Tribeca gets good reviews

Breakouts, buzz compel belief that fest 'figured it out'

The Tribeca Film Festival closed Sunday with traits that have marked it pretty much since it opened: unlikely bursts of media and industry activity.

Favorable reviews and press accounts continued to come in, and sales negotiations, as they had throughout the 12-day event, continued to heat up.

By the time the fest wound down, three movies emerged as breakouts: Conor McPherson's supernatural character drama "The Eclipse," Raymond De Felitta's offbeat family story "City Island" and Marshall Curry's Go-Kart documentary "Racing Dreams."

"Eclipse," which reunites Ciaran Hinds with his Broadway director McPherson, examines a widower (Hinds) in a Gothic Irish town who sees ghosts and a love triangle he gets caught up in with two visiting writers (Iben Hjejle and Aidan Quinn).

After a week of negotiating with specialty distributors including Lionsgate, Miramax and Sony Pictures Classics, filmmaker rep Submarine Entertainment on Friday sold worldwide rights to the pic to Magnolia. The company paid low to mid-six figures for the Treasure Entertainment-produced film, marking the first theatrical buy at the festival itself in four years.

"Island," described as a kind of New York "Little Miss Sunshine," stars Julianna Margulies and Andy Garcia (who also produced) as the mother and father of a quirky family with enough secrets to fill the East River.

New York banner Lucky Monkey produced the pic, which was a huge hit with audiences: On Saturday, the film was given the Heineken Audience Award, and on Sunday a screening played to some of the most enthusiastic crowds at the festival. Paradigm was on the verge of selling U.S. rights Sunday afternoon.

"Dreams," repped by Cinetic Media, had not found a buyer as the fest wound down. But Curry's movie, a kind of "Spellbound" for the NASCAR set, was poised to break out after proving a double-barreled hit, winning the world jury prize for documentary and finishing second in audience-award voting.

A couple docs did find homes, albeit television ones, out of the festival: Ian Olds' Afghanistan wartime examination "Fixer" went to HBO and Cuban baseball tale "The Lost Son of Havana" went to ESPN.

Studios also continued to use Tribeca to launch their springtime pics, with Fox Searchlight garnering a strong response to its Nia Vardalos' travelogue comedy "My Life in Ruins" at a closing-night screening, which it followed with a media-heavy party at a Greek restaurant downtown.

Like most festivals, anointed pics sometimes underperformed while surprise titles came to the fore. The trio of breakouts were relative surprises, but some pre-fest hopefuls, like the Adrienne Shelly-penned "Serious Moonlight," drew a mixed reaction from buyers.

Much like last year, when a Sundance pic, "Man on Wire," used Tribeca to solidify its status as an indie favorite, IFC Films' political satire "In the Loop" picked up buzz at the New York festival. And a Berlin award-winner, the Iranian mystery-drama "About Elly," gained needed exposure when it won the world narrative prize.

But unlike recent years, the fest finally proved able to launch movies that had no traction from a previous festival. "Eclipse," "Island" and "Dreams" were all world premieres.

To some, those breakouts heralded that Tribeca's moment had arrived.

"I don't want to jinx it because we've said this before, but it seemed Tribeca has finally figured it out this year," an industry veteran said.

The fest screened only 85 movies this time around, many of them preceded by a comedic promo short that noted, among other things, the "upside" of the recession. With the streamlined slate bolstering the films' quality and reception, fest organizers might be saying the same.