Allow me to make a charge against the Tribeca Film Festival: the event exploits filmmakers for the benefit of its own image. What do I mean by this? Simply put, the festival -- and I'm not talking about the estimable programmers or the hard-working people who put it together -- but the Festival with a capital "F" has larger goals, and the films are merely a means to an end.
Run by the politically-involved and ambitious team of Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff (friendly folks who are just trying to do right by their once devastated Tribeca community, but who now live in the Upper West Side), the TFF wants to be a major cultural institution in post 9-11 Manhattan. They want to expand to the West Coast; they want to be a year-round force of creative influence. Call it "The Film Festival That Ate Lower Manhattan," as the New York Times recently did, a 900-pound gorilla that would like to climb the Empire State Building and make everyone shudder in awe of its power and scope.
Recently, as a journalist, I received an email from the festival: "The egg," read the subject line, "will be on my face, not on your tie - I learned today that our opening night event this Saturday is, alas, one to which members of the press can't be invited. I regret both the awkwardness of the situation, and the fact that your absence will doubtless be the cause of a perceptible decline in the level of wit on display that evening."
Perhaps the most witty un-invitation I've ever received, the note confirmed my suspicions that Tribeca's official parties are not for the local community, but the big-wigs, the sponsors, the bankers, the city officials, and Elvis Mitchell -- anyone with sway and influence and corporate power. Because these are the folks that the Tribeca Festival really cares about. Feel free to call me bitter because I am forbidden from parties or hospitality tents, but I do believe such policies indicate a greater oversight.
The criticisms levied against the festival -- that it doesn't have the industry cache to launch new American films for potential acquisition -- misses the point. (And the fact is "Roger Dodger" was acquired out of Tribeca, if I'm not mistaken.) The festival would like to build a market-like atmosphere, but not for the sake of the films, but because sales will raise its profile. And this makes the big ape happy, because then it will receive more attention and more power. I've reported on the fest and talked to the Tribeca folks for stories published in Variety (am I in trouble here as a journalist?), and while I have no doubt of their good intentions in launching the festival and catering to the masses of Manhattan, I also know that this is about ambition, too.
Rosenthal is, after all, a Hollywood producer, whose own productions "House of D" and "Stage Beauty" were given high profile slots in this year's festival. ("Stage Beauty" is Closing Night.) Is this not a slight conflict of interest, perhaps? By programming their own films, they manage to accomplish a second goal, raising the status of their own careers. I know that Sundance over the years has programmed Robert Redford productions, but closing night?
While participating indie filmmakers relish the glitz and media blitz surrounding the festival, they should also know they are part of cogs in a larger machine. And most of these low budget filmmakers will leave the festival with little of the press coverage they once coveted.
Perhaps all film festivals want to take over the world and I'm being naive once again. Or perhaps Tribeca needs to check its ambitions and realize that beyond its original intentions to help New Yorkers overcome the tragedy of 9-11, a film festival should be about films.