"we never knew where the festival would go when we started it, so it seems in not bad shape at this point."
That's what Robert De Niro told the Village Voice's John Anderson when asked about his brainchild, the Tribeca Film Festival. In not bad shape. A fair comment if you're talking about the New Jersey Americans, New York Nets, New Jersey Nets, Brooklyn(?) Nets franchise after stealing Brook (lyn?) Lopez from last year's draft. A team born in the obscure ABA and minus the Jason Kidd era, better known as the LA Clippers-East of the post-merger NBA. A fair comment as well if you're a Coney Island guy like, Rob Leddy, and you're putting together a medium sized indie fest (featuring a super sized party) on a shoe string budget.
But this is Tribeca. The festival that, like Rudy Giuliani, constantly reminds you of 9/11. Never mind that Giuliani was the one who moved NYC's Command Center to the World Trade Center, or that De Niro had been planning a festival before 9/11 to begin with. That aside, Tribeca truly did debut as not only an instrument in bringing back lower Manhattan, but also as a home for indie lovers. With De Niro heading his New York Mafia, it was supposed to be the anti-Hollywood festival. It was even supposed to be an anti-Sundance (victim of its own success) festival. Ironically, LA based Geoff Gilmore (the man who helped build that success) described today's Sundance as a "den of vipers" before jumping ship to Tribeca a few months ago. More on that later.
During its initial run, only 7 months after the attacks, Tribeca gave the feel of a small indie-fest that could. Better than that, really. Never small and with American Express financial backing as well as De Niro's name, it gave the feel of the big indie-fest that could. Big enough to be a first tier player on the circuit and add some of the east coast attitude that's often been lacking from Lincoln Center's New York Film Festival.
Along with co-founder Jane Rosenthal and with the help of the New York film community, De Niro united the city in somehow bringing magic to a devastated area surrounded by death and destruction. All films were screened in neighborhood theaters or school halls, like that of Stuyvesant High and BMCC. All locales were within the dark shadow of Ground Zero. As corny as it sounds now, being there that first year made it feel like we were all playing a tiny part in bringing back lower Manhattan during its toughest of times. As Tribeca hadn't yet put much emphasis on a "den of vipers" type film market it was also a place where small gems like Roger Dodger were to be discovered . The second year offered much of the same although the festival was pushed back three weeks from early to late April. This gave it the chance to take advantage of New York's notoriously short spring by adding an outdoor street fair and later, free outdoor screenings, which helped in further reaching out to the community.
Then it all changed. Gaining first tier status, Tribeca, like the post-merger Nets, sputtered in circles while making all the wrong moves. The amount of screenings tripled. Ticket prices doubled. Despite its "born from the ashes of 9/11" calls, the majority of screenings took place not only north of Canal, but north of Houston as well. The festival was stretched to all parts of Manhattan and even crossed the river into Queens. It became a showcase for Hollywood duds, like Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man 3 (which had it's American premiere in the part of TriBeCa known as 38th Street and 35th Avenue, Astoria) as well as flat out Hollywood disasters, like the Olsen Twin's New York Minute. While Tribeca physically lost its center, it spiritually lost its soul.
Even the street fair became nothing more than a bland meeting place for corporations to shill from "friendlier" outdoor corporate booths. A far cry from the type of street fairs New York is famous for. Places where one could fill their stomachs on greasy food and later empty them on not fully licensed carnival rides.
As hard as Tribeca tried in selling out (not just as a Hollywood showcase festival, but even to its biggest sponsor, American Express, which offers their card holders the chance to buy tickets a week before the general public) it still had little success as a market festival. Stuck between Sundance and Cannes while up against SXSW, talented new filmmakers and the old vipers they draw often skipped it in hopes of premiering at the more reputable festivals.
In short, lacking in substantial films, lacking in substantial film deals, lacking even in a substantial theater to call home, Tribeca morphed into a party place for C-lebs and Page 6-type stalkarazzi. This while the rest of New York continued with their daily lives.
Unlike Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Toronto, but very much like Giuliani's last ("wait 'til Florida") campaign, today there is little even remotely inclusive about Tribeca. Decent glitz but nothing uniting local filmmakers, never mind all of Gotham. This year the over priced neighborhood featured bigger crowds at the many baseball diamonds, b-ball courts, bike paths and outdoor cafes than at any of the free outdoor screenings. Normally, the addition of Mary-Kate Olsen and Debra Messing to a festival juror's panel, as was the case this year, would milk it of it's last drop of credibility. Unfortunately, that's only true when the locals still care enough about the festival to begin with. Enter Geoff Gilmore. Wranglers, cowboy boots, bolo tie, and all.
Before Gilmore's 1990 arrival to Sundance, Robert Redford was close to pulling the plug on his quiet, low key, out of the way, rustic, little, rural, ski-resort/festival project which was losing money hand over fist. In just two years, however, Gilmore made it the most important festival in North America. He made it what every other North American festival dreams of becoming. The rub was that he had made it such a happening, by decade's end, the vipers had taken over.
Now Gilmore is looking for a clean slate back east. With the magic of 2002 and 2003 long gone, he has one in Tribeca. While it's too late to do much for this year's festival, the future already looks a little brighter. The amount of films has been slashed, as have ticket prices. Despite still screening more films outside of the nabe than it, the Upper East and Upper West are no longer venues. Neither is the benign cineplex in Astoria, Queens.
The big rumor however isn't that Gilmore will move Tribeca back to TriBeCa, but instead that he will move the festival from late April to late October.
Having it take place just after the hoity-toity Lincoln Center fest could make this area the autumn capital of the filmmaking world. This by having New York become (after the summer blockbuster season) the place to be for Oscar worthy late season premieres. It could also be a crisp jab to Toronto (often praised by Gilmore) which theoretically could be passed over for the two New York festivals.
More actually when counting other local autumn film fests like the posh Hamptons one, and of course Rob Leddy's ever growing Coney Island. Still, this is only early speculation. But if moving to the colder days of late October can at least rid us of the lame-assed street fest, it's a big step in the right direction. Like the Nets with Lopez, Gilmore on board means that Tribeca can only get better.*
Full Disclosure: Rob Leddy welcomed the premiere of Sodom by the Sea to last fall's Coney fest. Geoff Gilmore later proved that despite his record, he too is mistake prone while rejecting it from this past winter's Sundance roster. Sodom was never submitted into Tribeca. We'll see about 2010.