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Tribeca at 13: Film Festival Is Growing Up, but Still Hard to Pin Down

Chief Creative Officer Geoff Gilmore talks with TheWrap about the festival’s multiple agendas


The Tribeca Film Festival is now a teenager. It launched in the spring of 2002, which makes its current installment, which opens on Wednesday in lower Manhattan, its 13th.

And like many a teenager, Tribeca is moody, changeable, hard to pin down. It acts like an adult one moment, with documentaries about whistleblowing (“Silenced,” “1971”) and enviromental devastation (“6,” “The Overnighters,” “Virunga”).

And it plays with toys the next, with one doc about Legos, “Beyond the Brick,” and another about men who are obsessed with the Hasbro’s “My Little Pony” franchise, “A Brony Tale.”

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It gets dead serious with the gang story “Five Star” and the Spike Lee-produced drug film “Manos Sucias,” but it has fun with comedies from the likes of director-actor Jon Favreau (“Chef”) and “Junebug” writer Angus MacLachlan (“Goodbye to All That”).

It likes Hollywood stars, and has movies with Kevin Spacey, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., Elizabeth Banks, Max Greenfield, Gillian Jacobs, Michael Douglas, Robin Williams, Patrick Stewart, James Franco (of course), assorted “Saturday Night Live” cast members and more — but it has also turned its back, for a year at least, on the kind of blockbuster bookings that it once made.

It’s resolutely indie, but with midnight movies that include the promising title “Zombeavers.” Sometimes it likes to play sports like baseball (“The Battered Bastards of Baseball”), cycling (“Slaying the Badger”) and boxing (“Champs,” “Maravilla”).

Other times it has its nose in the high-tech world, spotlighting the newest in new technology and interactive storytelling in first Tribeca Innovation Week, the immersive Storyscapes exhibition and four days of Future of Film panels.

And it likes music but its playlist is wildly varied, from Nas’ hip-hop to Clark Terry’s jazz to Alice Cooper’s rock to James Brown’s R&B to Bob Weir’s jamming to Bjork’s art-pop to the modern musical of John Carney’s “Begin Again” (formerly “Can a Song Save Your Life?”), its closing night film.

“We’re in our adolescence now, in our 13th year,” Tribeca Film Festival Chief Creative Officer Geoff Gilmore told TheWrap this week. “Incrementally, festivals get better over the years, and I think Tribeca has. We’ve found our identity and our position in the festival world.”

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Or, perhaps, Tribeca has found its identities, plural. Gilmore admitted that the for-profit festival, which is sponsored by American Express but which helps support the Tribeca Film Institute, does not have a single agenda.

Instead, he can rattle off a number of different agendas. Tribeca exists to explore the intersection of technology and storytelling — with the emphasis, he said, on storytelling: “We’re not talking about technology as much as we’re talking about content.”

Tribeca exists to spotlight new directors and films, with 55 world premieres and 13 North American premieres among its 89 features. More than 20 percent of the festival’s directors are women, and almost 40 percent are first-timers, including actors Courteney Cox, Mike Myers and Chris Messina.

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It exists as a market, with 50-plus films coming to the festival looking for distribution. (Last year a similar number were on the market, and more than 30 of them sold.)

It is a conference of sorts, this year featuring conversations with Kevin Spacey, Beau Willimon and David Simon, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, Thelma Schoonmaker, Bryan Cranston and Terrence Winter, Aaron Sorkin and the intriguing duo of former congressman Barney Frank and actor Alec Baldwin, among others.

It culls films from previous festivals, from Toronto and Sundance and Berlin and others — but not as avidly as it has in past years, with Gilmore saying that the programmers are going for quality over quantity in picking from previous festivals.

And occasionally it turns to Hollywood for a big-budget showcase like “The Avengers” or “Shrek Forever After,” although none of those are on the schedule this year. When asked if that was because the fest wasn’t offered the right movies or it made a decision not to court the major studios, Gilmore said, “A little bit of both. We looked at a couple of studio things, but they didn’t work for us.”

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Tribeca’s many different identities have led to criticism in the past, as the festival has struggled to find a niche on a film festival calendar that puts it between two giants, Sundance in January and Cannes in May, with Berlin and SXSW also occupying space in the first four months of the year.

And it has faced the question that all film festivals face as the market and platforms for independent film change dramatically, and as theatrical distribution makes way for streaming and VOD platforms and self-distribution: What is the role and the value of a film festival in this strange new world?

“I think it’s become even more significant,” insisted Gilmore. “Whatever is going on in the marketplace, the problem for filmmakers is visibility, not strategy or delivery. How do you make your films have that visibility? How do you launch them? How do they move forward?

“In the old days, you used the theatrical launch to push everything. Now films have to come up with a range of different strategies, and a film-festival launch is more important than ever.”

So 102 feature directors will get that launch in lower Manhattan between April 16 and April 27. And Tribeca will head into its teenage years still heading in lots of different directions at once.

“We’ve evolved over the last several years,” said Gilmore, who came to the festival from Sundance in 2009. “We don’t have one agenda, we have several — and that helps make Tribeca what it is.”