De Niro's post-9/11 brainchild has outgrown its cinematic roots

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2007, 12:00am

New York

Many New Yorkers are thankful for what actor Robert De Niro did in the wake of the September 11 attacks by creating the annual Tribeca Film Festival in a part of downtown Manhattan that was once in the shadow of the World Trade Centre.

It was part of the city's healing, it was part of a spirit of defiance but it also reflected a new sense of community and tolerance that swept New York, so often notorious for its rudeness. But just as some of that softer side has dissipated with time, so has some of the fondness for the festival, which finished its sixth year last weekend.

A movie critic for the New York Post, Lou Lumenick, slammed the festival in a recent article. 'It's clear Tribeca has seriously lost its focus and become the cinematic equivalent of a street bazaar,' he wrote. 'This is a festival that seriously lacks an identity.'

Certainly a street fair was what Tribeca got on Saturday, with a family day that included food stalls, bands, face painting, puppet shows, and lots of sponsorship from big business, including American Express, Bloomberg LP, Fox, Delta Air Lines and dozens of other companies. But there really wasn't a lot to do with film going on.

The festival has expanded beyond its roots, and critics say it seems to want to be too many things to too many people while lacking the global cachet of many of the other long-standing festivals such as Toronto or Sundance. The 157 films selected this year ranged from the high profile Spider-Man 3 to a short film about the war in Afghanistan shot using a mobile phone. It also added a sports film section featuring 14 premieres and a sports day promoted by well-known athletes. Geographically, the festival has expanded beyond the Tribeca area (which stands for Triangle Below Canal Street) to much of Manhattan as well as the city's outer boroughs.

Certainly, its broad appeal gains some supporters. 'I think the Tribeca Film Festival is one of the best film festivals,' said Jacqueline Bacich, a creative director of a local magazine and a movie lover who was hanging out with friends.

'There are so many activities, and you can find all sorts of movies you like.' But a 50 per cent leap in ticket prices this year, partly to offset a US$1 million annual deficit, makes it one of the most expensive film festivals in the US and drove away some of the people to whom it wanted to appeal.

'Who would pay US$25 for a movie?' said Fred Gurner, a Manhattan photographer.

Its dream of a permanent home may also be frustrated. Hundreds of residents in Greenwich Village showed up at a hearing last week to fight against a plan to build a 12-screen theatre for the festival on an abandoned pier in their neighbourhood.

The festival's 'cool' factor has also been called into question. There has been chatter in the New York tabloids about a falling-out between De Niro and rock star David Bowie. Bowie has been promoting the new High Line Festival, named after a park being built on an abandoned elevated railway line on the city's west side.

Scheduled to open tomorrow, three days after Tribeca ended, the 10-day-festival has a broader and trendier scope than Tribeca. It's a mash-up of Bowie's favourite films, music, comedy, performing arts and more.

'Ours happens to be a little younger and rougher around edges and more multidisciplinary than theirs,' producers of the High Line told New York magazine.

But Mark Urman, head of THINKFilm, a New York-based film distributor, says the rivalry is silly. 'The industry is taking Tribeca seriously. More and more I am seeing international filmmakers come here to do business,' said Mr Urman, who released a film and bought another one at the festival this year. 'It's productive.'

Mr Urman said he won't attend High Line. 'I love David Bowie, but I can only handle one festival a week. But that's only me,' said Mr Urman. 'If New York cannot accommodate variety, multiplicity and simultaneity, what city can?'