Tribeca Film Festival Returns In Person, Offering Hope For NYC And Potential For Deals

Two decades in, the mission of the Tribeca Film Festival has come full circle.

Launched just months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the festival will kick off its 20th edition Wednesday with New York City and the film world navigating extreme existential challenges. Normally held in late-April, this year’s fest was postponed until June and wound up being fortuitously timed. As coronavirus infections fade and vaccinations increase, Tribeca will be first major North American festival with in-person activities since Covid-19 took hold last year.

“It’s a very similar situation” to the first festival, which was held blocks from the rubble of the Twin Towers, co-founder Robert De Niro said in an interview with Deadline. “It’s part of keeping the tradition going.”

Tribeca Enterprises CEO Jane Rosenthal, who is also De Niro’s producing partner, said there are clear parallels, chief among them stimulating economic activity and restoring faith in New York and the film community. “The first year, it was like ‘how many people can we bring together to gather?’” she remembered. “And now, it’s, ‘How many people can we bring together to gather in the safest possible way?’ How can we change people’s frame of mind and give them something to look forward to?”

The pair were slated to open the festival Wednesday in a press conference but it was canceled late in the day Tuesday over what organizers described as “schedule shifts.” De Niro had been in Oklahoma this spring getting set to shoot Apple’s Killers of the Flower Moon, but had to fly home last month to rehab a torn quadriceps muscle stemming from an off-set mishap. He confirmed the shoot will go on because his character is a “sedentary,” non-action hero type and also said the film is “set up to have a theatrical release,” but “we don’t know the details yet” about how wide it will be. Leonardo DiCaprio also stars, reuniting with director Martin Scorsese.

Speaking of theatrical moviegoing, pent-up demand and a bit of advantageous timing gives the Tribeca slate extra potency this year, with 56 of the feature slate’s 66 titles world premieres. Warner Bros’ In the Heights is first up and will screen tomorrow in front of an audience of several hundred people inside the opulent United Palace in Washington Heights. The venue in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, was built in 1930 as a Loews movie palace. It has been restored and supported by the opening night film’s producer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created the Tony-winning musical on which it’s based.

In a very 2021 twist, of course, In the Heights will also stream for HBO Max subscribers on Friday as it reaches theaters. Pre-release surveys, though, indicate that it is shaping up as a big draw for people looking for a reason to return to theaters.

Closing night should be equally memorable. At a 100% capacity Radio City Music Hall on June 19, a fully vaccinated crowd of 6,000 will watch the still-untitled documentary about comedian Dave Chappelle’s pandemic year in his rural Ohio town. In between opening and closing, there will be dozens of outdoor screenings, plus an assortment of other events under Tribeca’s ever-expanding tent, including podcasts, concerts, virtual reality, video games and television.

The first Tribeca X event on June 19 will meld business, advertising and technology, gathering speakers like Roku CEO Anthony Wood, media investment potentate Aryeh Bourhoff and veteran media exec James Murdoch. (Murdoch’s venture firm, Lupa Systems, bought a majority stake in Tribeca Enterprises in 2019.) A Juneteenth lineup, which culminates on the 19th, features Stacey Abrams getting an award named for Harry Belafonte, plus a range of film selections and discussions centered on Black creative voices. Talks during the festival will feature speakers like Amy Schumer, Bradley Cooper, Doug Liman, Gina Prince Bythewood and M. Night Shyamalan. Anniversary and restoration screenings will honor The Royal Tenenbaums, Raging Bull, The Kid and Fargo.

Outdoor screenings, held in all five New York City boroughs, will use 40-foot “traveling” screens brought in just for the fest. Tickets are free for outdoor events.

While Tribeca has always been an “audience festival,” Rosenthal acknowledged, “We have a strong industry presence and we’ll probably have more films that will sell out of this festival than ever before.”

Senior ICM agent Kristen Konvitz is repping three films for sale at Tribeca, the Duplass Bros productions 7 Days and As of Yet as well as Brian Wilson docu Long-Promised Road. Like a number of buyers and sellers, she will not be on the ground in New York and will be sure interested parties get access to links to watch the films remotely if they also aren’t able to travel to New York.

However, ICM isn’t setting up buyer screenings in LA, a strategic decision it made ahead of other recent fests. “We haven’t done any screenings of major festival titles in advance,” she said. “We want people to participate in and support the festivals.”

Some films have been able to wait out the pandemic, she said, and hope to cash in on what she expects to be a seller’s market. ICM and CAA co-repped the filmmakers of Coda, which Apple bought for a record $25 million at Sundance in January. The boom in streaming services mean more slots to be filled, and the stipulations traditionally made before the pandemic have changed.

“Filmmakers have become more understanding of the landscape and more lenient about requiring a theatrical release,” Konvitz said. “They used to be much more stringent about it.”

While not a top-tier film market, Tribeca has seen a number of notable acquisitions over its run. Among them are City Island, Jesus Camp and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a 2009 film by La La Land director Damien Chazelle. Documentaries are perennially a strength, with Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side helping establish the fest as a launch pad from its early years.

The alchemy of the audience will be a crucial element to the experience at Tribeca as the festival concept reasserts itself. “We all need something to laugh at and dance to and sing to. We’re going to try to do that,” Rosenthal said. “I am so excited to hear laughter and people clapping.”

The atmosphere will be different than that of a packed show at the Library in Park City or the Ryerson in Toronto, which has often pushed sale prices sky-high at festivals, may not directly connect to sales this time around. But the rediscovery of the notion of taking in a story told on a big screen with other audience members reacting to it in real time could be a powerful thing — far more so than at the ubiquitous drive-ins of 2020. “So many filmmakers have missed out on the communal experience of premiering their film at a festival,” Konvitz said.

One such filmmaker is Josh Ruben. After wrapping production of his horror comedy, Werewolves Within, on March 9, 2020, he has had to complete all other steps in fully virtual fashion. “Everything has been Zoom feedback sessions,” he said with a tinge of frustration … via Zoom from LA. His debut feature, Scare Me, went over well at Sundance in 2020, but its release was altered by Covid, reaching streaming audiences via niche service Shudder.

While having a film available for streaming was “super-cool,” Ruben said, he is craving live, human reaction to Werewolves, whose genre comedy beats are engineered for it. More theatrical play — the indoor kind — lies ahead for the film, which IFC Films will open in 79 locations nationwide on June 25.

Ruben said he looks forward to returning to New York, which is where he was based at College Humor, the digital brand long owned by Barry Diller. The premiere of Werewolves, in yet one final twist, is slated for Pier 76, the floating island park in the Hudson River whose biggest backer and civic champion was Diller. The park formally opened just before Tribeca.

“It will be something pretty special to go back to New York,” he said with a smile, “and screen something at the other end of this Shawshank tunnel. Come out in the rain and just spin around on Pier 76.”

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