Monday, May 3, 2010

The Tribeca Film Festival in retrospect: Sadly it's not about the films

This is a personal piece and its going to be rougher than most of my posts. Bare with me. Its a post that comes from the heart and from being unhappy with a film festival that isn't about the wonder of film, but the wonder of celebrity and fame. I've been writing this in some way, either in my head, my notes or here, since my third day at Tribeca. I had hoped things would get better but they never did.

When I started this blog and put the Tribeca Film Festival in the side bar of good film festivals, I did so with out ever having attended anything other than the family fun day. Yes, I had seen many of the films screened at previous festivals but nothing at the festival itself.

This year I went from having attended zero films in 8 years to 16 films in 10 days. That's a lot of films in a short period of time. With most other film festivals 16 films would have been a third to half of the films screened, at Tribeca that is around 10 percent (86 Features and they say there's another 80 shorts). Tribeca is a film festival with a schedule that is so huge that its impossible to see everything, or even anything approaching everything.

Before going in I had read been told three over powering things about the festival:

1. The film festival is a pain in the ass. Its difficult to get tickets and get around.
2. The film festival schedules way too many movies with the result that most of them aren't very good.
3. The festival isn't about the films its about the people running it.

There was fourth bit that a friend at work told me, which was "if you're going to one or two screenings the festival can be fun". It was this last bit which I kept in mind each day I went so that I would view the festival as only that one day.

Having gone through an entire festival I want to say that I can pretty much agree with those assessments. I don't want to be overly negative, but all of the criticism I've ever read is right on target. The best way to experience this film festival is to only see one or two movies a year and to plan ahead and get your tickets way in advance. If you do that then the festival is worth it, however if you're like me and you want to experience the film festival as a fully as possible you're going to be disappointed.

Honestly I can live with the festival requiring lots of time and effort to get tickets and to get between shows, but I'm kind of unhappy with the festival being more about promotion and self promotion then actually about the films.

There is a vibe when you go that this is TRIBECA and something special. I'm not sure that people in the neighborhood around the Village East Cinema feel that way since they are the least commercial with apartments next to it. I watched as one pissed off mom by the theater pushed, actually threw barricades away and cursed out the festival as she tried to get her stroller down the street for the umteenth time.(The pens for ticket holders and pedestrians are literally in the street because of the red carpet set up)

As good and nice as the volunteers are I get a sense that the higher ups don't care. This is about a product, which is the festival itself. It has to look good. And the Festival has to be pushed.

As for those of us seeing the films, we are herded (very efficiently) from street to seat in away that's more like being a product in a factory rather than human beings looking to be entertained. We are cattle and not what the festival is about. The festival is about money and most of us don't have it so we're an after thought.

It's not so much that the festival bends over backwards to its sponsors (AMEX holders get first crack at the tickets plus other perks) and to the rich and powerful, its that they make no secret that they are doing it (which badge do you have?). It was clear that what they wanted came before everyone else. For example at at one screening I saw staff offer to move seated regular ticketed people for some VIPs who didn't like their reserved seats. At other screenings people were regularly struggling to find empty seats while rows went empty until a very few minutes before show time on the off chance VIPs might suddenly show up.

Come on guys give the people who want to see the movies seats and not the VIPs, I mean more than one VIP I saw was at the screening because it was Tribeca and it was something they could get into (What's the title again dear?). When it was over they were baffled by what they saw. One woman I sat next to had a huge fist full of multiple comp tickets for a large number of shows, sure the unused ones probably got resold as rush seats but really why make real people do rush lines? Two women at the last screening I attended seemed to think that most seats were given away to sponsors. It was rare for them, or their friends, not to use some sort of comped seat, and they seemed to feel that the only reason there was a rush policy was that so many tickets were blocked out that if there wasn't a rush policy many screenings might be empty. I have no idea how true that is but it sure felt like that at many screenings.

I have the sense that most of the higher up people didn't care about the movies so long as they could use them to promote the hell out of the festival and get themselves higher up some food chain. I saw one incident where some official was taken aback that someone wanted to hustle past them into a screening and not pay attention to their Red Carpet nonsense which was blocking the way. (The ladies mentioned above in regard to the rush policy said that the screening of Michael Winterbottom's film The Killer Inside Me was delayed almost an hour while the filmmakers farted around on the red carpet.)

I'm guessing the lack of caring is why the festival seems to have a reputation for being mediocre over all in its selections. Yea, its a hip and happening event but what its showing is just okay. (Cross reference a number of past titles with IMDB and you'll see what I'm saying). Films show up because it's a name people know not because the films are actually good. Its like what I've heard about Sundance of late, its about the party and the hype and if you see a great film its a bonus. (The trouble is most people aren't invited to the party)

Of course they show films, tons of them. This year 86 features and about the same number of shorts. 86 feature films is too many. Amazingly in years past the festival had well over a hundred. You can't have that many films and have a large percentage of them be remotely good. (I've done fifty films in a week home sick and I had tons of misses).

This year I saw 2 out right dogs, 4 that were great but most of the films I saw, 10 out of 16, were just okay. I've never been at a film festival with such a low average (25%) of films I really liked. Actually what bothered me was most of them didn't belong on a big movie house screen, most of them belonged on TV. Why were you showing these films on a big screen, and why were you asking me to pay 20 plus dollars a movie to see them?(Don't get me started about ticket prices)

I don't know. I do know that I feel ripped off.

I should restate that I don't think that most of the films I saw were bad, clearly they were not (I've posted three films as capsule reviews and have more filling out a week of reviews shortly), they just aren't the sort of thing that I think even remotely belong in a film festival or are worth the cost and expense of going to a film festival.

I think that unless you are "somebody" or are going to only one or two screenings and don't give a $%^&, Tribeca isn't fun and it makes even the good films seem worse.

To me Tribeca is best described as a glitzy film festival full of films that are best rented and seen in your own home.

Will I go again?

Yes. However there is little chance that I will ever try to do what I did this year; next time it will be one or two or three. I will go again hoping to find better movies and because ultimately the volunteers were a lot of fun to talk to. (Though why they do it, you get a ticket for a shift, when many seem to have trouble actually seeing anything they want to see is beyond me- They can only see films with tickets available which often is a poor selection)

Ultimately it was an experience, take that how you will.

Onward and upward to festivals that matter: to The Asian Film Festival and the New York Film Festival which actually care about the films they show and the people who show up to see them.


  1. While other film festivals may have started out as film afficionados getting to see good smaller films that deserve more attention, Tribeca sounds as if from day one it was about garnering prestige and fame for the festival itself, and not the films, the filmmakers, or the people who appreciate good film. It definitely rings true to all the bad stereotypes of New York, where the distinction between the haves and have-nots is even greater than most of the country. Glad you were able to find some gems though, and have some good times with a couple directors before and after screenings, something you can only get at the festival. And you appear to have mentally survived...a little scarred and worn, but still going...

  2. On some level, I suppose the fact its a name that can be used as a marketing tool for the films accepted should make me happy, the trouble is, by diluting pool with questionable films it will eventually reflect back on the festival.

    Ultimately I wanted to do more than survive- I wanted to have fun...