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Tribeca Film Festival 2014 focused on simplicity, stability

Scaling back its entries while partnering with Madison Square Garden Corp. will go a long way toward achieving both goals, officials say.

April 15, 2014|By Steven Zeitchik
  • This year's Tribeca Film Festival offers the quirky "Zombeavers."
This year's Tribeca Film Festival offers the quirky "Zombeavers." (Jonathan Hall )

NEW YORK — Since it was founded 12 years ago, the Tribeca Film Festival has sometimes swerved between identities like a barfly at happy hour, exuberant but hardly always clear.

The festival looks to change that this time around. Tribeca has entered an era in which it hopes the sale last month of a 50% stake to James Dolan's Madison Square Garden Corp. gives it economic stability. It also believes it has finally found a mix of eclectic documentaries, international favorites, well-chosen independent features and even digital experiments to supplant earlier missions, which relied on a kitchen-sink approach to U.S. features or, for a number of years, star-heavy studio premieres.

"People used to say, 'There are so many agendas,'" said Geoffrey Gilmore, the Sundance Film Festival veteran who now serves as chief creative officer for Tribeca Enterprises, the festival's umbrella organization. "I don't think you can say that anymore. We're in our 13th year now. Like any 13-year-old, we have a sense of self."

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That doesn't mean there is always a clear through-line to the festival, which on Wednesday kicks off its ambitious 12-day run of narrative and nonfiction films, name-studded live events and unorthodox storytelling initiatives with the world premiere of "Time Is Illmatic," a documentary about the landmark 1994 Nas album that will be followed by a performance from the rapper.

The Tribeca Film Festival was founded shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Robert Deniro, Jane Rosenthal — De Niro's producing partner and a veteran Hollywood filmmaker — and investor Craig Hatkoff as a way to revitalize lower Manhattan both commercially and creatively.‎‎ The festival quickly generated buzz and attracted consumer interest — not to mention corporate sponsors — but also spurred confusion thanks to an unusually large number of titles, a varying level of quality even by the loose standards of film festivals, and what to the movie industry could seem like a murky mission.

Though Tribeca has basically halved its slate from a few years ago — there are now just over 80 features in its program — it continues to take shots in a large number of areas, which can make for an enjoyably diverse, if at times frustratingly uneven, film-festival experience.

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‎The biggest change this year is the investment by MSG. Organizers hope the move will allow it to reach ‎beyond a traditional festival audience; the "Illmatic" premiere will take place at the MSG-owned Beacon Theatre and sell tickets to the public, a rarity for a film festival's typically more insidery opening night.

It is the first step in what organizers say is a bid to lend Tribeca a new sense of scale and purpose based on MSG's experience of mounting big-ticket events including Rockettes performances at its Radio City Music Hall and concerts at the Forum in Inglewood, which it also owns.

"To be aligned with an iconic brand that can help with our business and our venues is a really good thing," Rosenthal said.‎ "It's still new so we are figuring it out, but let's put it this way: the festival was a startup, and everyone gets to the point as a startup where they need additional support." (In this regard Tribeca is not alone; festivals from Toronto to Sundance have in recent years embarked on initiatives cementing their evolution from informal fan gatherings to more established businesses.‎)‎

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The MSG-fueled ambitions aren't the only change at Tribeca.

The festival has been more willing under the direction of artistic director Frédéric Boyer, formerly of the Cannes Film Festival, to show decorated movies that have played elsewhere, particularly if they've only played overseas. So this year's selection includes the North American‎ premieres of acclaimed foreign titles such as "Black Coal, Thin Ice," the China-made and -set detective story that won the Berlin Film Festival's top prize in February, and "The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq," the trippy "Being John Malkovich"-like feature starring Houellebecq and offering an alternative imagined life for the French genre writer that has been garnering buzz on the fest circuit.

‎"What we found was that a lot of international films want the New York premiere as a way to launch in the U.S.," Boyer said. "They're choosing us over other places they could go."

‎The list of U.S. narrative premieres, meanwhile, is intriguing and leaner and meaner than is once was, if still somewhat scattershot.

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