If you’re a major film festival, you’re about acquisitions. The filmmakers that are there are mostly there to find a buyer for their films. That may seem like a cynical view of the matter, particularly for a film critic, but there you have it. The day Sundance stops having big multi-million dollar sales is the day Sundance goes back to being merely the name of the dude Robert Redford played in that movie that none of today’s young filmmakers have ever bothered to see. True, there are movies that come to these fests with distribution already in place (and in the case of Tribeca, with massive multimedia conglomerate marketing campaigns ready to roll), but these are few and far between, and those are films that are really just looking for some advance publicity as their release date nears.
So where does that leave Tribeca, which, as everyone knows, hasn’t reached that high-acquisition point yet? Sure, there are some high-profile films at this festival that will probably find themselves with a distributor by the time it’s all over. But there’s also a good chance that a lot of films playing here will be too small to find distributors. That’s a weird statement to make, however; in the indie world a film can partially become big by its festival associations. With a few exceptions, a film that plays at Sundance is forever known as a film “that played at Sundance.” A film that plays at Tribeca, despite the festival’s rapidly-increasing stock, doesn’t automatically have that imprimatur, perhaps because by playing at Tribeca, it’s also hitting the biggest theatrical market it’s going to have: Several screenings in a packed New York City theater.
Make no mistake about it: This isn’t the rarefied atmosphere of Park City, or Telluride, or Cannes, or even Toronto. When you’ve played Tribeca, you’ve played New York. And that’s a double-edged sword, because it means that part of your ideal audience has already seen your film (even more so in the case of films in the NY, NY sections of the festival). There are actually some respected New York City art houses that are reluctant to program films that have played major New York festivals, precisely because they feel these films have already eaten into their potential profits, and because a New York audience has already discovered the movie.
Why is this a problem? A film that was made in New York, and has New York subject matter (like, oh, say, A Stadium Story: The Battle for New York’s Last Frontier, a film whose title I would have actually made up for this piece had it not already existed), should play a festival that takes a New York-centric view of the world. And if Miramax or Warner Indie doesn’t pick it up, so what? Part of the problem is the cold, unforgiving calculus of movie-making, where even the smallest movie needs to reach something resembling a broad audience to break even. And so we are left with the paradox of the Tribeca filmmaker: Come show your film at a great big state-of-the-art Battery Park multiplex with comfy seats, to an appreciative audience that will be intimately familiar with your subject matter…and pray to God that they come back and see it again when it plays in an even smaller theater a year from now.