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It’s No Sundance — and Doesn’t Want to Be

Nobody said it was easy to run a big event. But the Tribeca Film Festival, which begins its eighth sixth year next week, had a rough time by any standards. Literally built on shaky ground, Tribeca came together in 2003 when Robert De Niro and producing partner Jane Rosenthal created it as a venture to bring […]

Nobody said it was easy to run a big event. But the Tribeca Film Festival, which begins its eighth sixth year next week, had a rough time by any standards.

Literally built on shaky ground, Tribeca came together in 2003 when Robert De Niro and producing partner Jane Rosenthal created it as a venture to bring business back to downtown Manhattan in the wake of 9/11. However, the festival eventually came under scrutiny for possessing ulterior motives: Its for-profit approach, pricey tickets and expansion beyond the Tribeca neighborhood created the ugly image of an oversized, unfriendly operation — not the best image for a newbie to project.

Nevertheless, it appears to have survived the backlash and has begun to develop its groove. Although still an affluent gathering, it mainly appeals to local New York audiences interested in choice picks from the festival circuit and a variety of under-the-radar international cinema.

At the same time, there are hints of a burgeoning marketplace that stems from the large number of premieres contained in the program. The festival cites 28 deals that emerged for movies at last year's festival, including the Swedish vampire drama "Let the Right One In," which did solid business under the guidance of Magnolia Pictures and boosted the career of director Tomas Alfredson.

This year, with 48 world premieres in store, there's a strong chance that similar success stories will emerge.

But Tribeca is no Sundance or Cannes — nor does it aim for those impossibly high standards. With a mere 84 features, down from last year's count of 122, the decrease in size suggests an attempt to develop a coherent image, or at least a manageable one.

Following in the footsteps of 2008, the programmers have included a few Sundance highlights, which serve as sneak previews now that they have landed distribution deals for later this year. These titles include Sony Pictures Classics' minimalist sci-fi drama "Moon" and the blaxploitation pastiche "Black Dynamite"; IFC's political comedy "In the Loop"; and Magnolia's arty Steven Soderbergh project, "The Girlfriend Experience."

Then there are the stars: Woody Allen (whose latest comedy, the Larry David vehicle "Whatever Works," opens the festival), Eric Bana, Cheryl Hines, Dan Fogler, Thomas Haden Church, Steve Buscemi, Spike Lee and many others.

Famous faces and industry greats will walk the red carpet and chat it up at various panels, firmly placing the festival in the national spotlight, even as numerous small, inconspicuous world cinema offerings quietly premiere. Whether these entries will gain any sort of major critical or industrial recognition remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the festival continues to build a community within itself. Five out of the 12 documentaries in competition come from returning filmmakers, while 35 producers or directors have narrative features at the festival.

A good portion of the content was aided by internal Tribeca efforts, along the lines of the Sundance Institute's labs: The Tribeca All Access program will showcase 27 new features, and award several cash prizes to films selected by a jury of actors and filmmakers. The Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund was officially launched last year and will present two films at the festival: "Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi" and "Only When I Dance."

These efforts help contribute to the perception that Tribeca actively contributes to the film world, rather than merely shining another light on it.

One new addition to the festival won't have any bearing on its outcome this year: The move of 20-year Sundance veteran Geoff Gilmore, formerly the director of the annual Park City gathering, to the position of Creative Officer of Tribeca Enterprises.

Gilmore's apparently abrupt decision to move back to New York in February stunned many people in the festival world, but it was less of a shocker when Tribeca's artistic director, Peter Scarlet, stepped down and took a position at the Middle East International Film Festival. However, Tribeca's executive director,  Nancy Schafer, continues to oversee the program this year.

According to a Tribeca spokesperson, right now Gilmore plans to focus on operations beyond the main festival, including digital initiatives and other strategies for fostering new filmmakers in the current climate.

In other words, don't expect the festival to start emulating Sundance anytime soon.