Film Fund-amentals: Tribeca – You Talkin’ ta Me?

I’m not going to review the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. I’m not even anywhere near the Tribeca Film Festival. I am not even close to New York, which is why I can’t get a decent espresso for love or money in my town. Unfortunately, you can’t get away from Tribeca, no matter where you go.

The whole situation is a little like the story of a friend of mine. Back in 1997, when the movie Titanic was sucking in all life on Earth, he took off for the most isolated small town he could find in the center of China in hopes of escaping any trace of Western influence. Instead, he was stuck for two weeks in a Chinese backwater where all the radios were blaring the love theme from Titanic.

Fortunately, Tribeca is no Titanic. For one thing, it is nowhere near as costly to produce, despite the hefty price of star power and the rambling screening schedule that runs people over more distance than the New York Marathon. But like the movie, it has reached the weird and wired point of wall-to-wall PR pervasiveness while still not being able to answer one simple question: Why?

So what is the point of the Tribeca Film Festival? Originally, it was suppose to help resurrect the New York art and culture scene after the 9/11 attacks. Obviously, after this attack the arts and culture crowd were on the verge of relocating to New Rochelle and something had to be done. Unfortunately, the first stage of planning for such a festival was already taking place before Sept. 11, so this may be a little bit of PR marketing hype.

OK, how about the idea that the festival helps to bring important attention to the urban scene of the surrounding area? Which it does, sort of. Too bad this kind of gets into the concept of gentrification and all of its negative consequences (where the arts are used to bring in major investors who spend lots of money building condos and lofts that no artist can afford to live in, and after a while, the upscale clients move in and really, can’t somebody get rid of those deadbeat artists who are still hanging around?).

Skip that one. How about networking for independent filmmakers? Yeah, that’s the ticket!

Again, sort of. But not by that much. Tribeca does showcase a tremendous amount of modest-budget productions, and their short film showcase is an incredibly valuable resource. If you have the money, the time and the subway schedule, it’s a fantastic screening resource. But it has yet to become a market for such films. It’s not a place where distributors go to buy movies.

The main festivals for marketing a movie are still Cannes (despite its ridiculously inflated prices for everything under the ample sun), Sundance (both in spite of, and because of, Robert Redford, depending upon what sort of mood he’s in), Toronto (despite its more mainstream feel), and Telluride (despite the most harrowing plane ride you will ever take in your life). These are still the places where people go to buy films for distribution. Tribeca is where you go to see emerging stars going to films. All stars, no deals.

Which is fine for the audience. But increasingly the function of most festivals is business, and this has been the strange weak zone for Tribeca. It seems determined to be all bustle but no hustle, which is ironic, since you would expect New York to provide ample servings of both.

— Dennis Toth