Downtown and online, Tribeca Film Festival aims to expand notion of film festival

By Jake Coyle, AP
Monday, April 19, 2010

Tribeca looks to expand notion of film festival

NEW YORK — When British director Mat Whitecross was growing up in Oxford, only so many movies screened in his local cinema — and not the intriguing movies he read about playing at film festivals or elsewhere.

Whitecross estimates that 90 percent of the films that were influential to him — such as “Taxi Driver” and “La Dolce Vita” — he watched “on very dodgy, knocked-off VHS tapes” or on TV early in the morning with commercial breaks.

“Better to have seen them that way than not at all,” he says.

Whitecross’ experience guides the ninth annual Tribeca Film Festival, which kicks off Wednesday amid concern that the volcanic ash disrupting air travel in Europe might ground some of the many European filmmakers who were planning to attend.

In an effort to help films find audiences, movies won’t be screening only in downtown Manhattan.

A new distribution company, Tribeca Film, founded by the festival’s parent company, Tribeca Enterprises, will make a dozen movies — including Whitecross’ directorial debut “sex & drugs & rock & roll” — available on TV by way of video-on-demand in some 40 million homes. A “virtual festival” will also stream eight movies and 18 shorts online for viewers willing to shell out $45.

The Sundance Film Festival and the South By Southwest Film Festival have tried similar initiatives, though Tribeca’s foray is the boldest yet. The very nature of the film festival is changing, festival organizers say.

“The old days, you’d bring a film to a festival, you’d try to get a buzz going that would help a buyer get interested and you’d hopefully take the film out several months later,” says Geoff Gilmore, the chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises and the former director of Sundance. “It doesn’t work that way anymore.”

Many of the 85 feature films at Tribeca will still arrive with the mission to look for distribution. But in an industry where independent film and documentary distributors are rapidly disappearing, some producers are increasingly viewing that possibility as quixotic.

“I found that whatever the festival, you come out of it with this amazing wave of enthusiasm and publicity and the rest of it, and then it disappears,” says Whitecross, who first came to Tribeca as co-director of 2006’s “The Road to Guantanamo.”

Seven of the 10 films released by Tribeca Film will be screened day-and-date, which means that the same time moviegoers are flocking to a New York theater, TV viewers across the country will be able to watch on VOD. Deals with Comcast, Verizon FiOS and Cablevision helped make that possible.

Even movies that find distribution at film festivals typically aren’t released for months, even years. By shrinking that window, Tribeca Film hopes to capitalize on buzz from the festival and support of festival sponsors.

“It’s certainly a way of creating a new opportunity,” said Jane Rosenthal, who co-founded Tribeca with her husband, entrepreneur Craig Hatkoff, and Robert De Niro. “Where it goes, how it goes — I don’t have a crystal ball.”

Its a strategy that puts a lot of hope in VOD and the Internet as new avenues for finding audiences. But both methods have a checkered track record in independent film.

In January, the Sundance festival offered five movies (including the eventual Oscar documentary winner “The Cove”) for rent on YouTube. The experiment, at $3.99 a rental, earned a disappointing $10,709.16, a meager sum that suggested new media might not be as promising for indie film as some predicted.

“Was it a failure? In a business sense, it probably was,” says John Cooper, director of Sundance. “But in the sense of getting it launched and getting it out there and finding some filmmakers that were interested in doing it, it was a success. We learned a lot from it.”

Sundance has also tried delivery schemes on cable, as has SXSW, the annual March festival in Austin, Texas. Three films were available on-demand from the cable network IFC. Two of the festival’s films also found distribution on iTunes and through FilmBuff, a Web- and VOD-based service.

Despite its digital expansion, Tribeca isn’t skimping on live spectacle. The festival begins Wednesday with the premiere, in 3-D, of “Shrek Forever After” and will feature its usual “drive-ins” — free outdoor screenings — including the dance documentary “The Spirit of Salsa” and the BMX biking documentary and Tribeca Film release “The Birth of Big Air.”

Among the films that will also attract attention are a rough cut of Alex Gibney’s unfinished Eliot Spitzer documentary and “Freakonomics,” a documentary based on the best seller.

Far from Tribeca, the virtual festival will include Edward Burns’ “Nice Guy Johnny”; the hermaphrodite comedy “Spork”; and “The Sentimental Engine Driver,” the debut by Omar Rodriguez Lopez, known best from his band Mars Volta.

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