The Big Screen: Tribeca Film Festival
A multitude of different worlds exist in New York City. Beyond the neighborhoods characterized by different cultures, creative scenes or income levels, there's enough sheer stuff happening for seemingly big, important events to remain a mystery to some of the populace.
Take the Tribeca Film Festival. During last year's edition, I found myself unexpectedly explaining the festival and its origins to a couple of shop girls working three blocks from a prime screening venue, telling how Robert De Niro and partners had started it to bring people and their disposable income back to lower Manhattan after 9/11.
Amid opening weekend of the 2009 edition, as moviegoers and journalists crowded around that same East Village venue, the AMC Village 7, volunteers hawking festival newsletters across the street faced indifference from throngs of passersby. Even in the middle of all the hubbub, a man stopped to ask another volunteer what the festival is.
In truth, Tribeca organizers have been trying to figure that one out since they kicked things off eight years ago. Driven by urban renewal instead of programming focus, the festival has expanded and contracted its total number of films, stretched beyond lower Manhattan into the boroughs and shrunk back again, all while presenting an annual slate that's universally been deemed a mixed bag.
This year, however, a major shake-up is in the works. The first sign was a February announcement that Geoffrey Gilmore, longtime director of the Sundance Film Festival, would take the job of chief creative officer for festival parent company Tribeca Enterprises.
In the days since, the fest's artistic director left and has yet to be replaced, and rumors started swirling about a possible date change from spring to fall, where Tribeca could better compete with the New York and Toronto film fests for the lifeblood of major festivals: star-studded, studio-backed Oscar bait and the kind of world premieres that lead to big-money acquisitions.
Opening- and closing-night selections were, as usual, less than thrilling - this year's opener, Woody Allen's mixed-reviewed Whatever Works, is at least a step up from last year's Baby Mama - but with a total feature slate trimmed for '09 to less than half the size of Tribeca at its biggest, quality finally seemed to trump quantity. And that's the real key to the festival becoming a reckoning force.
From my limited experience over the opening weekend of the event, it was easier to find keepers like previous Tribeca offerings Man on Wire and Let the Right One In, and easier to avoid name-cast mediocrity like '07 selection The Grand.
Among the films that have already secured a way to reach audiences beyond Tribeca, here are five to keep on your radar.
Documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick's latest has grabbed more headlines than any other Tribeca selection due to its controversial subject matter: closeted politicians who hypocritically curb gay-rights legislation to protect their secret lives.
The powerful work opens in select cities May 8 and will expand quickly to places like Columbus. In other words, it'll probably be here for Pride Month.
"Fear Me Not"
Working with the screenwriter and star of the Danish international hit Brothers, director Kristian Levring crafts a disquieting psychological thriller with a twist about a restless bureaucrat who changes for the worse in trials of an experimental antidepressant. On June 10, it opens theatrically in New York and debuts nationwide on pay-per-view.
Under the direction of David Bowie's son, co-writer-director Duncan Jones, Sam Rockwell carries this creepy sci-fi indie, playing the sole human inhabitant of a facility that harvests energy from the dark side of the moon who suddenly feels he's not alone. It's currently scheduled to open in Columbus July 10.
One of the best parts of the documentary When We Were Kings was snippets of the all-star concert that accompanied the "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, so Kings editor Jeffrey Levy-Hinte created a new doc about just that, with footage of legends like James Brown, B.B. King and Celia Cruz.
The film will expand to cities like Columbus following a July 10 opening in major markets.
"Lost Son of Havana"
Shown as part of Tribeca's increasingly prominent sports-film sidebar, Jonathan Hock's chronicle of pitcher Luis Tiant's return home to Cuba after four decades away has been praised for its rare insider view of both the country and the career of the legendary Major Leaguer. ESPN, which secured TV rights to the doc, plans to air it in August.
Behind the scenes: MakingOf.com
Lately, film festivals aren't just for launching new films - they're also for introducing new initiatives to expand the way movies are seen and understood. At Tribeca '09, this came through in a press conference and public presentation at Soho's Apple Store, in which Natalie Portman and business partner Christine Aylward announced the launch of MakingOf.com.
As Portman explained at the Apple Store, the site was started to present "a real idea of the whole team that is part of making a film, because it's such a collaborative effort. The ones we always hear from are actors and directors, but there are so many people who do such incredible work. [We wanted] to give that access to everyone."
Launched in beta form, MakingOf.com offers videos and trailers for upcoming blockbusters like Angels & Demons, along with coverage of buzz-generating indies like Moon and Black Dynamite.
As it develops, the site plans to shed light on less-recognized behind-the-scenes talent, as much to explain the duties accompanying titles like "key grip" as illuminate the variety of jobs available to ambitious film professionals. Categories currently awaiting content include "producers," "assistant directors" and "stunts.
Tribeca Film Festival
When: Through May 3
Where: Locations throughout lower Manhattan