Muppets and Music Take Lower Manhattan for Tribeca 2011

Tenth installment of Robert De Niro's and Jane Rosenthal's film festival showcases Cameron Crowe, Ed Burns, lots of docs

The Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place for the 10th time this week, has been a curious, contradictory and occasionally controversial festival throughout its existence.

It has been applauded for bringing economic activity to Lower Manhattan after 9/11, and criticized for high prices and less-than-stellar movies.

Tribeca Film FestivalIt focuses on independent films, most of which do not end up with theatrical distribution, but is closely identified with the big movie star who co-founded it in 2002, Robert De Niro.

It's a well-funded, for-profit film festival with lots of corporate backers, beginning with founding sponsor American Express, but it has never managed to attain the cachet of top-tier festivals like Cannes (which follows it by two weeks), Toronto, Sundance, Venice and Telluride.

It draws an enormous number of people through an extensive array of free "Tribeca Drive-In" screenings, a family-oriented street fair, a sports day and free panel discussions – but it also inflamed critics in 2007 when it raised ticket prices by 50 percent, from $12 to $18.

(Prices have since been lowered and are now $16 for evening and weekend screenings and $8 for matinees and late-night films, though substantial service charges are added to online and phone orders, print-at-home tickets and many will-call orders.)

But with the 10th TFF beginning on Wednesday with a free screening of Cameron Crowe's documentary "The Union," Tribeca also seems to have settled into a relatively comfortable niche as one of New York's two main film festivals, alongside the New York Film Festival in the fall.

In the New York Times, Stephen Holden called it "a potpourri of cinema and razzle-dazzle with one eye trained on Hollywood" and "a useful cultural stimulant" that has generated more than $600 million in economic activity centered in Lower Manhattan.

It also has an extensive online presence, with the Tribeca (Online) Film Festival offering films streaming live at the same time as their TFF debuts.

Also read: Tribeca (Online) Fest to Stream Docs, Horror Films, Romances

In addition, Tribeca has partnered with TheWrap to present a half-day conference on the business and future of independent film, "The No-Fear Future of Independent Film," with speakers that include Harvey Weinstein, Tribeca co-founder Jane Rosenthal and director Drake Doremus. Details and registration informatioin are available at TheWrap.

Over the years, Tribeca has been strongest in its documentary programming, where it debuted films including Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side." Leah Rozen summed up one recurring Tribeca problem in TheWrap last year: "Every year it's the same story at the Tribeca Film Festival: the documentaries are amazing, while the narrative features — at least the ones looking for distribution — not so much."  

This year's docs, which make up a little less than half the festival's feature programming, include Gibney's baseball documentary "Catching Hell," the surreal "Bombay Beach," and "Despicable Dick and Righteous Richard" which sounds like a real-life (and darker) "My Name Is Earl."

The slate is heavy with music-related documentaries, beginning with the opening night film. "The Union" is Cameron Crowe's first film since "Elizabethtown" – but in an echo of last fall's Toronto Film Festival premiere of the Bruce Springsteen documentary "The Promise," it's not a narrative feature but a non-fiction chronicle of the recording of the recent Elton John and Leon Russell album (below).

Elton John and Leon RussellOther music documentaries include films about Ozzy Osbourne, Kings of Leon, Miriam Makeba, Carol Channing and the Swell Season.

The festival's narrative features include "Everything Must Go," which stars Will Ferrell and screened at Toronto; Michael Winterbottom's "The Trip," which has also been playing the festival circuit; "Detachment," from controversial filmmaker Tony Kaye, with Adrien Brody and Christina Hendricks; Edward Burns' "Newlyweds," the closing night film, which was made for a paltry $9,000; and Dennis Lee's "Jesus Henry Christ," which Holden calls "maniacally zany."

The 1980 musical drama "Fame," Ron Howard's Oscar-winning "A Beautiful Mind" and "The Muppets Take Manhattan" will also be the subject of special screenings.

In addition, fans may get a chance to hear festival co-founder Robert De Niro to explain what he wants to achieve with Tribeca; the actor will sit for an interview with Brian Williams, who we trust will have better luck with the famously terse actor than David Letterman did.

Other interviews: Martin Scorsese will interviewing the Malian director (and Tribeca juror) Souleymane Cisse, and Alec Baldwin will question "Fair Game" director Doug Liman.

The Tribeca Film Festival begins on Wednesday, April 20 and continues through May 1. Information and tickets are available at http://www.tribecafilm.com/.

TheWrap will have regular Tribeca reports from Leah Rozen on the Report from Tribeca column.