The Tribeca-Sundance throwdown

Is Robert De Niro's big-city festival at war with Robert Redford's ski-slope festival? OK, maybe not. But the backstage drama has the indie world in a tizzy.

Published April 23, 2009 10:59AM (EDT)

Reuters Photos

Robert Redford at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival (left) and Robert De Niro at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

Across its eight erratic years of existence, the Tribeca Film Festival -- which opened its slim and trim, Second Great Depression-era 2009 edition on Wednesday night with the premiere of Woody Allen's "Whatever Works" -- has largely succeeded in drawing large audiences and establishing its reputation as one of the film world's headline-making events. Whether that reputation is deserved, and what Tribeca's core identity is (or should be) are murkier questions.

Questions about Tribeca's future, and how the competition within the fraternal and fratricidal little world of film festivals might shake out, were thrown into sharp relief by a recent bout of backstage intrigue that set film bloggers and other insiders atwitter. Geoffrey Gilmore, the longtime director of the Sundance Film Festival, abruptly resigned that job on Feb. 17, moving to New York as chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises, the entity that operates the festival and related "branded-entertainment businesses and initiatives." Oddly, Tribeca's press release announcing Gilmore's arrival went out that morning, several hours before Sundance confirmed that he was leaving. This was likely just a routine public-relations snafu, but heightened the long-standing perception that no love is lost between the two festivals.

It took less than two weeks for Tribeca's artistic director since 2003, veteran world-cinema maven Peter Scarlet, to depart for a new gig at the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi. (The Persian Gulf emirates are now home to several large and well-funded film festivals; Tribeca, in fact, operates a satellite festival in Qatar.) Not long after that, John Cooper, Gilmore's longtime deputy, was named to succeed his former boss at Robert Redford's Sundance festival -- whose status as the mecca of American independent film seemed, at least potentially, in question -- and the game of musical chairs was complete.

At least in its general outlines, the whole thing sounds pretty juicy. A throwdown between two Hollywood heavyweights, Sundance founder Redford and Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro! The laid-back, luxury-skiwear mode of the Wasatch slopes vs. the multitasking, Armani-clad bad attitude of the Big Apple! In defecting from the Utah mountains to Gotham, would Gilmore bring the Indiewood mojo of Park City -- and a wave of superior films and directors -- across the country with him? Despite its success at self-marketing, Tribeca has struggled since its inception to establish a coherent identity. Has it finally found one as the new Sundance?

Well, maybe. But my vote is on probably not. Conversations with people who have worked at one or both festivals suggest that while there's definitely some sense of rivalry between Sundance and Tribeca, they're nowhere near a shooting war. John Cooper, the new Sundance director, says that increased competition for premieres of major films -- not just with Tribeca, but also with Toronto, South by Southwest and other festivals -- can only benefit filmmakers. "We have a lot of legacy and a lot of mythology behind us," he says. "I'm not too worried about whether we're going to get the highest caliber of films. But I kind of like the competition. When we were the only game in town, it wasn't serving the filmmaking community."

No doubt Gilmore's arrival and Scarlet's departure mark the next phase of Tribeca's long-running quest to define itself. But as one industry source put it, "It isn't as simple as saying that Geoff came in and forced Peter out. You could say that it was all part of the same process: Peter started to see that he wasn't a good fit with Tribeca anymore, and Geoff's arrival was part of that. But Geoff isn't taking Peter's job, and those who believe that Tribeca will suddenly become Sundance because Geoff is there are just wrong."

Gilmore's role at Tribeca, in fact, is not entirely clear. He holds a newly created senior executive position, in charge of an unspecified "global content strategy" that's likely to include digital distribution ventures and the Qatar festival, among other projects. According to people who know him well, he doesn't want to run a festival anymore and isn't supposed to be hands-on with Tribeca programming. On the other hand, whoever does wind up running the festival on a daily basis will, in all likelihood, report to him.

Anyway, no matter how well-liked Gilmore is by filmmakers and how strongly he's identified with Sundance, that festival will be Redford's as long as he lives. Gilmore's track record and personality are probably not sufficient to cajole Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino to bring their world premieres to a festival with a brief and bewildering history instead of, say, to Sundance or Cannes or Toronto. (At this writing, it's not clear whether any one person will fill Scarlet's Tribeca post, although many observers suggest that the festival's highly regarded programming director, David Kwok, may take a more central role.)

In asking what Tribeca is, one might well turn the question around, in Socratic fashion, and ask what the hell it isn't. At various times, Tribeca has been viewed as a philanthropic community venture, a paparazzi-friendly spectacle of red-carpet starfucking, a hometown party for the Manhattan-based independent-film industry, a marketplace (albeit a notably unsuccessful one), a spring dating-and-networking event for young New York professionals, and a broad and esoteric showcase of world cinema. "It's a very schizophrenic festival, and that goes back to its inception," said one person who has worked with both Tribeca and Sundance. "There's a lot of ambition there, and a lot of good programming. But it's a festival that has tried to be all things to all people and pretty much lacks a sense of what it is or what it wants to be."

One thing Tribeca did very quickly was become really, really big. The festival was put together fast in 2002 by actor Robert De Niro, producer Jane Rosenthal and investor-philanthropist Craig Hatkoff (who is Rosenthal's husband), officially as a means of restarting the lower Manhattan economy after the 9/11 attacks. While there's no reason to doubt the trio's community spirit, it's clear in retrospect that De Niro and Rosenthal had been contemplating launching a new film festival in New York for some time, and the wake of 9/11 presented a unique marketing opportunity. After their first chaotic year, when almost no one in the organization had festival experience, they hired Scarlet -- who'd had a long and successful tenure at the San Francisco International Film Festival and a shorter, tumultuous one at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris -- and handed him the keys.

That original goal, along with the festival's eponymous downtown neighborhood, were left far behind as Tribeca rode a seemingly booming economy and an attendant explosion of independent-film production deep into the George W. Bush years. By 2006, Tribeca was screening an unmanageable and seemingly uncurated roster of 170-odd feature films (along with numerous shorts) at venues all over Manhattan, making it one of the world's largest and sprawliest festivals. A year later, hubris was in full effect. "We should become, if not the dominant festival, then one of the great festivals of all time," co-founder Hatkoff told the Hollywood Reporter in 2007, while Rosenthal made clear that Tribeca's goal was to be the fifth major event on a calendar that also includes Sundance, Cannes, Toronto and Venice.

While bigness, status and importance can be useful marketing concepts -- especially in New York, home to the Yankees, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the financial industry and other not-so-widely-loved institutions built on excessive enormousness -- they don't signify an aesthetics or a sensibility. As I and many other journalists have complained in public and in private, programming throughout the Scarlet era was wildly hit-and-miss, with the accent on the miss. (Among publicists, critics and reporters, the admittedly cruel term "Tri-dreck-a" is not unknown.) At least when the festival booked red-carpet premieres of "Spider-Man 3" and "Speed Racer," you knew what you were getting and why it was there. But I can't tell you how many mediocre Amerindie clunkers I've sat through in the cavernous Tribeca Performing Arts Center, presented as major weekend premieres because of the presence of a B-list celebrity or two.

On the other hand, those overstuffed, bubble-economy Tribeca lineups allowed Scarlet to bring in piles of unlikely art movies from all over the globe, things you'd never heard of before and would never see again. Personally, I'll accept having suffered through Adam Carolla's star turn as a 40-year-old Olympic boxer in "The Hammer," or the ick-making love affair between Alec Baldwin and Sarah Michelle Gellar in "Suburban Girl," since I also got to see a tremendous Egyptian soap opera called "The Yacoubian Building" and a hypnotic Beirut-set thriller called "The Last Man" that must be the slowest-paced serial-killer movie in history.

"Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall," as the Good Book instructs us, and as of April 2009 Tribeca's schemes for world domination seem to be on hold. Of course, the fall that has brought Tribeca's lineup down to 85 or so features this year -- half the 2006 total -- is one that has downsized the rest of us too. The Hollywood red-carpet premieres are pretty much gone with the wind, unless you count such relatively low-wattage phenomena as Allen's opening-night film, Spike Lee's basketball documentary "Kobe Doin' Work" and "My Life in Ruins," the new vehicle for "Big Fat Greek Wedding" star and creator Nia Vardalos.

"The reasons why Tribeca has downsized this year are 90 percent economic," said one festival insider, "but anytime you can do some more self-editing, some more curation, it's a good thing." This is a festival that badly needs to find its soul, you might say. While that period when Scarlet seemingly flung anything and everything up there on the screen -- and I know him well enough to know that he knew a lot of those movies were crap -- yielded some interesting surprises, it didn't do the Tribeca brand any favors.

This year's lineup still bears Scarlet's fingerprints, with an intriguing selection of international art films, most notably from the Middle East and East Asia. (I'll post a preview of Tribeca's most interesting offerings on Friday.) That may well change. Several observers suggest that Rosenthal and De Niro became dissatisfied with Scarlet's "esoteric" tastes over the long haul and gradually nudged him aside. Gilmore's arrival may indeed signal that they want to move Tribeca back toward a more conventional film-festival identity, built around premieres of mid-budget, independent American film. While that might sound logical on the face of things, I suspect it's a poor survival strategy for a severe recession.

Tribeca is unlikely to prevail in a direct competition with Sundance for the hottest indie premieres, and it definitively lacks the DIY community spirit that has made South by Southwest the go-to festival for ultra-low-budget filmmakers with no expectations of a theatrical release. Right now it's a festival that serves several different incongruous niches. It's a terrific showcase for American documentaries (having premiered the Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side" and the Oscar-nominated "Jesus Camp," among many others). It hosts the country's best mini-festival of sports films, which began as an ESPN sponsorship deal but has gotten more interesting every year. It serves Scarlet-esque Manhattan cinephiles who want to see Ukrainian and Tunisian films, and Twitterized Manhattan scene-makers who want to be where the action is.

Presumably Gilmore and the new Tribeca regime hope to craft an identity that creates something holistic from those miscellaneous pieces, but what that might be and how to get there remain mysterious. "I'll tell you what Tribeca has done," said one observer. "They've sold a hell of a lot of tickets in New York City. They've proved that there's room for a big, populist festival that isn't elitist" -- in other words, that isn't Lincoln Center's New York Film Festival. "They've got the biggest media market in the country and a ton of potential sponsorship dollars, even in a recession. They're not going to beat Cannes or Sundance at their own game. They're just not, and they shouldn't even try. But there's plenty to work with there, and Geoff Gilmore wouldn't have taken that job if he didn't see that."


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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