Tribeca fest looks to shake up indie distrib'n

Event testing waters on online streaming video, VOD

NEW YORK -- With Wednesday night's world premiere of DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek Forever After," the Tribeca Film Festival is not only raising the curtain on its ninth edition, it's setting out to try and redefine how indie films are distributed.

Under the leadership of Tribeca Enterprises' new chief creative officer, Geoff Gilmore, the Sundance veteran, and TFF executive director Nancy Schafer, the festival will open its doors to a wider online audience with a new initiative, Tribeca Film Festival Virtual. The program will offer as many as 5,000 passholders (at $45 per pass) the chance to view eight of the festival's features plus shorts, panels and other streaming video online for a week.

Although Sundance and SXSW have ventured into these waters, TFFV's effort will be the most extensive test to date on whether online video streaming can help or hurt a film's quest to find commercial distribution.

Simultaneously, the organization's new distribution arm, Tribeca Film, will offer a dozen first-run features, at $6-$8 per rental, via cable and satellite VOD.

Both throw significant curveballs into the conventional acquisition scene. Tribeca Film (with hefty marketing backing from TFF sponsor American Express) has selected seven films from the current fest, effectively taking them off the market before the fest begins. The Virtual program will be streaming eight features from TFF's 50-plus available titles to computers worldwide before distributors have a chance to snap them up.

Festival programmers insist they went about their job without worrying whether individual titles would be available for either TFFV or Tribeca Film. "We were all adamant about keeping the selection processes very church and state," Schafer said. "We never knew how many titles were going to coincide until we locked all 12 films on the VOD platform."

Competitors who also deal in VOD distribution, including IFC chief Jonathan Sehring, don't appear concerned about Tribeca entering the arena. Because most of the fest's initial batch of titles have been on the market for months and available to others, no one is arguing that Tribeca enjoys an unfair advantage.

But the Virtual program is a trickier experiment. Several hundred passes were purchased on the first day they went on sale, and if Tribeca hits its goal of 5,000, the eight features might not be viewed as "virgin titles" by other distributors, Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen noted.

As for the larger sales prospects at Tribeca, "There are a few movies worth serious consideration, and while there may not be many on the surface that everyone's really excited about, there could be some surprises," Cohen said. "But I don't think anyone's dying to buy movies right now."

The sales market is beginning with some wind in its sails: In the past few days, HBO purchased domestic TV rights to "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," IFC bought U.S. rights to "Heartbreaker," Magnolia took North American rights to "Freakonomics," Verve Pictures nabbed U.K. rights to "The Arbor" and Gravitas Ventures acquired North American VOD rights to "The Lottery," which will be distributed theatrically by Variance.

The common denominator is that distributors, rather than eyeing a traditional theatrical release, see value in the revenue streams from VOD, TV or home video. "We've been noticing a trend of newer distributors with slightly different releasing patterns, like Tribeca Film for that matter," Schafer said. "Last year, there was this black cloud -- people were saying, 'Who's going to buy films?' -- but this year, things seem to be picking up."

Some of the fest's more commercial prospects include the ensemble teen comedy "Beware the Gonzo," the Midnight hermaphrodite entry "Spork" (also viewable in the Virtual program), the Kim Cattrall vehicle "Meet Monica Velour" and the romantic drama "Monogamy," starring Chris Messina and Rashida Jones.

As TFF co-founder Robert De Niro noted Tuesday, the fest also is continuing its traditionally strong lineup of docs. De Niro's favorites touch on such subjects as Down syndrome ("Monica & David"), Rwandan genocide ("Earth Made of Glass"), polygamy ("Sons of Perdition") and the war on terror ("My Trip to Al-Qaeda").

Then there's what's arguably the most anticipated project on tap: Alex Gibney's work-in-progress untitled Eliot Spitzer film, one of six Cinetic Media titles up for sale here. A portrait of the disgraced New York governor, it's guaranteed a media spotlight.
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