4/28: The Tribeca Film Festival’s Identity Crisis

We’re already at the halfway point for the ninth session of the Tribeca Film Festival, yet unless you live downtown, it’s hard to notice. The festival isn’t exactly a hot topic around the water cooler.

Michael Avila, TV producer and pop culture writer.

Michael Avila, TV producer and pop culture writer.

That’s not an indictment against the quality of films.

Documentaries, a traditionally strong category at Tribeca, have made a strong impression, thanks to the eco-warning “Climate of Change,” the Shea Stadium love letter “Last Play at Shea” and the festival’s most talked-about entry, the work-in-progress about New York’s disgraced ex-governor “Untitled Eliot Spitzer Project.” Several features, like “Legacy” and “Spork,” have also earned strong reviews.

Still, there doesn’t seem to be much electricity around town for TFF. A new poll by Marist indicates 79% of New Yorkers have no intention of attending a single TFF event. That’s a staggering number.

The star-studded premiere parties and the countless sponsor events are still making it into Page Six. How is that different than any other night in Manhattan? There is nothing approaching the buzz that turns Park City, Utah, into mini-Hollywood every January for Sundance, or the excitement in Toronto as likely Oscar contenders are screened there in the fall.

It’s not exactly fair to compare Tribeca to Sundance or Toronto or Cannes, for that matter. Those festivals are established events with longer histories. They also benefit from better placement on the calendar (Sundance in January, Cannes in May, Toronto in September). And you can’t ignore the fact that the options for entertainment in Manhattan are slightly more plentiful than Park City or Toronto.

For all these reasons and more, Tribeca has been forced to dig a little deeper than other festivals to find quality pictures.

Fortunately, there are plenty of great independent movies out there. And TFF has shown a knack for finding gems in the foreign markets, with “Buried Land,” “Dog Pound” and “My Brothers” being good examples this year.

It’s not like the festival isn’t drawing crowds. Last year, nearly 350,000 people attended. They can’t all be out-of-towners, can they? But attendance figures can’t explain Tribeca’s lack of cultural cachet.

You can go ahead and blame the festival’s one-size-fits-all approach to programming for that. Co-founders Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro have embraced mainstream popcorn pictures such as “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” and “Spider-Man 3” since the festival began in 2002, as a way to drum up publicity. But kicking off a film festival with “Shrek Forever After” – this year’s Opening Night movie – isn’t the way to gain street cred on the film festival circuit.

By striving for national attention with splashy red-carpet premieres of upcoming summer blockbusters, Tribeca sabotaged its own efforts to position itself as a central player in independent film.

But it may not be too late to fix that.

Festival organizers have drastically scaled back the number of feature films they screen, from 176 in 2005 to a more manageable 85 this year. Yes, they did premiere with “Shrek 4,” but at least it was a 3D movie. The recent explosion in 3D moviemaking goes hand-in-hand with TFF’s mission to embrace new film technology.

For the first time, Tribeca has made festival movies such as Ed Burns’ “Nice Guy Johnny” available for viewing online. In addition, TFF struck deals with several cable companies to offer movies through Video On Demand. Those films will become available at the same time they premiere at the festival.

The old independent film business model is undergoing drastic change. People are watching movies online and on their iPhone, when they want to watch. TFF is embracing these new platforms as a means to finding new ways to expose independent films to wider audiences. By doing so, the Tribeca Film Festival may have finally figured out a solution to its longtime identity crisis.

Who knows? Maybe New Yorkers will finally get jazzed about Tribeca if they know they can see the films without having to take the A train downtown.

This article is written by Michael Avila, a television producer and pop culture writer.