Take II: Rebuilding Tribeca
With a tighter lineup of films and as much buzz as ever, the Tribeca Film Festival will put on its sixth annual installment from April 25th to May 6th, 2007.
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By Norman Clausen
The Tribeca Film Festival was founded in 2002 by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff as a response to the attacks on the World Trade Center. Now in its sixth year, with over 159 feature films spanning multiple Manhattan neighborhoods, the Tribeca Film Festival is something of a colossus. Approaching the scope of other festivals like Sundance, it has become a major event in the American film industry. Attendance is up 300% since 2002, if you can base that on consumption of the free popcorn. And while prestige cannot be measured in snack goods, this year’s lineup features a trimmed down, more selective group of films, taking steps to solidify the festival as a benchmark for quality. Not bad for a small, humble town like New York.
Glitz, glamour, celebrities—the whole film festival concept seems very L.A. New York is a city that transcends celebrity. Sure, you might walk by Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts, but who cares? You’re probably more likely to mention it in passing to a few friends than start snapping photos and begging for autographs. In New York, a chance celebrity sighting probably isn’t even the strangest thing that will happen to you on any given day. Here, it’s the city itself that is the celebrity.
That is precisely why the Tribeca Film Festival works.
Each year, the festival is studded with high profile stars like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Big-time Hollywood premiers grace the screens, and low-budget indie films get their day in the sun. Last year’s “It Girl” will sit in the audience, watching reluctantly as her crown is passed to the newest silver screen sweetheart. It has all the elements of any other film festival, but that’s not what this particular festival is about.
A bold 2006 lineup, including premiers of Flight 93, The Saint of 9/11, and Hearts of Steel, brought the origins of the event back into perspective. It’s about New York, and it always has been. New York is the biggest celebrity in New York, and this is its celebration.
A Neighborhood in Ruin
In the months and years following 9/11, Tribeca became something of a ghost town. The whole neighborhood lived under the eerie shadow of a pair of buildings that no longer shared their silhouette.
Even as fear of terrorism began to subside in other areas of the city, reports continued to mount about the respiratory ailments of rescue workers. Trepidation over the contaminated air in Lower Manhattan kept away just about everyone that wasn’t directly involved in the tireless clean-up effort.
The big corporations were gone almost immediately and the local mom and pop stores were soon to follow. What was once the home to New York’s most prestigious residents and some of the finest restaurants in the world became an empty canyon of abandoned skyscrapers. The severely damaged Deutsche Bank building stood vigil over the barren footprints of the tower, still donning its 41-story black shroud of netting even five and a half years after the tragedy.
Putting on a film festival in Tribeca was an idea that Robert De Niro had tossed around in conversation long before the events of 9/11. Discussions likely began as early as 1989, when De Niro co-founded the Tribeca Film Center with business partner and producer Jane Rosenthal. The center initiated the neighborhood’s connection to film, becoming the first commercial space in Tribeca specifically dedicated to housing entertainment companies—and becoming the home to De Niro’s own restaurant, the Tribeca Grill.
It took years, but he had helped transform the neighborhood from a run-down warehousing district into a cultural destination. And it was all wiped away in a single day.
On the morning of September 11th, when everyone in the city was desperately rushing uptown, De Niro bolted downtown to his Tribeca loft. Overlooking the towers from just ten blocks to the north, he arrived in his apartment just in time to watch them collapse from his window.
As Americans and New Yorkers, we take these events quite personally. But on September 11th, Robert De Niro watched a direct attack on neighborhood that he had spent the last twelve years rebuilding—in the city where he was born—the city where he had lived his entire life. He took these attacks as personally as anyone.
It was a few months after these events that Jane Rosenthal suggested that they finally put together the film festival that they had long discussed. After only 120 days of planning and the work of 1,300 volunteers, the inaugural Tribeca Film Festival came into being as an economic and cultural pick-me-up for this once-thriving neighborhood.
Immediately, the festival became a huge success, gaining the backing of Governor Pataki, major sponsors like American Express, and scoring major premieres like Star Wars: Episode II (which thankfully was less horrible than Episode I, otherwise the first festival may have been the last). With more than 150,000 people attending in 2002, the festival did exactly what it was intended to do, bringing in over $10.4 million in revenue to local Tribeca businesses.
Since then, the festival has taken on a life of its own, becoming a staple of the American film community. By its second year, the Tribeca Film Festival had doubled attendance and brought revenues in excess of $50 million to the downtown economy. Now, going into its sixth year, the film festival has taken tremendous steps toward revitalizing Tribeca. All told, the festival has pumped over $325 million into the local economy. While the neighborhood has yet to regain bustle that once was, normalcy has finally returned.
What’s There To Do?
The obvious answer to that question is: buy a ticket, watch a movie. But the really cool thing about watching a movie at the Tribeca Film Festival is that you’re watching it with the people that made the movie, so often times the director and actors will take the stage afterwards to open up a discussion with the audience. Last year, I could practically spit on Brendan Fraser from where I was sitting, and while some of the critics in the Q&A actually did, he took it in stride.
And I know I said it’s not about the celebrities, but here I am name-dropping. Well, let’s face it—the paparazzi aren’t showing up at the red carpets to snap my photo—of course, it’s about the celebrities. Last year I saw David Duchoveny and Michael Moore outside the premier for Wordplay. I’m pretty sure the paparazzi weren’t there to photograph them either, but it was still pretty cool.
The movies range from big time premiers (which probably won’t offer tickets to the public), to smaller, more interesting indie films—many of which will go on to cult success, many which will never be seen by audiences again. Some of which audiences will desperately try to forget.
There are also plenty of special events, including one of the more popular occasions—the Tribeca Drive-In. It a free public event, with three outdoor screenings being held at the World Financial Center Plaza. Shown on consecutive nights from April 26th – 28th, the three movies for 2007 include the 20th anniversary screening of Dirty Dancing, a sneak peak of the animated feature Surf’s Up, and a world premier of Planet B-Boy, a documentary about breakdancing. Movies start at dusk and run “under the stars,” according to the festival’s website. Which is amusing, because I’ve yet to see a single star through the lights of Manhattan, let alone stars in the plural. Next to the stars—maybe. Under the stars — not so much. Either way, it should be a great experience.
The annual Family Festival Street Fair (Saturday, May 5th) is always a big hit, capping off a series of movies that are fun for the whole family. Activities include puppet shows, face painting, life-size chess boards, and special appearances by everyone’s favorite characters from movies, books, and television. Plus, hundreds of local restaurants and merchants will have stands set up along a seven-block strip of Greenwich Street, providing some of the neighborhoods finest refreshments and merchandise.
This year will also be the first Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival, screening 14 sports-related feature films and 12 premiers. The event will include a special “Sports Saturday” (also May 5th), where attendees can meet some of their favorite local sports heroes, blame them for their inability to win a championship, and then get their autograph. To the best of my knowledge there will be no Knicks in attendance—just in case they’re still practicing for their big playoff run—away from the playoffs, that is. Either way, BMX bikers will be putting on death defying shows, while participants can experience interactive sports theme parks, and compete for tickets to the next big game.
Something else that’s new for this year is a 50% ticket price increase—last year’s $12 tickets will become $18 tickets in 2007 (the more established Sundance only charges $15, and the prestigious New York Film Festival—a mere $10). While many have complained that these price hikes are not in the spirit of the festival, one could also say that an $18 hamburger is not in the spirit of food. But welcome to New York. If you want to have some fun in life, you’re going to have to learn to part with a little bit of the green.
But it’s more than paying $18 for a movie. It’s a vote of confidence in a neighborhood that refuses to stay down. It’s a chance to turn an unfortunate tragedy into a celebration of our strength. It’s a show of unity with your fellow New Yorkers in demonstrating that fear will not deter us. And why should we be afraid? We’ve got a Corleone on our side, and he’s fired up like a raging bull. Cheers to you, Bobby.
For more information, including a schedule of movies and events, check out: