Tribeca hopes to find success


Last year should have been triumphant for Tribeca Film Festival founders Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff. The event they launched to help revive post-9/11 downtown Manhattan in 2002 expanded throughout the city, drawing in more than half a million people.

Instead, 2007 turned out to be a Tribeca kvetch fest: New ticket prices were too high, people complained. Added uptown theaters made the fest too hard to navigate, with some missing tightly scheduled screenings due to travel delays. The volume of films (157 features) and the quality of many got slammed. Film execs carped it wasn't commercial enough to work as a market -- while others called the lineup too commercial.

So in the months that followed, De Niro, Rosenthal, Hatkoff and their staff did what some never thought would happen: Instead of continuing to grow what critics called the "festival that ate Manhattan," they listened.

"We started so quickly and tried a lot of different things," Rosenthal says. "As people brought up constructive criticism, we addressed it."

For 2008's event, which runs from today through May 4, Tribeca has cut back its lineup by nearly 25% (to a more selective 121 features), eliminated those uptown venues and set up just two screening hubs, in Union Square and Tribeca. Ticket prices that jumped from $12 to $18 last year have been cut back to $15, and many weekend and midnight shows are now just $8.

"One of our growing pains was learning how to say no, condense and hone in on the best films," explains Nancy Schafer, recently promoted to share executive director duties with new hire Paola Freccero.

With a fest that cost an estimated $13 million last year and ran a $1 million annual deficit in its first five years -- money that comes from the founders' pockets -- getting out of the red would appear to be another goal. "That would be nice, but it's clearly about putting on the best festival," Rosenthal says.

She expects the final budget to also be more reasonable. "One would hope," she says. "This is the most expensive city in the world."

If and when the for-profit fest (run by the for-profit Tribeca Enterprises) makes money, those funds will go to the Tribeca's independently run sister, Tribeca Film Institute, which absorbed fellow nonprofit Renew Media in March. Finding a permanent home for the fest is one of TFI's primary goals, a dream that was slightly deferred when plans for a Pier 40 complex for TFF and other organizations were scotched in early April over a lease disagreement.

Fest organizers declined to say whether TFF finally made money last year, or even if it lessened its deficit through the higher ticket prices Rosenthal said she was forced to institute. (Last year, Rosenthal said there might still be a deficit.) But in a grand irony, as overall attendance grew from 465,000 in 2006 to more than 500,000 people last year, TFF's positive economic impact on the city actually fell from $119 to $106 million, according to TFF estimates. This 11% drop only reinforced what critics were telling organizers -- that bigger isn't necessarily better.

The new, leaner Tribeca aims to achieve more realistic goals. Arguably the biggest change this year is an effort to make the fest more industry-friendly by improving the selection, logistics and services for potential film buyers. A new year-round industry department under director of industry relations Julie La'Bassiere will base all press and industry screenings and the Filmmaker/Industry/Press lounge around Union Square.

At the same time, Tribeca is also trying to get a bit closer to its egalitarian roots. Aside from ticket price reductions, tickets for the opening-night film (Universal's "Baby Mama," starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler) and closing-night film (Warner Bros.' "Speed Racer," starring Emile Hirsch) are being made available to the public for the first time.

Other smaller-scale events returning include the Tribeca/ASCAP Music Lounge; the Target-sponsored Breaking the Band concert; Sports Day at the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival (an athletically themed selection of features); and the Drive-In and Family Festival Street Fair. Attendees should expect more post-screening Q&As with filmmakers, the new "Tribeca Talks Industry" panel series and a continuing "industry extranet" with screening and sales information for buyers.

But all the services and events in the world won't help if the films aren't up to par. Getting the best films is a challenge for any fest, but Tribeca's slot between Sundance and Cannes (and following trendy up-and-comer South by Southwest) has made competition for premieres fierce.

Enter Genna Terranova, former vp acquisitions for the Weinstein Co., brought in as a Tribeca senior programmer, upping David Kwok to director of programming and Peter Scarlet to artistic director. This triumvirate's goal is to give the slate a more discriminating and potentially more commercial slant (from a buyer's point of view).

"With fewer titles, there's more consensus on the films we choose, not just one of us liking one," Kwok notes.

Although Scarlet can take pride in a 2007 premiere like "Taxi to the Dark Side," which won this year's docu Oscar for ThinkFilm, he acknowledges criticism of some previous lineups and kept it in mind with this year's selections.

The 2008 lineup ranges from the obscure (Nina Paley's animated Indian tale "Sita Sings the Blues," a Berlin special mention honoree, and the downtown club docu "SqueezeBox!") to one of the most commercial titles without distribution to ever hit Tribeca: Phedon Papamichael's supernatural thriller "From Within."

"Genna said it was representative of where they want to take the festival: a commercial project where someone could buy worldwide rights," says the film's producer Chris Gibbin.

Plum Pictures partner Celine Rattray, who sold a pair of films to the Weinstein Co. when Terranova was there, says the exec also has been a good shepherd: Terranova called her to strategize about sales of her three Tribeca premieres, including the only U.S. film in the World Narrative Feature Competition: James Mottern's drama "Trucker," starring Michelle Monaghan.

Buyers are keeping a wait-and-see attitude about this year's fest; after all, even more established markets like the Toronto International Film Festival and Sundance had disappointing sales.

Yet ThinkFilm's Mark Urman says he's heard from more sales agents visiting Tribeca than ever before. "It may be more festival as theme park than as museum, like (the Film Society of Lincoln Center's) New Directors/New Films, but that's OK," he says, acknowledging that Tribeca organizers have become "uniquely rapid in their response time" to complaints.

Rosenthal seems to be addressing her own complaints just as effectively. Facing deficits while juggling a family, full-time producing career and festival almost made her throw in the towel two years ago. Today, Rosenthal seems more comfortable with the fest's size and with new hires like Freccero and Terranova running things.

"I have more of an ability to delegate and have an overview, as opposed to having to deal in all the details," she says. "I have a strong team, so I get to have more fun."