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Interview with The Tribeca Film Festival Director

The Tribeca Film Festival has rapidly evolved since its founding in 2002 into the biggest U.S. film festival. In 2006 the Tribeca fest lasted thirteen days and served 465 thousand individuals including 203 thousand who purchased tickets for film screenings and panels. About 4200 productions were submitted coming close to the 4350 entered for the different Berlinale sections (excluding market films). Tribeca has retained its successful eclectic programming approach ranging this year from Hollywood market oriented movies like POSEIDON and UNITED 93 to thought provoking films like THE FREE WILL and LAND OF THE BLIND. The fest also screened critical and innovative documentaries such the WAR TAPES, DEAR FATHER QUIET WE ARE SHOOTING and MAQUILAPOLIS. Unlike other US film festivals the Tribeca emphasizes reaching the local community orientation as reflected in numerous events arranged for families and festival sections devoted to just to New York City productions. Unimpressed by the exclusivity of Telluride or the New York Film Festival, Peter Scarlet has provided Tribeca with a cosmopolitan and inclusive orientation sensitive to both the film arts and the audience. This task is facilitated by Tribeca and its film institute having a solid funding basis due to large private (specifically American Express) and public (Lower Manhattan Development Corporation) support . Peter Scarlet has been the executive director of the Tribeca Film Festival since 2002. He served before as the head of the Paris based Cinemateque Francaise and helmed the San Francisco International Film Festival from 1983 – 2001.

Interview with Peter Scarlet May 16, 2006
part one of two

Claus Mueller: How would you define the primary objective of the Tribeca film festival and have there been any changes over the last five years?
Peter Scarlet: The visionaries who founded the festival wanted the festival to support the economic, cultural and spiritual revival of lower Manhattan and to draw attention to and promote the filmmaking of New York. These have remained our primary objectives

CM: Since you assumed direction of the festival, what are the most important new trends/tendencies that you have detected?
PS: When I came aboard in the second year I turned the festival into a more international direction inspired in part by two things, my belief that a festival in a city like New York should be international and by the fact that [in 2002] our principal screening room, a movie theatre, was located close to the statue of liberty. [The statue is] a symbol for people who came from all over the world, who have made the city a cross road of world cultures and of world cinema. I felt that the [Tribeca] festival should reflect that.

Because of a good deal of luck and a fair amount of hard work this festival has been the subject of more excitement and support and fewer doubts over these years. And so the difficulties we faced to a tremendous degree in the beginning like “why should I give my film to Tribeca” [have been overcome]. We are hearing that question less and less often and in fact there are more and more people approaching us and are eager to be here.
For a number of reasons film festivals are now growing like mushrooms in the forest after the rain worldwide but especially in this country and probably in France and Italy as well. Clearly there is something out of whack with the exhibition system now, since more and more people in this country and the rest of he world have primarily only the chance of seeing mainstream Hollywood movies there.

CM: We have about 2400 festivals worldwide

PS: That figure is probably out of date already

CM: Certainly… But does this explosion of film festivals affect you and how so?
PS: Yes of course… but let me go on… Part [of the explosion of film festivals] is for valid reasons. There are no other places for people to see anything but mainstream work and this is true abroad as much as it is here. The films of the Hollywood majors are primarily what you see on screens in Moscow and Timbuktu. But it also has become some kind of modish thing, a small town thinks lets have a film festival and the stars will come, and people will pay attention. My phone used to ring more often than it does now maybe because people send e-mails now, “We are here in Nowheresburg and we want to start a film festival” and if they say we are really interested in film noir or Bulgarian films, I am eager to talk to them. But if they say, as they most often do “What should we show?” Then I place the receiver down on the cradle since it is a waste of my time.
The explosion of film festivals has had an enormous impact on other levels. For example films outside this country that have not yet been acquired for distribution. If you talk to sales agents in Europe they are ready to slit their throats since they are now being solicited by 2400 film festivals all of whom want copies and publicity. Most of whom will not invite anybody and many do not know how to treat the print professionally and do not know how to handle the publicity professionally. When festivals began FIAPF, [International Federation of Film Producers Associations] accredited and legitimized film festivals. Now there is no attempt to stay in touch with the festivals. So someone can start a festival on date X, do whatever they want, ruin the print. Also these sales agents realize that if all these people want this film so they have to get some money for it. They start to charge film rental for the films and now many festivals start complaining that they have to pay film rental. Well the reason is that there are too many of them.

CM: Apparently film festivals have developed into a separate new market?
PS Yes, there are often films that are just film festival films that [only play that circuit] and the producer and sales agent are justified in wanting to make some money back. After all they did not produce the film to be shown free all over the world.

CM: What is the single biggest problem you face organizing each year the Tribeca Film Festival?
PS: The single biggest problem we face putting on a film festival is that it is like mounting a military campaign. So many things have to be done all of which by their nature need not to be talked about. The metaphor I use for a film festival is it should be like a Fred Astair performance which looks so easy that it seems effortless but [required] months of
rehearsals 24 hours a day to arrange it. Our biggest problem here is that apart from [our] two little Tribeca cinemas we do not have cinemas of our own. This part of New York is venueally-challenged, if I can coin a phrase.

CM: Thus you are trying to have more and more venues?
PS: It would be nice to be able to screen films on a regular basis year round, and to have a showcase on the other hand. Yet there is part of me that still has a guerilla mentality, I am leery of the so-called edifice complex and the “here it is”official stamp [going along with it]. It is important particularly in a place like New York to place a film festival into the framework of how most people see films.

CM: Have you ever been turned down by a film maker?
PS: Films are acquired for distribution and have a play date that is determined by a number of reasons by the distributor, by the exhibitors and others. Certain films play in festivals because it is convenient for their release schedule. Well take a film example like United 93
for example. There was a great brouhaha about whether it did or not it did belong in to the Tribeca Film Festival. Well as a matter of fact the film was due to open two days after we began or during our run. To not have shown the film would have been an act of cowardice. Had it been a bad film it would be a different issue but the fact that it was a good film and about a subject of interest to New Yorkers mandated that we show it. It was not a film that was not yet in distribution like many of the others we tracked down.
You asked, “Have you ever been turned down?” Sure, we have been turned all the time. There are films that are not to be released until the fall. It depends on what the sales agents or the producers want to do with the film. There were several films in Berlin that I was eager to have, for example the Bosnian film GRBAVICA which received the Golden Bear or the Iranian film, Jafar Panahi’s OFFSIDE, that was acquired by Sony Classics. Sony wants to release it in the fall and to re-subtitle it; there was no way it could be shown here in the spring.

CM: Ok so it is a question of release schedules and marketing. But has it happened that someone simply preferred to have the film premiere at Sundance or another festival
PS: Sure, it happens; the filmmaker rather opens at Sundance or wants to wait for Cannes. It is part of the calculation and that is where the competition comes in. When I came here I felt strongly that we should move to another time of the year in order to get brand new films. How do you get good films right before Cannes? The fact is that we get

better and better films each year. Look at the films that had world premiers this year, the Czech film that received two major acting prizes, or a number of the others. So filmmakers think that Tribeca may be a better place than Cannes, [they think] they get more notice or they think that this is a better place to come to.


Claus Mueller, New York Correspondent


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