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May 11, 2007

What We Learned at Tribeca, Vol. VI

Making the rounds to make sense (or something) of it all

Covering the Tribeca Film Festival the way we did at The Reeler and then returning to real life has been like coming back from Vietnam; speaking for myself, anyway, I haven't experienced much of a transition period, my friends and family vanished and I instinctively dive behind cars at the mere glimpse of a camera flash. There are also professional advantages, I suppose, including the benefit of hindsight -- a clear window through which to gauge the more prismatic appeal, vexation and befuddlement that Tribeca engenders.

And not just to the media, among which some found occasion to flog for flogging's sake while others asked honest, important questions about its ambition and tactics. My colleague Karina Longworth recently gleaned diverse insights about how to fix the event, while recaps on indieWIRE and Salon point to a number of Tribeca titles that are -- gasp! -- actually worth seeing. And though I know I have been harsh (but mostly fair) in expressing my own gripes and criticisms, I've also observed an evolution in tastes and perceptions over the last year for better and worse. Admittedly, it's massive, wealthy, a symbol of ruthless class upscaling -- in other words, an easy festival to hate. But for what my impression and those of a number of others close to Tribeca are worth, it might be an even easier festival to misunderstand.

As such, shellshock notwithstanding, a few thoughts:

--Tribeca is not all about you. This means you, Jane Rosenthal. And you, Lou Lumenick. And you, Anthony Kaufman. And you, American Express. And you, well, Tribeca. (Sorry.) Rather, it is about capitalizing on the prospect of coexistence -- and having the intellectual honesty to admit it. "There are a lot of competing personalities and agendas for a festival that size," said Village Voice film critic Nathan Lee. "Personally, I don't have any problem with them doing all that Spider-Man 3 craziness and then showing a Jia Zhangke film. Why not? On the other hand, you can feel the schizophrenia. There are aspects of this that are labors of love; Passio was a big deal for (TFF executive director) Peter Scarlet if for nobody else. And there are other aspects that are, let's say, labors of a different kind."

Indeed, but even the shameless packaging of the ESPN Sports Film Festival from pre-programmed titles like King of Kong (about a video-game competition) and Chops (a youth jazz band competition) attracted audiences who would not otherwise crack the Tribeca guide. Which is indisputably a good thing -- for the festival and its sponsor, for independent filmmakers and for the viewers who had the chance to check out a pair of excellent films. What's the problem? Is your experience compromised if there's a Cadillac logo on your audience award ballot?

"I'd rather have the conflict," said Jesus Camp co-director Rachel Grady, herself a three-time Tribeca alum. "I don't think the corporate position is going anywhere. The only thing that would go away is the more obscure element of the festival, so I'd rather have the conflict than not. It would be my loss." That said...

--Smaller is better. The festival this year reduced its feature program to 157 titles, but increased its Manhattan sprawl (a theater on the Upper East Side?) and exercised its premiere mandate perhaps a little too strenuously. "I (didn't take) Tribeca any more seriously as a showcase for great new cinema, because, well, it’s not," one festival veteran told The Reeler via e-mail. "It’s more of a showcase for a lot of not-quite-there movies and a few gems. As a person who sees a lot of Sundance movies, and someone who sees a lot of Tribeca movies, I can say that the bad-to-good ratio at Sundance is about 1:3. The bad-to-good ratio at Tribeca is more like 5:1. ... It hurt itself by programming fewer crowd-pleasing or critical darling films that had been at other festivals in favor of worse movies that may be world premieres."

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Which isn't necessarily Earth-shattering news, but certainly echoes a common complaint of a correctable problem. What's more difficult to determine is how name-brand premieres like The Education of Charlie Banks, Gardener of Eden, The Grand and others do impact smaller winners like In Search of a Midnight Kiss or Shotgun Stories. They have an even more abstract effect on foreign titles and documentaries; one doc maker who declined to be identified told me her film was scheduled five times against buzz-packing star vehicles in the same multiplexes, thus consistently playing to half-full houses. On the other hand, On the Downlow director Abigail Child told me she sold out two of her five screenings (the other three were close to full) almost despite a program favoring "famous actors or artists" to "regular citizens."

"I know that organizers are working to streamline the festival a bit," indieWIRE editor Eugene Hernandez wrote me in an e-mail. "I fear that the fight for premieres will continue to alienate some folks. However, in fairness to the festival, it can be a really strong platform for a good film, given the access to media and industry in New York." And I guess it's not starfucking if the organizers themselves possess fame equal to or greater than their red-carpet counterparts, so perhaps five fewer Suburban Girls in five different neighborhoods is a realistic hope. But I won't hold my breath if you don't. "That isn't Tribeca," said Jayce Bartok, the actor/screenwriter whose The Cake Eaters premiered at the festival. "Nor should it be. It's a big, fancy festival for a big, fancy city."

--There is no excuse for $18 - $25 tickets. "If there's going to be a 50 percent increase, is the festival 50 percent better?" Lee fumed to me. The others I surveyed expressed similar, near-unanimous disgust at the 50 percent jump in prices from last year's festival. (When asked the degree to which the hike hurt smaller films and distributors, THINKFilm acquisitions head Mark Urman replied simply: "Not a bit.") However, most denied seeing a dip in attendance. "We may, however, see the impact next year," said the festival veteran, "when people who payed $18 or $25 to see a shitty movie this year may think twice before doing it again."

Grady agreed. "There's no way it should cost more than a regular move ticket when everyone's taking a risk to go see something," she said. "At a film festival, especially if it's a premiere, it's a leap of faith. And people should be rewarded for that. There are other ways to make up revenue. That's the worst place to cut corners." And West 32nd director Michael Kang, who shot his film in part on its namesake street in Koreatown, said the ticket prices were his only complaint about his festival experience: "Many of my crew and cast couldn't go to the film because they are tier one union rate type people," Kang wrote in an e-mail. "We shot the film for almost nothing and so many folks put so much work into making it. I felt awful that I couldn't afford to buy them all tickets so they could see how good the film came out."

A source with the festival indicated to me that the prices will carry over into 2008 but was also quick to point out wildly popular free events like those at the Tribeca Drive-In and the festival's street fair. I'll give Tribeca this; pound-for-pound, no event went better than Planet B-Boy's outdoor screening on April 28. Something like 8,000 people showed up for a break-dancing demo, competition and a free movie that actually turned out to be pretty good. Credit given where credit is due, but they didn't dare try to justify the extortion that went on at the box office before every screening of In the Land of Merry Misfits. It really is indefensible; it cannot (and should not) be explained away.

--Love it or hate it, Tribeca is a local fixture to reckon with. I was amused to read David Poland's mid-fest dismissal of the festival as having "jumped the shark" (prefacing his reprint of the gloriously stupid "TFF.com - 9/11" conspiracy chain letter). In fairness, he admitted not planning to cover Tribeca, which would explain the inaccuracy. Rosenthal, De Niro et. al. have no doubt made enemies, alienated press, set up a cinephile class war, expropriated their neighborhood's imprimatur and, with eerie, expensive speed, established a monolith. They also invited a good (if still disproportionate) number of quality films to screen in New York. Local media too cool to pretend Tribeca exists are just as arrogant as the organizers charging $18 per ticket. The festival veteran I spoke with noted that the festival's discontinuation of its NY, NY narrative and documentary categories removed certain titles' built-in "homefield advantage" for New York press, but I don't see it that way. Antipathy within the city's daily papers in particular betrayed the filmmakers stuck in the middle and the readers who, with a few navel-spelunking exceptions, know better.

Hell, the whole world knows better. "My film West 32nd is a scrappy little indie film shot like a studio film and set in New York," Kang said. "I was so happy to have a New York audience be the first to see it. ... What's also great about the New York (and by default Tribeca) audience is that every type of audience is here. Every film in the festival has a way to reach its intended audience. I can't imagine how my film would have fared in Park City -- or been ignored. I don't know how many people in Utah actually might be interested in such a specific subculture in New York; I would have been 10 times more nervous about premiering in that environment."

Then there's the cultural reach, which extends well beyond the realm of branding some blame for delegitimizing Tribeca as a whole. "It's a festive festival," Urman said. "It celebrates film and takes the whole idea of a film festival out of the 'art' ghetto, and it mainstreams films that are far from mainstream. It is also very different from the other New York City fests, so it creates a discrete and distinctive movie 'moment' on the city's calendar." When asked about the festival's potential image problem among New Yorkers, Urman added that "postmortems" like this one miss the point of letting a festival develop more organically. "Every year every festival, no matter what it is, gets criticized for being more or less or different than it was at some time in the past. ... Let it be, and ask me the same question again in five years, when one can fairly judge it as something other than a work in progress."

Backing that up, Voice critic Lee got even more specific. "I'd like to see (Tribeca) shake up the New York Film Festival," he told me. "And they clearly are, at least internally. They're very wary of Tribeca and the press that Tribeca gets. Don't get me wrong, I love the New York Film Festival. I'm into their quality control, I adore the Walter Reade, there are some very smart people involved -- the whole thing. But there are ways they could shake it up. I think the whole sensibility could be ballsier, take bigger risks. I definitely think the selection committees could use some fresh blood. When was the last time they had someone under 40? I'd love to see the program reach out beyond their uptown subscriber base. ... Ultimately, I'd like to see them move toward each other -- for Tribeca's quality to get better and to be a little more focused and disciplined and forward-thinking. And for New York to move toward Tribeca: Be a little looser. Sprawl a bit. Get funky."



Comments (1)

Looks like Nathan Lee got his wish, with Hoberman and Foundas added to the NYFF selection committee. Was that because of Tribeca?

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