Tribeca Film Festival: Perspective of an Intern

Hilarious!

Flasher: Think You’ve Seen it All in New York?
Played before some films.

This past week I had the opportunity to intern at the Tribeca Film Festival through a friend, John Santora (50/60 Productions), who manages events at the Festival’s Tribeca cinema location on 75 Varick Street. I saw some fantastic films and met some incredible people – reviews of the films I saw (most of which are really worth watching) are forthcoming.

I was a summer intern for the Rhode Island International Film Festival, and the differences between the two were astronomical! (Read the history of the festival here if you’re curious.)

Scale of the festival

Tribeca is a significantly more prominent festival. Through the backing of Robert DeNiro and American Express, it has very rapidly established a major presence in New York and the world. The festival claims to have had 1,500 volunteers, while Rhode Island functioned with about 30. They probably had 100+ paid staff while Rhode Island had close to 10. Yet RI showed over 275 films while Tribeca showed about 100.

What accounts for this discrepancy? Primarily the attitudes of the festivals. RI is really about short films. A win at RI qualifies a short film for an Oscar, and it’s meant to be a festival that gives smaller filmmakers the opportunity to get their work shown. Tribeca, on the other hand, is meant to provide the cream of the crop  and provide an experience to the viewer. High-quality films with high production values are the only movies shown and guest panels are a fixture at screenings. While there may be less of a chance to get a film shown at Tribeca, as a result a screening there is a more high-profile event.

To see a festival operate with Tribeca’s budget from the frugal perspective of the RI film fest was to see waste everywhere. The unflappable Demetria Carr, RIIFF’s Managing Director, liked to say “I don’t pay for anything,” and it was true. In such a small and tight-knit community we were only able to survive through the generosity of local businesses – donations of food, office space, and theaters made the festival possible. A New York festival with such big-ticket sponsors must pay for most things, from office space to theater venues, at full cost. (I must disclose that I know nothing of Tribeca’s finances and am only operating from observation–some of the sponsors were clearly footing the bill for many events.)

It is a truth about organizations that what a small and lean team can achieve with a dollar outstrips the efforts of a larger beast, and Tribeca is a prime example.

Tribeca FF’s Identity Crisis

A film festival born in the rubble of September 11 would inevitably go through an identity crisis seven years later, and Tribeca Film Festival is most certainly encountering some growing pains. The arrival of this year’s festival met the lingering question: What are you? What do you hope to be? And this festival must struggle to answer that question quickly. The first festival claimed to exist in the name of revitalizing the downtown and brought $50 million of patronage to its businesses. This year, only a fraction of it’s screenings were in downtown; even the kickoff event was four miles North of TriBeCa.

True, the festival has grown far past its inaugural size, but is this really an appropriate justification for moving most of it out of Tribeca? I heard the complaint time and time again: the scattering of its events deprived festivalgoers of the beautiful sense of a community-for-a-week that a good film festival can bring. The ability to walk down any street or sit down at any café in the area and see a dozen festivalgoers was reduced. Making festival friends and ever seeing them again was quite difficult, and the opportunities for interaction were limited; there was no space in most of the theaters to hang out before or after a movie.

I can’t speculate on the experience of a filmmaker, and I can imagine that for those invited to the parties there was a greater sense of community. Still, a festival founded on community principles ought to be accessible to the other 80% of its clientele.

The future

These issues were minor compared to the successes of Tribeca. The festival brought some stellar art to an appreciative audience, and brought prestige and business to our city. I get the sense that the festival’s leadership is acutely aware of the successes and failures this year, and can do a lot about these issues next year. Stay tuned for my reviews of the excellent films I saw!

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