"Tribeca should be more like South by Southwest," a publicist friend told me the other day. He meant that the festival could benefit from more discoveries and breakout stories. It's a natural direction for the New York gathering, which definitely seems like it has a stronger program this year, if only because trimmed-down look.
I enjoy checking out obscure foreign titles as much as the next movie buff, but Tribeca could really combine the interests of the public and the industry by showing crowd-pleasing independent films with some element of commercial potential.
This year, one instance of that intersection has appeared with Amir Naderi's "Vegas: Based on a True Story."
Naderi is something of a Tribeca darling, having premiered two previous films at the festival in 2003 and 2004, but he sounds especially enthusiastic about this time around. His latest movie, which follows a poor family living on the edge of the Vegas strip and crippled by a gambling addiction, generated a steady stream of buzz even before the festival began.
After two public screenings earlier this week (and two more to go), "Vegas" continues finding serious traction with the general moviegoing public and distributors alike. "I'm very surprised," Naderi told me. "People are talking about it everywhere."
The filmmaker made neo-realist movies in Iran during the 1970s. While hardly a newbie, "Vegas" may pave the way for a new step in his career. He says that a Hollywood studio has expressed interest in remaking the movie with a bigger budget.
Such a production would yield a vastly different product than the original, for which Naderi actually raised partial funds by gambling. However, he claims that he mainly hit the slot machines in order to understand the impulse. "It was important to get the feeling of gambling," he says. "How much do people put themselves in the situation where they can lose? It's a very interesting place for people to test themselves and push their ambition."
Naderi assembles a plot — a true one, of course — to reflect that very issue. When the lower-class family learns that a treasure might lie beneath its home, it rejects an offer to sell the place in the hopes of obtaining something better. Naturally, not everything goes so smoothly, and the gambling addiction further complicates an already stressful situation.
Naderi expresses mild curiosity about seeing a new version of the movie with stars in it. "I never saw that happening, but I will be impressed if I have the chance," he says. "No matter what happens with this film, it's good for me."
As the title of Tribeca's opening movie puts it, whatever works.