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Young festival and filmmakers find their way

Without a clear niche yet, the Tribeca event focuses on making New York happy. That includes aspiring auteur Jennifer Elster.

May 10, 2003|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Jennifer Elster attended her first film festival as an outsider, a wannabe trying to "maneuver" her way into parties at Sundance in 2001, where she hoped to scout out "the politics and the vibe" of such events. "I was preparing myself," she says now.

Elster was a 27-year-old Manhattan fashion stylist then, making her living working on photo shoots and music videos. She wanted to make movies, though, and already was tinkering with a script about two lonely neurotics who meet on the streets of Manhattan. So she was thinking ahead when she listened in at those Sundance parties and picked up this piece of festival wisdom: "The most important thing is that the right people are seeing your film ... that 'the industry' is able to take it in."

Two years later, that's why she was frantic as the Tribeca Film Festival got underway here this week, headlined by several premieres of big-budget studio movies, novelty events such as open-air screenings on a pier and panels with the likes of Al Pacino. But as with most such festivals, the schedule also included screenings of scores of independent films searching for a commercial home, including one called "Particles of Truth," which was written by Jennifer Elster, produced by Jennifer Elster, directed by Jennifer Elster and co-starred Jennifer Elster.

Why, then, was the fashion-stylist-turned-auteur fretting as her big night approached?

Tickets. She couldn't find enough. The festival, conceived in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was set up with an eye more to the ailing community than "the industry."

So most tickets were placed on sale to the public and the prices kept to a modest $10, with most screenings held in a multiplex across the West Side Highway from the old World Trade Center site.

"They're all gone! It's sold out!" Elster exclaimed three days before the debut of her film in a 440-seat theater in the upper reaches of the multiplex.

Never mind any potential distributors she or her agent might line up at the parties here. "I can't get all my family in, some of my friends, four of the lead cast. "There's an incredible amount of strategy with your world premiere," she said, "and I can't get anyone in."

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No theme, except laughs

The Tribeca Film Festival was the brainchild of Robert De Niro and his partners in his production company based in the now-chic Lower Manhattan community just north of ground zero. When the festival had its debut last year, the "core mission" was obvious.

"The world did not need another film festival but Tribeca needed a film festival," said De Niro's partner, Jane Rosenthal, who has become the front person for the event, even more than the shy actor. "One way we could help was to do what we do best -- to show movies to people for four days." This year, they expanded it to nine days, counting an opening-weekend Family Film Festival that included the premiere of "The Lizzie McGuire Movie" and a scavenger hunt for kids. But the challenge was greater this time, when the festival had to start making the transition from being a civic-pride event with few high expectations.

"Last year, I kept saying, 'If just one picture is good I'll be happy.' Or if just one found a distributor [or] found its audience," Rosenthal said.

"Then we planned this [year's] festival in the midst of the worst winter we've had with snowstorms and sleet, and the possibility and inevitability of going to war, with terror alerts going up and down -- and it was hard to plan."

The festival hasn't settled on a niche in its sophomore year -- "a lot of people are still scratching their heads at us," Rosenthal said -- so it's taking the cafeteria approach, offering something for everyone, including the usual film-festival array of provocative documentaries and edgy features from around the world. But to the degree there is a theme, it's "we needed to laugh," she said. "We wanted a happy movie to open the festival. We wanted happy colors. 'It's spring!' We needed the sun to shine. It sounds so corny. Ridiculously corny. But New York needs to laugh. So we have a hot pink carpet."

It was out for Tuesday evening's "official" opening events, when a stage was erected in the heart of Tribeca to seat such invited guests as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Irish rock star Bono and movie stars Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, who were here for their "Down With Love," a takeoff on the old Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies. Aside from De Niro, who looked typically uncomfortable in public, all swayed or bobbed their heads as a choir sang "Oh Happy Day" to an audience heavy on TV cameras and light on local residents. Then Rosenthal announced, "See you at the movies," and a band led the way, oompahing down Greenwich Street to the Tribeca Performing Arts Center and the pink carpet to the premiere of the movie, which is set in 1962, before the twin towers loomed over the Manhattan skyline.

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