Does Tribeca Need an Iconic Theater to Solidify Its Identity?

By  · Published on April 28th, 2013

The Tribeca Film Festival seems to be in a constant state of figuring out its identity. It’s only ten years old, so that’s understandable. Yet while it tries to solidify its place on the international film festival circuit by tinkering with its selection of films, it’s also got the intriguing problem of situating itself in New York City. How do you cement your identity in a city that is constantly shifting around you? And, perhaps more importantly, how do you find a physical home for your festival on an island overflowing with movie theaters?

I asked our very own Kate Erbland, Associate Editor for Film School Rejects and coordinator of our Tribeca coverage for her thoughts on the topic. She puts the argument for Tribeca finding a permanent home-theater better than I possibly could, so I’ll let you read her thoughts:

Any film festival that takes place in a major metropolitan area faces some serious challenges when it comes to creating a true “festival” atmosphere within an already-bustling city. Festivals that take place in smaller towns – like Sundance or Telluride – have a much easier time centralizing their events and screenings. After all, there are only so many theaters, and the decision is pretty much made for them just by virtue of size, scheduling, and available spaces. But city festivals like Tribeca, LAFF, AFI FEST, NYFF, and their brethren can suffer from having almost too many places to pick from. Los Angeles’ AFI FEST stations its events around Hollywood for ease, LAFF has taken to downtown (to mixed results), and NYFF gets to roll out the red carpet at Lincoln Center, but New York City’s own Tribeca splits its screenings and events between locations in Tribeca and Chelsea.

The festival admirably combats that split with an even mix of screenings between the locations (there will never be a film that only plays in Chelsea and not in Tribeca, and vice versa) and festival-sponsored parties all around the city, but the festival doesn’t have a central hub theater that fest-goers instantly associate with the most glitzy and important of Tribeca events. This year’s premieres have bowed at Tribeca’s own Performing Arts Center, far from the P&I-screening-heavy Chelsea Clearview Cinemas, and thus not a quick and easy jaunt for the most hardcore of festival press (and many festival-goers). Moreover, while people can’t help but associate Sundance with the Eccles Theatre, AFI FEST with Mann’s Chinese, or Cannes with, well, anything on the Croisette, Tribeca doesn’t have an indelibly associated premiere theater.

Tribeca misses out by not having that one instantly recognizable major theater that signals, this is where the big events happen and by not having an easily accessible major theater that serves as an ad hoc gathering place. Do people want to hang out on the street outside CCC? Maybe, but they’d probably also rather hang out at a premiere performance space that’s easy to get to, home to the big events, and particularly “Tribeca.”

Kate makes a number of really good points, comparing Tribeca to many other (perhaps higher regarded) film festivals that have a real brand in their signature movie theater. The Clearview Chelsea Cinemas hardly has the glamour of the Croisette or Mann’s Chinese, and it doesn’t really feel identified with the festival during the rest of the year. Tribeca comes and goes, and any mark it leaves on Manhattan tends to wash away in a few weeks.

Yet I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. The comparison with New York Film Festival is a useful one. NYFF takes place entirely at Lincoln Center, joining the other prestigious institutions that call it home (The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, for starters). The entire event takes place essentially on the same block, in glamorous and glitzy theaters. Yet NYFF is also much more of an ‘uptown’ festival; the selection tends to be filled with films from the prestigious European festivals, Cannes and Venice. It’s brow is higher and its films are, generally speaking, a bit better.

Tribeca should obviously focus on improving the quality of its slate, but should it try matching NYFF in image as well? In a way it reminds me of the difference between Columbia University and New York University. Columbia has a campus, an enormous collection of buildings and open spaces you can easily identify from an airplane flying overhead. NYU on the other hand is a collection of buildings in a couple of neighborhoods, very navigable by its students but not necessarily easy for visitors to find. Columbia has all of the Ivy League class, while NYU has all of the downtown energy.

Tribeca’s films aren’t quite in sync with the best of New York’s downtown scene just yet – if they continue to focus on excellent documentaries, fun international fare, and the best of NY-made short films they may get there soon. But I’m not sure they should be worried about their physical presence in Manhattan. Sure, the theaters are spread out, but navigating them is nowhere near as horrendous as attending the Toronto International Film Festival.

In the end it’s all about image. It might help Tribeca’s brand to be associated with a single, glamorous theater, certainly. But there’s also plenty of glamour already in its New York neighborhoods. If the films get better, I think the image problem will resolve itself.

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