Tribeca Festival 2021 organisers on changes to this year's event and how it is a catalyst for NYC's post-pandemic recovery

'We’re bringing films that will give joy and importance to those communities and hopefully help stimulate some local economies and communities in a way similar to the first festival,' says Tribeca co-founder Jane Rosenthal.

The New York Times June 10, 2021 13:45:43 IST
Tribeca Festival 2021 organisers on changes to this year's event and how it is a catalyst for NYC's post-pandemic recovery

Tribeca Festival 2021 opening night premiere of In The Heights at the United Palace theatre on 9 June in New York. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Paula Weinstein can’t remember the last movie she watched in a theatre.

“Oh, golly,” Weinstein, chief content officer of Tribeca Enterprises and an organiser of the 20th Tribeca Festival, said in a video call last week. “I don’t remember — it’s so gone from my head.”

The 12-day festival, often held in April, was canceled last year because of the pandemic. But with coronavirus cases plunging across the country, she hopes this year’s event, which kicked off on Wednesday with the world premiere of movie musical In the Heights, will once again help provide a catalyst for the city’s recovery.

Tribeca Festival 2021 organisers on changes to this years event and how it is a catalyst for NYCs postpandemic recovery

A still from In the Heights. Twitter @DanSlott

“I’m so excited to see people again — to hear them laughing, gathering together, having fun,” said Jane Rosenthal, co-founder and CEO of Tribeca Enterprises. “Everything the past 15 months have taken away.”

Rosenthal, a longtime film and TV producer, first staged the festival with her producing partner Robert De Niro and then-husband, Craig Hatkoff, in 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. They wanted to bring people back downtown and spur the economic and cultural revitalisation of Lower Manhattan, she said.

More than 150,000 people attended that event, and Rosenthal and Weinstein are hoping for a replay this month. They’ve lined up nearly two weeks of in-person and online screenings of 66 feature films, culled from a record 11,222 submissions.

In separate video conversations last week, Rosenthal and Weinstein discussed the changes to this year’s festival, how the challenges they faced are similar to those of the first Tribeca, and what films they’re most looking forward to. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Q: Tribeca normally happens in April, so yours was one of the earliest events affected by the pandemic.

Jane Rosenthal: We knew that if New York schools were going to close, we were going to have to pivot. Then came the stay-at-home order. It was very sad, but we were going back to our origins of diving into the unknown.

Q: What did you do instead?

RosenthalWe started putting out a short film a day, and then we figured out how to get film festivals from all around the world to curate a massive festival online together. We worked with YouTube and were one of 21 festivals — Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Tokyo, Sydney, Toronto, Sundance — that each curated about 10 hours of programming.

Paula WeinsteinWe’re scrappy by nature. The only thing we know how to do in a crisis is get up and put one foot in front of the other.

Tribeca Festival 2021 organisers on changes to this years event and how it is a catalyst for NYCs postpandemic recovery

Paula Weinstein. Twitter @Tribeca

Q: What was happening in the world when you were planning the 2021 event?

Rosenthal: It was bleak. Biden hadn’t yet been elected. We were looking at how many people were going to hospitals. Would it actually start to go down in the warmer climate in the summer months? Could we do the festival outdoors and socially distanced?

WeinsteinOf course, there were moments of “OMG is this really going to happen?” But when we opened up for submissions, we got more than 11,000 from filmmakers around the world — up 7.5 percent from last year and more than we’d ever received.

Q: What’s been the most challenging part of planning this year’s event?

Weinstein: We couldn’t run into each other’s offices and say, “I have this idea, what do you think?” Everything was so disciplined. It was like, “If I forget something in this meeting, I’ve got to wait until the next Zoom.”

RosenthalThe changing health and safety protocols.

Tribeca Festival 2021 organisers on changes to this years event and how it is a catalyst for NYCs postpandemic recovery

Tribeca co-founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal. Twitter @DEADLINE

Q: The first Tribeca Film Festival was conceived as a way to bring people back to Lower Manhattan after 11 September Jane, that was your idea, right?

Rosenthal: I was obsessed with how to bring people back downtown. I said, “Why don’t we do a film festival?” I knew we’d have at least one film, About a Boy. [She was among the producers of that movie.] I felt if I could produce a movie in three months, I could do a film fest in three months. It’s really good that I was blissfully unaware of a lot of the issues we were going to confront.

Q: Do you have a similar goal to spark a recovery this year?

Rosenthal: We have outdoor screenings that go from the Battery to Brooklyn to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx — we’re not just in Lower Manhattan anymore. We’re bringing films that will give joy and importance to those communities and hopefully help stimulate some local economies and communities in a way similar to the first festival.

Q: Do you think people are ready to come back?

Weinstein: They’re sure ready from our ticket response. Filmmakers are all coming from out of state. One of them told me, “I don’t care if I have to rent a camper and sleep on the way, I am getting there.”

Q: What precautions are in place?

WeinsteinWhere we can, we’re enlarging the number of seats to allow for more audience. We’ll tell people to wear masks, but we’re not going to restrict it. We’re following every guideline possible.

Q: What does this year’s lineup look like?

WeinsteinA good portion of the films we wanted in 2020 are getting their premiere at this year’s festival. We have 56 world premieres and 23 countries represented.

Rosenthal: I’m really proud of our representation. More than 60 percent of the feature films this year were directed by women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ artists.

Q: What films are you most looking forward to this year?

Rosenthal: One of my favourites is the documentary about Dick Gregory [The One and Only Dick Gregory], as well as Mark, Mary & Some Other People by a young woman, Hannah Marks. And our VR films, curated by Loren Hammonds. There are so many terrific new voices.

Weinstein: I don’t want to choose! I feel so optimistic about all the young filmmakers represented. So many of these films were finished or shot under COVID protocols, and they made such good work that makes me excited for the future of storytelling.

Q: You dropped ‘Film’ from the festival name this year. Why?

Rosenthal: We’re looking at different ways of creating an immersive experience, and as long as people are telling a good story, that should be part of what we do at Tribeca. This year, we have stories based on games and podcasts in the competition. Ten years ago, we screened our first video game, LA Noire. We’ve always been at the forefront of looking at how we could shift our storytelling to get to an audience.

Weinstein: We were simply looking for a way to embrace everything.

Q: Might the move to a summer festival potentially be permanent?

WeinsteinWe haven’t discussed it yet. We did it this year because we knew we had to be outdoors to protect our audience. June seemed right because we thought it’s not going to be cold [and] audiences will be ready.

Q: Will you continue to provide a streaming option in future years?

RosenthalIt’s definitely something we’re looking at doing. That said, I do love the experience of sitting in a theatre and watching movies with an audience — particularly comedies. You don’t get the same pleasure from comedies by yourself as when someone next to you starts to laugh because all of a sudden they’ve gotten the joke.

Q: Fill in the blank: Ten years from now, Tribeca will be _________.

Weinstein: Open to new voices and new ways of telling stories, because we know the world is going to expand enormously in the next 10 years.

Rosenthal: Maybe we’ll be creating a movie in Fortnite, or screening movies from Mars!

Sarah Bahr c.2021 The New York Times Company

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