two highly popular series—the New York Jewish Film Festival and “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema”—at the Walter Reade, followed by its Museum of Modern Art co-production “New Directors/New Films” scarcely a month before Tribeca opens. “Not a problem,” according to Schaefer. “There’s plenty to go around.” But is there?
Having recently completed a term on the NYFF selection committee, I know that the Film Society lives in fear of Tribeca’s star power and populist appeal—as a Heineken-sponsored TFF billboard near the Holland Tunnel entrance advises, “Don’t listen to critics, be the critic.” They will be relieved to learn that, according to Schaefer and Gilmore, last year’s rumor that Tribeca was contemplating a move to the fall—traditionally NYFF season—was nothing more than a distributor’s fantasy. But the fact is that following all of the above fests doesn’t make things easier for the TFF. Public attention may be in even shorter supply than quality films. A glamorous opening night, A-list industry panels, a strong documentary competition, and a mixed bag of festival leftovers do not necessarily make a must-see event.
Rather than Toronto (or a pay-per-view Sundance Channel), Tribeca might better study Rotterdam—a scrappy, cinephilic urban festival that has thrived for years in the shadow of Berlin, thanks to its freewheeling commitment to (and subsidies of) independent, experimental, and Third World cinema, not to mention a long-standing interest in innovative delivery systems, outré film culture, and a funky late-night celebratory atmosphere.
Tribeca prepares for the day when all film festivals are virtual. But for now, geography is destiny. Schaefer called New York “an under-screened film town”; Gilmore wondered how to “make films visible.” I say that while TFF is cursed by having to carve out space amid the ongoing festival of New York City, it is blessed by having located itself a few subway stops from the heart of the city’s cinephile district—which is not the Upper West Side. Forget Hollywood wannabes and the Tribeca gentry—TFF’s potential partisans can be found in the audience already seeking cine-satisfaction on the mean streets of Lower Manhattan. One can envision a Tribeca à la Rotterdam that brings together events and screenings at Film Forum, Anthology Film Archives, the IFC Center, the Angelika, the Sunshine, and Martin Scorsese’s boyhood block in one yawping cine-celebration of spring. TFF has the power to make Houston Street our La Croisette, complete with palm trees.
I’d anticipate seeing that. But I’m not holding my breath.