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Posted 6 years ago on May 2 2008


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Does a Film Festival work better as a destination?

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Marfa, Texas. Photo credit: Marfa Film Festival/marfafilmfestival.org 

As I come to the end of my week of screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival and turn my attention to my imminent departure for Cannes, I wondered again what it is about Tribeca that makes it a not-very-satisfying festival experience.

In past years I’ve blamed the films, and rightly so. Many were so unbearable that I wondered if a programmer had actually selected them or if they were picked at random from a screener stack. But in the 2008 edition the films are leap years better. This is no doubt thanks to the much-discussed changes; more films that have been vetted on the fest circuit, more selectivity in the programming process, and less films required to fill the slate.

Also much improved this year are the venues. No longer spread out over the breadth of Manhattan, the concentrated primary locations around the East Village and Union Square have made the festival actually walkable. We may not be in Tribeca, but at least it’s not 34th/42nd/72nd St. Even the odd Union Square-based Am Ex “Insider Center”, with it’s sparse attendance and tomb-like location, makes Tribeca feel a little more like a film festival.

So with all these improvements, why hasn’t Tribeca become a satisfying film festival experience? I think the answer may be that, in my experience, the most dynamic and exciting festivals have been those that are, in and of themselves, destinations. Sundance, for all it’s own difficulties, is the only reason to go Park City, UT (that is, for a non-skier like myself). When you are there, you are in the cocoon of that festival—completely focused on the experiences (good, bad and exhausting) that it provides. When I went to IDFA in 2004, it too was a cocoon-like experience, mainly because of the concentrated “village-like” atmosphere of the festival venues. Granted there are many other things to do in Amsterdam, but as a first time visitor focused on the festival experience, I thought IDFA was fantastic (even in spite of the many clunker films I saw there).

I read this morning on Twitch about the brand new Marfa Film Festival, located pretty much in the middle of nowhere, 3 hours from El Paso and 7 hours from Austin. The town and its environs have become known of late as the go-to location for modern Hollywood westerns, serving as the backdrop for both THERE WILL BE BLOOD and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. So to kick-off the fest, organizers held an opening night screening of TWBB on what remains of the set, and tonight they’re offering a screening of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER on the Marfa Golf Course.

For the rest of the festival, they’ve got a mix of winning fest circuit veterans (MAN ON WIRE) and films you’ve never heard of (probably for good reason). This is to be expected for a 1st time fest in an obscure location, but I’m sure that the fun of the Marfa Film Festival will be those special events, and the interesting and bizarre location that has drawn artists and UFO-ologists there for years. In other words, a destination—a place to go to experience film outside as well as inside the theater. To get wrapped up in a place that inspires film, through the location itself as well as through those who have ventured there alongside you. Twitch makes a comparison between Marfa and Telluride since both towns are about the same size, and while even they admit that’s premature, I think the potential exists for Marfa to grow into a must-do film fest experience.

I have a feeling that filmmakers who come to New York for the Tribeca Film Festival do feel some of this, especially if they are new to the city and are focused primarily on the fest experience (as I was in Amsterdam). But for the vast community of filmmakers and industry who live here, I’m more skeptical than ever that Tribeca will ever become an industry festival. We will not doubt see more sales out of the fest in years to come, and I’m sure it will continue to gain in popularity, especially if they continue to improve the program and venues. But Tribeca will never be a destination festival, because the industry that lives here, or even those who do come in from LA, will always have the distractions of New York, of our daily lives, and of bigger fests 2 weeks from now, to keep us from getting truly immersed in the Tribeca experience.

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