NEW YORK—TRIBECA Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal was in her Greenwich Street office last week, trying to talk over the loud buzz of refurbishing work, when dust and debris came spraying into the room through a wall-mounted air conditioning unit. Alarmed, Rosenthal leaped out of her seat and rushed to remove her suede jacket from harm's way.
It's been six years since Rosenthal; her husband, Craig Hatkoff; and Rosenthal's producing partner, Robert De Niro, fashioned a film festival after the tragedy of Sept. 11 to help the downtown community rebuild, dust itself off and begin anew.
"As filmmakers, we were still uncovering, we were still trying to dig out when we started this festival. Literally, when we started, there were tanks on Canal Street."
But now, the for-profit Tribeca Film Festival (founding sponsor American Express continues to be a major financial contributor), whose offices are blocks from ground zero, seems like Rosenthal's expensive coat -- worth saving, if also something of an accessory to both New Yorkers and the film industry.
This year's festival, running Thursday through May 4, kicks off Wednesday night with the "gala premiere" of a studio movie, "Baby Mama," the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy from Universal.
While Tribeca doesn't share the sales frenzy of the Sundance, Toronto or Cannes film festivals, several new films will arrive in Manhattan in search of a distributor. The 11-day event begins in earnest on Thursday, with screenings of such acquisition hopefuls as "Trucker" (a low-budget indie starring Michelle Monaghan as a hard-bitten trucker); "The Objective," from director Daniel Myrick ("The Blair Witch Project") and co-written by Wesley Clark Jr. (son of the retired four-star general), about a CIA mission in Afghanistan; and the documentary "Chevolution," about the commercialization of Che Guavara's image.
Alongside these are screenings of films that already have distribution (including "Life in Flight," a domestic drama starring Patrick Wilson as a New York architect in crisis).
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Still, it is a measure of Tribeca's up-and-coming status that the much-anticipated Cannes lineup will be announced on Tribeca's opening day, temporarily shifting the industry's attention away from New York and toward the Croisette.
But observers say that while Tribeca lacks the cachet or industry drawing power of other festivals, it does continue to make inroads as a film market.
"Distributors love to hate Tribeca because it grew so fast, it had so much money behind it, so much attention," said documentarian Heidi Ewing, whose 2006 film "Jesus Camp" was acquired out of Tribeca.
That movie went on to an Oscar nomination. Last year, Alex Gibney's "Taxi to the Dark Side," acquired out of Tribeca, won the award.
Ewing said New York -- and its quorum of urban, educated, discerning filmgoers -- makes the Tribeca Film Festival a sweet spot for documentaries. Among this year's nonfiction films competing for the jury prize are "Guest of Cindy Sherman," featuring rare interviews between the mercurial New York artist and a confidante, and "Milosevic on Trial," Danish director Michael Kristofferson's chronicling of the war crimes tribunal of the former Serbian dictator.
Too spread out?
What remains, however, is the disconnect of a festival called Tribeca that, in the main, doesn't actually take place in TriBeCa. The neighborhood has long since returned -- and with a vengeance, as some of the highest-priced real estate in downtown Manhattan, a mecca of young money. De Niro co-owns the famed neighborhood sushi restaurant Nobu, as well as the Tribeca Grill, at the base of the building that houses his festival and its nonprofit Tribeca Film Institute. Next door, his new boutique hotel, the Greenwich, has just opened (preview room rates start at $475).
Set against this downtown development and post-9/11 yuppie resilience, the festival itself marches on as a valued home for under-served cinema, even if the generosity of spirit in which the event was founded has naturally faded.
"People maybe don't feel that urgency to head to Tribeca to help it recover because it's recovered very well," said Eugene Hernandez, co-founder and editor in chief Indiewire, the online independent film-tracking publication.
It is Rosenthal's job to figure out the balance of maintaining the festival's founding spirit (free events like street fairs and the outdoor screening series "Tribeca Drive-In") and growing its appeal as a film market. This year's Tribeca fest is relatively streamlined (down to 120 films), amid other tweaks -- a lowering of ticket prices for the public, with screenings clustered around the subway-friendly Union Square area, addressing concerns that the festival had become too spread out.
But Rosenthal, who is also on the board of the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum to be built at ground zero, was also moved to talk about a different sort of milestone. At this year's festival, the swag bags will feature a note that a cobblestone has been donated to the memorial site in a juror or filmmaker's name.
Given that this is New York, some strata of the glitterati (beyond De Niro himself) is expected, with Madonna, attending the world premiere of "I Am Because We Are," a documentary about Malawi children orphaned by AIDS.
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" director Julian Schnabel, meanwhile, screens a concert film of a Lou Reed show in 2006 in Brooklyn, while writer-director David Mamet is represented by "Redbelt," upcoming from Sony Pictures Classics, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor ("American Gangster") as a jujitsu teacher forced finally to step into the ring.
As for the films without familiar faces, Hernandez noted: "Festivals are really crucial now. There's a crisis in distribution for smaller films. . . . And these indies that don't have stars in them, when audiences engage with them, festivals like Tribeca can really play a crucial role."