Tribeca Film Fest shrinks for 2009

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

NEW YORK -- In the midst of a turbulent time for movies, the eighth annual Tribeca Film Festival will shrink this year.

The epicenter of the festival, co-founded by Robert De Niro to help revive Lower Manhattan after Sept. 11, is blocks away from ground zero for the current economic crisis: Wall Street.

Several of the films at Tribeca portray or examine the current economy, including the sub-prime mortgage documentary "American Casino" and Steven Soderbergh's ultra-current "The Girlfriend Experience."

The festival, which begins today, has shrunk to 85 films, down from a high of 157 in 2007. A leaner festival may be a positive for Tribeca, which some have in the past called unwieldy. Sponsorships also are down.

But belt-tightening has been going on for a year or more across independent film, whose own crisis has been exacerbated by the economic collapse. Studios have contracted their output and indie labels, like Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse, have shuttered.

After 19 years as the director of the Sundance Film Festival, Geoff Gilmore left earlier this year to join Tribeca Enterprises -- the parent company of the New York festival -- as chief creative officer. Longtime Tribeca artistic director Peter Scarlet left shortly thereafter to become the executive director of Abu Dhabi's Middle East Film Festival.

This game of musical chairs is just another example of how the world of independent cinema is changing and being challenged.

"It's not just independent film; it's the world of cinema," Gilmore said. "The changes that are going on globally are just remarkable, and of course it's exacerbated and transformed by the economic crisis that's affected the whole world. But we're in the middle of a technological revolution."

Film distribution is increasingly going digital, with movies being made available online or by video-on-demand. Production has become cheaper, making it easier for anyone to make a movie. And at the same time, financing is becoming harder to find.

It all adds up, Gilmore says, to film festival having to adapt.

"I've never seen the film industry going through such a period of questioning about what it's doing," said Gilmore. "Festivals have a different role."

Nobody claims to have figured out the future, but Gilmore and others are plainly excited at the opportunities. Filmmakers, too, say there are more options today -- that it's not about waiting for a studio executive to swoop in.

"It's a difficult time for independent film in general, and certainly for independent documentaries," said Leslie Cockburn, director of "American Casino." "But there are people thinking in really interesting ways about what to do, about how to distribute."

Such topics are sure to be much discussed at Tribeca, which runs until May 3. Among the many "Tribeca Talks" panel discussions, is one on the future of the independents.

But it won't be all doom and gloom. The festival makes efforts to host populist fare, including a mini "family festival," a number of sports films presented in tandem with ESPN, and the annual "drive-in" where films are presented outside and for free. (This year's crop: "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and the hip-hop documentary "P-Star Rising.")

The festival kicks off with the premiere of Woody Allen's new comedy starring Larry David, "Whatever Works." Fittingly for Tribeca, it's his first New York-set film after four European excursions.

Nancy Schaeffer, executive director of the festival, said they made a conscious effort to add levity and distraction to the program.

"What do I think happens in times like this? We create better products and we survive and make better movies," said Schaeffer. "The question is going to be: How do we package those things? How do we let people know they're there?"

There are a number of films worthy of attention: The dark political satire "In the Loop," which co-stars James Gandolfini as a U.S. general, might be called a modern day "Dr. Strangelove," with Beltway offices substituting for Kubrick's war room. In "Outrage," Kirby Dick ("This Film is Not Rated") documents gay politicians who are in the closet and yet oppose gay rights. And Irish playwright Conor McPherson, who's won raves for plays filled with hardy drinking and supernatural visitors, has brought the same milieu to the screen in his most significant film yet, "The Eclipse," which stars Ciaran Hinds.

There are many more -- and perhaps a few will supply new ideas for the future of independent film.

"Whenever I despair about where independent cinema might be going," said Soderbergh, whose 1989 "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" is considered an indie landmark, "I'm very conscious of the fact that somewhere right now is some filmmaker sweating over their movie that we won't know about for another six months or a year that could totally alter the landscape."

Soderbergh added: "That's what keeps me hopeful."

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