Tribeca Fest set for next step

Hopes high with slimmer slate, international features

When Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Nancy Schafer kick off the Tribeca Film Festival at Tuesday's news conference in downtown Manhattan, they will do so amidst a lot of indie angst. Distributors are shrinking, finance sources are drying up and film fests around the country are facing economic hardship.

And yet, paradoxically, the prospects for Tribeca are fairly bright.

Now in its eighth year, the fest is going with a slimmed-down slate of 85 films across its traditional area of documentary film as well as expanding its focus on international features. With a more manageable number of titles and changes both within (the hiring of Sundance vet Geoff Gilmore to run Tribeca Enterprises) and out of its control (the shifting fest landscape), Tribeca may finally take the leap it's been attempting for years.

"Tribeca has always been a bit of a problem with respect to exciting product, because of its timing (right before the Festival de Cannes)," said Mark Urman, president of Senator Distribution. "But I think two things are happening that augur well for the festival. One is the arrival of Geoff Gilmore, and the other is that we're going to start seeing a genuine eclipsing of the relevance of Cannes for North American distribution. That means that, in the coming years, you're going to see a class of film at Tribeca that will take this to the next level."

In the meantime, there is the matter of showcasing films.

More than most years, Tribeca, run by fest chief Schafer, will try to keep the tone buoyant -- it's a rarity that the fest is both opening and closing with a comedy (Woody Allen's "Whatever Works" and Donald Petrie's romantic comedy "My Life In Ruins") -- a conscious decision by organizers in these recessionary days.

"We have deliberately tried lighter fare," fest co-founder Rosenthal said, comparing the fest's place on the calendar this go-round to its first iteration shortly after 9/11. "We sat down with programmers and said we need lighter pictures, because people need to laugh right now."

Perhaps best embodying this spirit of lightness is the Johnny Knoxville exec-produced "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia," a docu about a rural family prone to outrageous antics, which premieres this weekend.

While a number of the more prominent titles made a first stop at Sundance -- the James Gandolfini-toplined political satire "In the Loop" and Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience" top that list -- there are a number of movies from big names using the fest as a world-premiere venue.

Spike Lee's "Kobe Doin' Work," his day-in-the-life examination of Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, which was made by and will air on ESPN, unspools Saturday, while Allen's return-to-New York movie "Works" will, fittingly, open the Gotham fest Wednesday.

Sales at the fest tend to be both infrequent and modest. Arguably the biggest, the Oscar nominee "Transamerica," took place a long four years ago. Last year saw just a smattering of distributor interest, with the William H. Macy coming-of-age comedy "Bart Got a Room," notching one of the few sales when it sold to Anchor Bay.

But a number of available titles have begun to stir interest, none more so than "Serious Moonlight," Cheryl Hines' directorial debut and a project based on a script by the late Adrienne Shelly. The last time a movie based on a Shelly script went to a festival -- "Waitress" at Sundance '07 -- it became a $4 million acquisition for Fox Searchlight and a $20 million hit.

Like Hines, other prominent actors will be bringing their directorial efforts to the fest and looking for a deal. They include Andy Garcia's prison-set dramedy "City Island" and Eric Bana's directorial debut "Love the Beast," a doc centering on Bana's love for automobiles and his vintage Ford GT Falcon coupe.

As it does for other pics, Tribeca offers a platform for passion projects that were financed and made with a minimum of commercial interference.

"Movies that have cars in them are considered car films, but they don't connect with me in an way," Bana said of "Beast." "What I realized is that what's missing from a lot of films was sitting in front of me."

Among the other acquisition targets are "Cropsey," a doc about urban legends from Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman; "Wonderful World," a Matthew Broderick dramedy from Miranda Bailey's Ambush Entertainment; and "Accidents Happen," a dysfunctional-family tale starring Geena Davis.

And there's growing chatter about the world premiere of "Outrage," a provocative look at closeted gay politicians from "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" helmer Kirby Dick.

Despite the buzz, filmmakers and execs continue to be realistic, looking at Tribeca and the indie world with a sober eye and a realigned set of expectations.

"We're in different times from a distribution point of view," Garcia acknowledged. "The important part is we've done the difficult thing: We've made the movie."