Tribeca makes sales pitch

Fest's market titles show promise

As the Tribeca Film Festival kicks off tonight with the Universal comedy "Baby Mama," a group of filmmakers hopes the fest will deliver big sales.

With the New York festival traditionally a slow market and the finished-film business taking its lumps lately, there's plenty of reason for skepticism. Cinetic Media partner John Sloss heralded organizers' decision to frontload the weekend with eligible candidates, but echoing the comments of several sellers, he said, "The specialty market is in flux; people are still sorting through what happened in Sundance."

Still, a number of factors and titles offer reasons to believe that this year could yield a breakthrough.

In contrast to Tribeca's documentary-heavy slates of previous years, the 2008 edition will see a number of buzzed-about scripted features make their debut to buyers as the fest increases its narrative efforts under new hire Genna Terranova.

Among the scripted films that have risen to the lips of distributors as acquisition targets are James Mottern's family drama "Trucker" and the William H. Macy dramedy "Bart Got a Room," both produced by the New York shingle Plum Pictures. Also high on radars are the Mariah Carey road-trip drama "Tennessee"; "Eden," a relationship drama from "Once" producer Samson Films; and "The Caller," a corporate thriller starring Frank Langella and Elliott Gould.

A number of un-Tribeca-like genre entries also have piqued buyers. "Blair Witch Project" veteran Daniel Myrick unspools his Middle East-set spookfest "The Objective," and noted cinematographer Phedon Papamichael ("3:10 to Yuma") will unveil his directorial debut, the teen-horror film "From Within," which comes into the festival riding a considerable wave of buzz and expectation.

And while Melvin Van Peebles' postmodern hybrid "Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFootedMutha" hasn't registered high on some buyers' lists, its pedigree — and title — should at least help it attract attention.

Big theatrical sales would be something of a switch at Tribeca, which tends to privilege documentaries. The great majority of scripted movies get small theatrical releases or go straight to video.

Still some of the biggest sales in Tribeca's six-year history have come from the scripted side. Three years ago, IFC and the Weinstein Co. bought the edgy transsexual drama "Transamerica," starring Felicity Huffman, which went on to earn $13 million and Oscar nominations.

In 2002, Dylan Kidd's male drama "Roger Dodger" helped establish the young event as a sales market when it became a media sensation at the festival.

Docus still will be in abundance at this year's Tribeca. Despite the genre's recently weak boxoffice, buyers will try to capitalize on the success of "Taxi to the Dark Side," ThinkFilm's Tribeca buy last year that went on to earn an Oscar nomination for best docu.

Among those catching buyers' attention this year are "Hotel Gramercy Park," about the landmark hotel's sale to Ian Schrager; the art-world docu "The Universe of Keith Haring"; and "Gotta Dance," a look at geriatric hip-hop dancers in the apparently burgeoning subgenre of elderly people practicing youth-oriented performing arts.

A number of Iraq docus also will try to fare better than their predecessors, with the woman-in-combat examination "Lioness" and teen verite effort "Baghdad High" debuting at the festival.

Tribeca typically doesn't spawn huge sales; the abundance of new filmmakers tend to militate against bidding wars, and with the Festival de Cannes just a few weeks away, buyers often hold back.

But a batch of star-heavy movies — and this year's move to concentrate many of the screenings at theaters in and around Union Square instead of scattering them around the city — has made sellers hopeful for a robust year.

"We see Tribeca not so much as a market in the traditional way but as a great opportunity to show our films and sell them," said Submarine Entertainment's Josh Braun, who last year sold such movies as the extreme-skiing docu "Steep" to Sony Classics and "Autism: The Musical" to HBO.

The number of repped films this year checks in at about 30, a slight reduction compared with last year. The move is a result of the overall reduction in the Tribeca slate by about 20%-25% as well as a conscious decision by several reps to limit their titles. Cinetic, for instance, is selling five films, down from the 10 it repped last year.

For the industry, of course, the fest has other purposes besides selling rights to available films. Studios tends to use the festival as a media platform and a gauge of public sentiment. "Spider-Man 3" began its juggernaut run with a large-scale premiere at Tribeca last year, and "Poseidon" showed its first signs of sinking in the U.S. when it debuted at the festival two years ago.

This year, Warner Bros. will use the fest as a platform for the Wachowskis' "Speed Racer," though in keeping with the more low-key feel, it won't hold any large-scale promotions and won't — at least as far as anyone is saying — debut the film in the Holland Tunnel.
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