How the Tribeca Festival Reflects the Frustration, Exhilaration and Innovation of Post-Pandemic Moviegoing
Posted on Monday, June 28th, 2021 by Marshall Shaffer
Before the rains came and washed out the world premiere screening of Bernstein’s Wall, icon of New York’s old cultural guard Fran Lebowitz took the mic to deliver an introduction. (Well, really more like a highly literate stand-up set with her prickly, piquant wit.) Lebowitz could not let the opportunity pass without noting the elephant in the room…er, outdoor venue. The Tribeca Festival dropped “film” from its official name for the 2oth edition. She claimed that, before coming on stage, she asked a festival staffer what they put on if not films. Lebowitz rattled off a few categories before dwelling on one that particularly chafed her when the staffer conveyed it: “Games? I hope she didn’t [say that], but I think she did.”
What’s in a name? The question has vexed those who have asked it from Juliet Capulet to the audiences of the Tribeca Festival this year, who navigated an event that reinvented itself both out of necessity and by choice. Festival director Cara Cusumano confirmed over email to me that the change was not to minimize the importance of film to the event; the medium is still the “bedrock” and “inspiration” of Tribeca. But she posited that with the addition of podcasts and, yes, Lebowitz’s derided games, “it felt like the name needed to reflect the full breadth of the programming.”
But in a period of American life where absence and mourning linger at the forefront, it is easy to see the shortened name and focus on what is lost rather than what might be gained. (The festival might have also paid the price for not putting more energy into communicating the rationale behind their rebrand; many press releases since Tribeca Festival announced its new dates in June used the new name without explaining or drawing attention to the cosmetic change.) These organizations bear responsibility for showing what is gained by the innovations and alterations the pandemic forced them to adopt or embrace. With the possibilities of gathering in-person for a communal moviegoing experience still tenuous, it’s incumbent upon festivals to show that their changes can be additive to their core experience rather than just a substitute.
Let’s Get Physical
The first Tribeca Film Festival, which occurred in spring 2002, just months after 9/11 shook the lower Manhattan neighborhood to its core, became a beacon of resilience in the wake of tragedy. With New York among the most impacted cities by COVID-19, it’s perhaps no surprise that the festival spun a similarly triumphalist narrative for their 2021 edition. Tribeca bookended their festival with two massive in-person extravaganzas: the world premiere of In the Heights simultaneously broadcast to venues in all five boroughs to open the event, and a full capacity mask-less screening for vaccinated festival-goers of a new documentary about Dave Chapelle at New York’s storied Radio City Music Hall to close.
For various reasons, I was at neither signature event, but did get to experience Tribeca’s in-person programming over the course of the festival’s 12 days. (This was in addition to the virtual access my badge granted me this year.) Cusumano disclosed that they had some big ideas that did not come to pass, such as “hanging screens from the Brooklyn Bridge or the Washington Square Arch, projecting films onto buildings.” Ultimately, the festival ended up largely ditching projectors and opting for giant 40-foot LED screens erected across every borough in New York City.
The main benefit? Tribeca did not have to wait for the darkness of sunset to show films. The setup permitted them a wider range of possibilities to program in the daylight hours, a scheduling constraint that forced last year’s New York Film Festival to add a week to their already expansive event. I did still experience a little bit of glare against the screen at one event on a pier off west Manhattan, but it quickly subsided as the sun receded.
With relaxed rules around social distancing and gathering since the fall, Tribeca did not have to rely on drive-ins as NYFF did in 2020. The festival assembled socially distant pod seating in tape-demarcated groups of twos and fours around their glorified jumbotrons. (The same restrictions did not seem to apply at events like a directors’ dialogue with M. Night Shyamalan at the festival’s rooftop headquarters.) This setup allowed us to enjoy feeling visibly connected to the people who also chose to attend a given screening.
Like just about any makeshift solution during the pandemic, I took the good with the bad. It did feel a little strange convening for a communal gathering over cinema that did not involve projected beams of light. To some extent, I got the sense we were fulfilling Quentin Tarantino’s prophecy that the digital revolution was leading us toward “TV in public.”
I can’t say I felt all that enriched by the audience experience, either. Perhaps the distance played a role, or maybe the 2.5 screenings (an approaching thunderstorm led to a mid-movie cancellation of Bernstein’s Wall) I chose did not lend themselves to enhancement by a participatory viewing experience. All of them certainly had a kind of second soundtrack: the noise of New York City traffic and commotion, unfazed by a film festival happening on its edges. Perhaps I’d have felt differently if I’d gotten to laugh and swoon at lockdown-inspired rom-com 7 Days – a charming mix of The Apartment and The Big Sick – with an audience rather than in my living room.
All the same, I did feel a little flicker of optimism when I stood up after a Brooklyn screening of Materna – a selection of the canceled 2020 Tribeca invited back to have a moment of communal viewing glory – and noticed an assembled crowd that watched the film from a tall set of library steps directly outside the venue. Just from observation, the crowds at the screenings resembled the composition of the city more than most highfalutin film events: younger, queerer, more racially diverse. “Our mandate is to connect films and audiences,” Cusumano described Tribeca’s mission, “so we have to do as much outreach and cultivation on the audience half as we do on the film discovery half.” Amazing what democratizing access through venue approachability does to make people feel welcome and included.
Perhaps most intriguingly from the outdoor screenings, the sunlight illuminated a fascinating live commentary track for me at All These Sons, a documentary by Bing Liu and Joshua Altman about gun violence prevention in Chicago. I wound up seated directly behind the filmmaking team and many subjects of the film, many of whom were experiencing it for the first time along with the crowd. With nature’s “house lights” up, so to speak, I was able to observe their behavior and reactions as the film forced them to relive the joys, struggles, and pains of their experiences on a larger-than-life scale. It was the most vivid evocation and recreation of a quintessential festival experience. Sometimes the most interesting action takes place around the screen rather than on it.
A New Face for an Old Virtual Home at Tribeca
Though Tribeca relished in its in-person elements, the festival did not abandon the virtual component that has defined the festival experience since the onset of the pandemic. Cusumano informed me that they have been playing in the online space for a decade now, but in the spring of 2020, they took steps to grow “Tribeca at Home” even further. “I wanted to be sure it’s a program that works for the films too,” she said, “so the program is designed to be a focused selection with a set screening schedule and festival-style introductions and Q&As so it really feels like the festival experience for both the films and the audience.”
New to this edition, as far as I could tell, was this sidebar featuring exclusive online premieres. Despite having ample programming slots in person, this specific selection showed only virtually. Sure, there’s something nice about a small-town movie lover having access to quality cinema – especially now, geography should no longer impede cinephilia. But I remain skeptical that this does not establish a second or less prestigious tier of films within the Tribeca lineup – the same festival laurels, but with a kind of “straight to video” designation.
At least, this concern remains for the time being, given the relative freshness of virtual festival technology. Can a digital experience really provide the same sense of cinematic communion for audiences and filmmakers alike? It’s been a functional stand-in during the pandemic, yes. But getting these platforms to represent a co-equal viewing experience for all parties involved in a film festival still requires additional work. Only part of that change can come from innovation, too – audiences will need to signal their approval as well.
One thing that struck me over the course of Tribeca was just how differently the films acted on me when I left my apartment to see them. Getting showered and dressed, taking the time to get to the venue, waiting in line, lingering in my seat … irrespective of the film’s quality, all this effort from my end transformed the viewing into an event. I cannot say the same for anything I watched at home, where it was just another icon on my Apple TV flattened into the vast sea of content forever available at my fingertips. The virtual terrain is relatively new for festivals, and competing for eyeballs and attention spans here requires a different calculus.
The Way Forward for Festivals
Tribeca 2021 billed itself as the first in-person film festival in North America since the pandemic – and even enlisted a powerful ally in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to help spread the word. Not to be all Dakota Johnson on Ellen, but actually, no, that’s not the truth. Over a month prior, Film at Lincoln Center (in partnership with MoMA) welcomed back audiences to the 50th-anniversary edition of New Directors/New Films.
“We just assumed that everything would be virtual, maybe some outdoor screenings or drive-ins, things like that for the rest of the summer,” explained Film at Lincoln Center’s deputy director Eugene Hernandez. But after months of setbacks and slow progress in the fight to control COVID-19, the rapid reopening of New York caught him by pleasant surprise. Once Governor Cuomo began allowing small capacity crowds to congregate at movie theaters inside again, the festival made “a very last-minute scramble to make that to happen.”
Not unlike my Tribeca experience, ND/NF was a hybridized festival for me. It was the in-person experience that felt like the strangest approximation of normalcy, however, with a clunky filmmaker introduction recorded over Zoom aided by a translator. But after more than a year away from in-person festivals, I was more than willing to tolerate the awkwardness. ND/NF and Tribeca both displayed such an open eagerness to roll up their sleeves and get fans back into theaters, and the earnestness always outshone any inelegance.
The lockdowns of 2020 happened rapidly, but the re-openings of 2021 are proving themselves equally nimble and spry in their own right. When it came to Tribeca’s mask-free finale at Radio City Music Hall, “it actually happened very quickly once the idea was out there,” Cusumano described. “We have had such incredible support from the city and the state, and I think all these decision-makers really responded to the message of what we wanted to do and how meaningful that would be.”
Now that New York’s pandemic state of emergency is over, though, how much longer will audiences tolerate these rickety recreations of normalcy – both in person and virtually? As other elements of American life begin to resemble their “Before Times” character, it’s unclear how and where people want the moviegoing experience to settle. It’s not as simple as flipping a “reopen” switch, as Hernandez clarified for me.
The pandemic laid bare the precarity under which so many arts organizations operate – not to mention the wide gulf between those in a financial situation to adapt or innovate and those just scraping by. Hernandez expressed gratitude that Film at Lincoln Center was able to weather the storm of the pandemic, though not without painful cutbacks, through a combination of loans and donor support. Tribeca shuttered their educational outfit, Tribeca Film Institute, yet are in mostly secure financial hands thanks to the majority stake James Murdoch took in 2019.
But for many of the smaller groups with which Film at Lincoln Center partners for smaller festivals, the event they do together is the showcase event for the entire year. There’s also a downstream effect for the films as well, which other festivals oftentimes select on the back of their recognition by Film at Lincoln Center. Thus something like Open Roads, their week-long program of new Italian cinema presented with Istituto Luce Cinecittà, took place entirely online at the end of May. Hernandez cited the difficulty of travel from Italy for filmmakers and the festival partners alike in their determination not to cobble together some in-person screenings. “Everybody had their Plan B,” he said, “And then Plan B became Plan A – the alternate version of your festival became the primary version.”
It’s unclear what drove the Brooklyn Academy of Music to present the 2021 edition of BAMcinemaFest entirely online. (The organization did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this piece.) Their exhibition venue, BAM Rose Cinemas, reopened later than most New York theaters when they resumed showtimes on June 11. But a 12-day turnaround from theater opening to festival opening night did not stop Film at Lincoln Center from pulling off ND/NF in April, so there would be a precedent for pulling off such a feat. After a full cancelation of 2020’s BAM Cinemafest, perhaps this year’s event – featuring a dramatically pared back lineup with few marquee titles – just needed to happen somehow to ensure it had a future.
“I think arts organizations and festivals are just catching up with a lot of things that are happening all at once,” Hernandez observed. To some extent, it was only a matter of time before the sea change in film accessibility and changing audience preferences began to determine the contours of these vaunted cultural events. What keeps him excited and optimistic through the uncertainty is that everyone in the festival circuit remains devoted to innovation. Both the format and features of virtual festival programming remain in a constant state of improvement and iteration. And that does not just pertain to the technology, either. Case in point: BAMcinemaFest rolled out variable pricing for all their films, allowing people to pay between $5 and $30 for the same viewing experience based on what they are comfortable contributing.
This moment represents merely the beginning of exploring the possibilities inherent in the virtual festival and calibrating its relationship to the traditional in-person component. Sundance wasted no time announcing in May that their 2022 festival will continue with at least some virtual component, and Hernandez divulged that the 2021 New York Film Festival will operate on three tracks – indoors, outdoors, and virtual. “The work I try to focus myself on is creating that rich festival experience in all of those places,” he affirmed. The films in their lineup remain in flux, as do concrete plans around how they will each be shown to the public. All the same, Hernandez revealed that distributors have thus far shown an openness and willingness to consider alternate modes of exhibition rather than immediately snapping back into the old paradigm.
Tribeca Festival: Moviegoing in Microcosm
Give a writer the column space as well as some unstructured time, and they’re going to find a micro-scale representation of a larger issue they’re trying to write about. (Apologies.) As I sauntered around Tribeca between screening venues one crisp summer evening, I decided to remove my AirPods, stop cramming content into my ears and simply take in the neighborhood. Any organization or any event takes on the character of the place that births it, after all, and it was time to really see how Tribeca imprinted itself on the festival that bears its name – even if the event has dispersed and outgrown the area.
What I observed was a neighborhood where New York negotiates its own path forward, with the classical and the contemporary duking it out for dominance. This relatively small area is home to textures as varied as cobblestone streets and a glass skyscraper resembling a tower of Jenga blocks. The vestiges of the neighborhood’s old merchants still haunt the sides of buildings, fading in presence but still nonetheless evident. Cozy residences bump up against the literal World Trade Center. Amidst all the confusion, the consistent sight of empty real estate once occupied by fast-casual chains begs the unavoidable question: who is this neighborhood really for?
It’s easy to count the mixed messages and jumbled communication of the Tribeca Festival against them. A part of me still wonders if the organization is really just a corporate brand activation in search of an artistic mission. There’s a risk that without making a further proactive effort to convey who they are and what they stand for, they could become the East Coast version of the now-defunct Los Angeles Film Festival. An event backed by a powerful independent film institution still must cultivate an audience and find its own role within the broader festival ecosystem. Simply being in a hub for the medium does not guarantee survival, especially now as the festival experience becomes less tethered to geography.
But in 2021, at least, the confusion of Tribeca was kind of the point. Because as everyone fumbles and feels their way out of the pandemic, everything about movies and how people consume them is confusing. An event that doesn’t reflect that would feel like an odd mirage out of step with the moment in which it existed. As the industry figures out everything from release windows to theater capacities, there’s no clear path forward yet – and a sense that going backward is not an option. In its lack of clarity, Tribeca proved oddly clarifying.
In everything from scattershot mask guidance, its inconsistent distance protocols, its diffuse nature, its uncertain format availabilities, to its indeterminate identity, the Tribeca Festival embodied a city, a country, and a culture unsure of how to move forward – but determined to do so even if it means getting messy and making a few mistakes. “The whole role of the festival is to reach as many people as possible to amplify independent film,” Cusumano reiterated to me, “and to create unique movie-going experiences in-person, outside, online, underground, in space, all of it!”
In that answer lies the challenge: how – and where – to reach audiences in a meaningful way where so much content is accessible and so few experiences of consuming it feel special.