TFF Makes Bold Bold Move into Digital Realm


By Scott Stiffler

Dowtown Express recently spoke with the Tribeca Film Festival’s Nancy Schafer (executive director) and Geoffrey Gilmore (chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises, former longtime Sundance Film Festival director and a native of Huntington, Long Island).

Although the April 21-May 2 festival will screen 85 films at locations throughout Tribeca, the Village and Chelsea, Gilmore and Schafer are focused on the debut of Tribeca Film Festival Virtual — a multi-platform expansion into the digital realm meant to provide video on demand and interactive web opportunities to a global audience who may not have the ability or inclination to attend brick and mortar screenings. For more information, visit www.tribecafilm.com/virtual.

Downtown Express: Geoffrey, what motivated you to come back to the East Coast and work with TFF? 

Geoffrey Gilmore: I’ve been thinking of coming back to New York for a long time. When my children were finally grown, I had the opportunity to change my life. One of the things I find both surprisingly and in many ways, really exhilarating, is this sense that Tribeca has for doing things in a different way; for taking risks and saying “we’re out there in the world now, we’re not quite sure where everything’s going, but we’re going to take chances and do this.” But I didn’t come here to program the Tribeca Film Festival. In fact, I haven’t really been involved with that — only peripherally. 

DE: So why are you here, if not for that? 

Gilmore: I’m here to work on developing new ways in which audiences can find film; ways in which film culture can be developed. 

DE: Is the move to digital changing the public face of TFF this year?

Nancy Schafer: When Geoff came here right before last year’s festival, we started talking about how people were viewing films differently. I actually don’t think it’s impacted how we’ve programmed this year’s festival or how we’ve done anything in this year’s festival; but it’s absolutely effecting our TFF Virtual initiative as well as our distribution initiatives. 

DE: Do you think that might happen in the future — the virtual presence impacting what’s chosen for the festival because it might have a life afterwards in your digital realm?

Gilmore: Festivals have operated for a long time in a certain sort of way. There’s been that sense that you show something at the festival, you wait for it to develop some buzz; you hope some buyer comes by and distributes it six months later in the marketplace; and that doesn’t work anymore. What we’ve been talking about for a long time — Nancy for years before I got here and me when I was at my previous gig — is how we need festivals to reinvent themselves. One of the things a festival needs to do is figure out a way to help filmmakers get into that digital market — and that’s the whole rationale behind this. 

DE: Will the global reach of digital eventually make location-specific film festivals irrelevant?

Gilmore: Festivals will continue to do what they’ve always done — program from an array of submissions and showcase them inside a community or a city; but we’re trying to take it to another level, to amplify the kind of visibility that films get, and to do something that Nancy’s talked a lot about, which is, how to take Tribeca on the road; how to expand…

 DE: What does that mean? 

Schafer: When you’re at a film festival, people at the coffee shop have seen the movie and they’re talking about what they’ve seen; and you want that sort of buzz to go with you. Taking a film from another city and trying to recreate that elsewhere didn’t make a lot of sense to me, because I didn’t feel like it was going to translate. So we’ve built the TFF Virtual, which is literally trying to recreate that buzz feeling online. We’re showing 8 feature films in the Virtual and 18 shorts; we’ll cover red carpet for that audience; we’ll have Q&As dedicated to that audience; and that audience can also talk to each other while they’re watching. 

Gilmore: I’m not so naïve as to think that you “create” the buzz of a film festival wherever you extend the Internet reach; but that doesn’t mean that you don’t create something else. It’s an opportunity for audiences to find films that otherwise wouldn’t get to their communities. 

DE: Are film fans who comsume and discuss the medium online different from thier festival-going counterparts?

Gilmore: The conversation I used to have when I debated with someone for 2 1/2 hours after seeing a film; it doesn’t take place like that anymore. There are other opportunities and other ways in which people see films and engage in discussions. For my generation, different motivations occurred. Film was so central in our lives; and I think film right now is part of people’s lives — but maybe not the central aspect of it. 

DE: Do you think it’s less important because there is more accessibility? 

Schafer:  People digest a lot of content these days, a lot of media 

Gilmore: Back in 1971, you had an alternative film industry that was just emerging. You didn’t have cable television; you didn’t have Internet. These are all obvious truths — but conversation about film was so central in our lives and we were so passionate about it. This [move by TFF into the digital realm] is one way of reinspiring that conversation; to put it out into places where people can engage with us. We’re really excited about that opportunity. 

Schafer: There’s also been a feeling that people want to see films from Tribeca and film festivals from around the country. Finally, technology has caught up and is allowing us to bring films to a wider audience. 

DE: What’s going to happen throughout the year with your online presence? 

Schafer:  The TFF Virtual is only on for seven days during the film festival. The distribution platform that we launch on April 21st is on demand for two months. In the fall, we’ll roll out DVDs so; that aspect of the platform has a year-round cycle to it. 

Gilmore: We’ll be looking for opportunities to expand; but this is all a work in progress. We’re discovering things even as we roll it out. We’re going to see how much this succeeds in terms of creating a visibility that then will actually allow these films to get into the marketplace in a way they haven’t before. 

DE: Is there any conscious attempt to make your online presence similar to or different than the actual physical festival itself? When somebody says I’m going to TFF, what do they mean by that?

Schafer: I think our New York image is, “I’m going to find something I like there.” Even though we’re nine years old, which is very young for a film festival, the feedback over the last five years has been “I took a chance and I loved it.” — and I feel that’s now the message we need to take to the virtual realm.

DE: TFF founded to bring business back to downtown after 9/11; now, most of the screenings are in the East Village and Chelsea. Is your Tribeca identity diluted when so many events take place outside of the area? 

Gilmore: Tribeca’s been a work in progress. Its raison d’être was a cataclysmic event, and it’s evolved from that. It represents the image and sensibility of what Tribeca is; not afraid to take chances, to go beyond what festivals normally do; to reach out to audiences who normally don’t go to festivals; to be populist and still have an edge and be about discovering; to really kind of look at festivals and say “We’re not going to stick to the tried and true that every other festival has done for the last 50 years. We’re going to try different things. We’re going to put a Drive-In down on the edge of Manhattan. We’re going to do an ESPN sports festival and showcase work that involves mainstream films that are in 3D.” That’s exactly the kind of ambition and sensibility that I’m really engaged by.

DE: How do you achieve that balance between appealing to the diehard cinephile and appealing to those who don’t normally attend festivals?

Gilmore: Our new initiatives are going in that direction. It’s that sense that you don’t just have to be a market; you can be a marketing platform as well, meaning you’re a place to showcase this range of work that goes from the populist to in some ways the esoteric — and the edge, that really, I think, speaks towards again that range of aesthetics and experiences that film is all about. 

DE: How does it accomplish that? 

Gilmore: When you show the Spike Jonze documentary “The Birth of Big Air” as part of the ESPN Sports Festival, you’re introducing people who might never come to a film festival into the context of what a festival is. It will no longer seem elitist and arcane. The art world often is branded by its elitism — “This is not for you.” Most cultural institutions have been fighting the battle over the last few decades to cut against that; to move away from cultural elitism. Tribeca was founded by that sensibility from the start. So to me, that’s exactly the kind of direction we should be moving in. New York is an incredibly eclectic place, so you try to speak to this range.

Tribeca’s also, I think, been very out-front about its kind of commitment, let’s say, to documentaries. A lot of festivals are founded on relationships with distributors where all you’re really doing is helping launch them into the community where it will be shown two weeks from now. Tribeca shows work that will never be here again. People can come here and get a chance to see and experience something they otherwise wouldn’t. Even in a city like New York, which has so much cultural opportunity, there’s work that’s going to be a part of this festival which otherwise won’t get seen here

DE: Will TFF’s virtual presence eventually lead to the formation of a cable channel like Sundance or IFC?

Schafer: We’re not presumptuous to have said we want to acquire that many titles, to do a whole channel. You need a lot more movies than we’re buying; but we’re definitely thinking of that. The thing that Geoff and I always say is that what’s here now might not exist in three years. The industry is changing so fast, we can’t predict that in three years people might even want an on-demand channel, because there might be some other way of watching movies. 

DE: But when you look ahead, do you perceive there might be something different about how we consume films?

Gilmore: Much of what goes on to cable television, even in terms of film, only gets there once it’s been out theatrically. It’s driven by its theatrical visibility. We’re very much trying to understand the process which reverses that. We’re saying, what’s the possibility of launching films into the marketplace that are driven by digital platforms; by cable platforms; that don’t have that theatrical marketing behind it? In this day and age, the younger generation doesn’t do what I do. They don’t pick up the New York Times and look down the movie listings to find out what’s playing where. They go online and figure out ways to access that film and how many different ways they want to do it. 

Schafer: They don’t want to hear coming soon; they want it now. With our iPads, we’re going to expect to have it now, walking around.