Tri State

At 8, the Tribeca Film Festival is in transition, though where it is heading is unclear

Highlights of this year's TFF
Q&A: Tribeca's Geoff Gilmore

Last year, the president of Magnolia Pictures, Eamonn Bowles, brought two "little, obscure" films to the Tribeca Film Festival.

"One was (a) documentary about this historical thing," says Bowles, "and the other was this no-name Swedish vampire film from nowhere, with not one recognizable element to American audiences in there."

"Man on Wire" went on to win the documentary Oscar this year, while "Let the Right One In" -- which won Tribeca's best narrative feature award -- later earned $3.8 million in boxoffice and another $1 million in DVD sales in its first week of release.

Tribeca wasn't the fest where those films premiered, nor was it the marketplace where they were purchased. But the annual New York event (April 22-May 3) proved the ideal location to springboard them into theaters. Now in its eighth year, there's no better venue on the American festival circuit for an independent movie to debut than Tribeca.

Woody Allen's "Whatever Works" will open Tribeca
"More and more, it has this reputation for being a great starting place for American films," says director Ian Olds, whose abduction feature "Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi" is one of 12 films in this year's documentary competition section. "Before, there was Sundance. Now people are paying more attention to Tribeca."

They likely will be paying even more attention soon, because Tribeca is a film festival in evolution. With a new man brought into its uppermost ranks -- Geoffrey Gilmore, the former head of the Sundance Film Festival -- and with a tighter lineup, Tribeca might well be morphing into a quite different event than the one we have seen in the recent past.

While Gilmore, the new chief creative officer for Tribeca Enterprises, had nothing to do with programming this year's festival, he piqued interest across the industry just by taking the gig. His hiring was announced mere days before longtime artistic director Peter Scarlet decamped to become executive director of the Middle East International Film Festival.

"Geoff is a very on-the-ground, knows-what's-going-on person," says Gill Holland, executive producer of the documentary "Con Artist," which screens this year. "He feels more accessible -- whereas, did I ever see Peter Scarlet at the Tribeca Film Festival?"

"He can shape and bring a more distinct personality to the festival," adds SPC co-president Tom Bernard. "Peter leaving doesn't hurt the festival, because he was used to a much more intimate type of festival. Having a guy like Geoff on board makes a statement about your movies. It's a progression."

But what exactly Tribeca is progressing toward is unclear. Until Gilmore puts his stamp on the event, it will be hard to read the tea leaves.

This year's festival already is notably different from last year's. With 85 features and 46 shorts, its lineup is way down from a 2005 peak of 176 features and 98 shorts -- which makes sense, festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal says, because more is "too unwieldy for anyone to navigate."

"We've been telling (Tribeca organizers) for years: Every world premiere of a film that's not going to sell doesn't do anyone any favor," Cinetic Media's John Sloss says. "It hurts the credibility of the festival, and annoys the acquisitions people."

But it's not just in quantity that the festival seems to be changing: There's a somewhat different tone this year, too.

"My Life in Ruins" is set to close the fest
Programmers have put an emphasis on a lighter tone (though there are still plenty of darker, intense projects). Hence the films bookending the festival: Woody Allen's "Whatever Works" (Sony Pictures Classics) opens, while the Richard Dreyfuss-starrer "My Life in Ruins" (Fox) closes.

"We looked harder for escapist films," Tribeca executive director Nancy Schafer admits.

The rest of the lineup is vintage Tribeca, with Oscar nominee Marshall Curry's "Racing Dreams" (a documentary about preadolescent NASCAR driver wannabes) and Michael Cuesta's modernized Poe adaptation "Tell Tale" (which boasts Ridley and Tony Scott in producing positions). There's also plenty of diversity in the demos, with 24 female directors and multiple filmmakers returning with new projects. (Cathy Henkel, who screens her Indonesian arson doc "The Burning Season" fits both categories.)

Tribeca also encompasses the Tribeca ESPN Sports Film Festival, which includes eight films (three feature narratives and five documentaries), three titles from the Tribeca All Access program, and two documentaries funded by the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund.

"Even though the slate is downsized a bit," says "Tale" producer Chris Tuffin of Social Capital Films, "it's gotten more focused -- which is really going to attract acquisition folks looking for films at a time when there's far less money to make them."

The acquisition folk will be hard to get away from. Although officially Tribeca is not a market -- and certainly, it has never had the sort of "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" hit that helped make Gilmore's Sundance such a must for the industry -- it still holds its fair share of promise.

"As always," says Bernard, "it's about discovery."