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What Is a “Tribeca Film”?

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Now Playing at Tribeca: From left, Tom Cruise's big-budget action flick M:I:III; no-budget experimental Aussie flick Burke and Wills; and the studio family comedy RV.  

Is there such a thing as a “Tribeca film”? That’s the question that forms in the mind of a critic who has had to watch anything resembling a sizable chunk of the features on display at the Tribeca Film Festival. You’ve got megabudget premieres (M:I:III, United 93) bumping up against indie feel-good comedies like Jeff Garlin’s I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With and black-and-white no-budget flicks like the dark Aussie experiment Burke and Wills. (Let’s not even get started on the documentaries.) Similarly, it’s hard to pin down the vibe of the fest in general: It’s an event that supposedly celebrates New York filmmaking (which it certainly does, in the NY, NY competition slots), but there are parties here to promote filmmaking in other places (like Florida), as well as a shorts fest that originated in Australia (Tropfest). There’s a Tribeca Drive-in theater, as well as movies screening at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Heck, half the festival films are screening nowhere near Tribeca. Like the city that hosts it, this is a festival that tries to be all things to all people.

Will it work? If other festivals have succeeded, they have done so by giving us a clear idea of who they are—by branding (god, how I hate that word) themselves successfully. There is such a thing as a “Sundance film” —it’s a cliché, of course, but you know it when you see it. There is such a thing as a “South by Southwest film” (hint: it’s not that different from a Sundance film) and a “Cannes film.” Even Toronto, despite its breadth, has clearly set itself up as the main venue for North American premieres of major titles from the big European fests. Gotham’s other big ticket, the New York Film Festival, situates itself as the New York launching pad for the year’s crop of award-seeking foreign and indie films, yea though they may bag a Warners-funded Clint Eastwood picture now and then.

So where does that leave Tribeca? Presenting a massive roster of unknown films, most of them directed by newcomers, is a pretty risky way to make a name for yourself. (That, of course, explains the big studio padding of stuff like RV and Poseidon.) Sure, Transamerica and Roger Dodger were discovered here, but the signal-to-noise ratio could turn out to be too much for even more discerning viewers. Maybe the best way to describe it is thus: The festival is barely half done; I’ve already seen more films than I did during Sundance, a couple of them excellent, a few of them good, and more than a few of them bad; and if somebody asked me to describe what this festival was about, I would be completely, utterly at a loss.


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