Conversation: Tribeca Film Festival Opens Amid Changing Industry
Wednesday marks the premiere of the ninth annual Tribeca Film Festival in lower Manhattan. Over the next 12 days, the festival will screen 496 films, out of the 5,050 features and shorts that were submitted, from 38 different countries — the most submissions in the festival’s history.
Earlier today I spoke with the festival’s executive director, Nancy Schafer, about this year’s films and trends.
“We definitely are in the middle of a giant shift,” Schafer said. “People are watching films differently….it’s actually a really exciting time because change like this brings not only interesting work, but interesting new business models….We’re all working on ideas for how to change it for the better so that more films get seen by more people.”
You can listen to our conversation here:
A transcript is after the jump.
JEFFREY BROWN: The Tribeca Film Festival opens tonight and its executive director, Nancy Schafer, joins me from New York. Welcome to you.
NANCY SCHAFER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
JEFFREY BROWN: So what goes into pulling together something like this? Give people a sense of what your life is like.
NANCY SCHAFER: Oh my, goodness. Well, we start planning from the second the last festival ends. In fact even sometimes before the last festival ends, so we’ve been working for, you know, 353 days to pull this off. It’s a big event in New York City, so we work hard. There’s a lot of elements and every year brings different things. I mean, obviously, the core stays the same, but who knew a volcano would erupt in Iceland and filmmakers would be trapped all over Europe. So every year has a different little twist to it.
JEFFREY BROWN: And this year it’s the volcano, among other things.
NANCY SCHAFER: Yeah. I think everything is going to end up fine with the volcano, but it would have been nice if we hadn’t had to scramble and change everyone’s flights.
JEFFREY BROWN: The obvious question I think people must wonder about is with so many films out there, how do you choose? I mean, there is a process obviously. Do you set ahead of time some kind of criteria that everybody’s working towards or looking at?
NANCY SCHAFER: Well, no. We set a number and that number has been for two years — it’s been 85 films, but other than that we watch films from all over the world and the programmers travel all over the world to find the best films for people here. So, we’re looking for good storytelling, obviously, and if it’s a documentary, also the arc of the narrative of the documentary. We’re also looking for films that startle us in some way, you know, things we haven’t seen before, an interesting way of telling a story. So, obviously, because it’s film and film is a visual medium, there are films that are done in an original style, so it’s a factor of all of the things that come together to make a film that we are looking at and we’re trying to find the best ones around the globe. We also try to have a representation from around the world so not every country is represented obviously but we do want, we are an international film festival and we do want to have films from all parts of the world.
JEFFREY BROWN: And when you put it all together, when you now look at the 80 some films that you have, does a theme emerge? I mean, do you start thinking thematically or does a theme emerge, or now that you’ve got the list for this year’s festival, what does it look like you’ve got?
NANCY SCHAFER: So, themes emerge from the program, right. We don’t actually sort of think of themes before. I mean, there have been years where we’ve really said, “We really need comedies, because New York seems a little depressed.” But if they are not making comedies, we are only as good as the films that are being made. But this year the themes that emerged actually — we do have a lot of comedies, which is interesting and great. Independent film is known for having a lot comedy.
JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of laughs, yeah, right.
NANCY SCHAFER: And we have several strong films – “The Trotsky,” “The Infidel,” “Zonad.” I could go on and on. Another theme that has emerged is stories about real people. So whether they are fictional or nonfictional, documentary or narrative, we seem to have a lot of films about real people. So even in the narrative films, we have this film about Serge Gainsbourg, the French filmmaker. We have films about Joan Rivers and about Vidal Sassoon and Billy Joel, there is just a lot of stories about real people.
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s interesting you mentioned years where you want to have more comedy because New York seems depressed, and I think most people remember that the festival was begun in response to 9/11 as a way of bringing life and culture out of that destruction. What has it evolved into in your eyes?
NANCY SCHAFER: I think it’s evolved into one of the big world-class film festivals, which is great and that’s by nature of a couple things. I think because we are in New York, we obviously attract a lot of media attention. We’re a big festival and a big, big cosmopolitan city with a lot of the world’s eyes on us, but also because of our founders, Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff, obviously they attract a lot of attention, too, so we’ve been able to attract strong work over the years and really carve a niche for ourselves on the international cinema circuit.
JEFFREY BROWN: I was telling you before we started that I had the very interesting experience of being a juror at Sundance this year where you screen so many films in a week. That’s part of your normal life, I guess, and it sort of becomes the way of the festival to just sit and screen so many, sort of take you out of real life in a sense.
NANCY SCHAFER: Yeah, I guess that my life is abnormal. People don’t watch as many films as we do, but it is something I’ve been doing forever. I find it very natural. I know people think it’s odd to sit for hours on end watching movies, but we seem to do it no problem. And if some people are envious of us, but I remind you we have a job of watching all the films that you never have to see. And there’s a reason you never have see them.
JEFFREY BROWN: I see. They’re not all the wonderful ones that come out at the end. Let me ask you, before I let you go, sort of a general state-of-film today, because there’s so much, you know, there is handwringing about the quality of what we see at the cineplex, and I know that in the independent film world there is a lot of fears about the difficulties of getting films produced and, you know, even more of getting distribution to so many films. Are you optimistic, pessimistic about the state and future of the industry around you?
NANCY SCHAFER: We definitely are in the middle of a giant shift. People are watching films differently. There are less independent distribution companies, but I think that that’s actually a really exciting time because change like this brings not only interesting work but interesting new business models. So it’s really a time that everything is changing and we’re all sort of working on ideas as to how to change it for the better so that more films get seen by more people. And we’ve started distribution company to that effect, hoping that people will watch our films. And I think there are a lot of other companies are going to sprout up and we’re going to see a real time of interesting change and interesting dynamic.
JEFFREY BROWN: And that affects the festival as well, I guess, in terms, I know you are experimenting with some, what is it, online parts of this or getting some of the films out to people that aren’t in New York, right?
NANCY SCHAFER: Right. We really have been working for years on how we show people the films outside of New York, and it finally seems that technology is allowing us to this online. So one of the things we really do is try to create communities around film and we have created the Tribeca Film Festival Virtual to create communities online around film. You can see eight feature films and 18 shorts online and have a dialog with your fellow viewers around them. People are starting to watch films in ways that 10 years ago we would have never even thought possible. They’re watching films anywhere and everywhere they can, so we’re going to bring the films to them.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Nancy Schafer is the executive director of the Tribeca Film Festival. Thanks so much for talking to us.
NANCY SCHAFER: Thanks for having me.