I've just spent my first day at the Tribeca Film Festival, and I'm feeling a bit lost. I know the basic facts: It was founded in 2002 by Robert De Niro, his long-time producer Jane Rosenthal and her husband, the real-estate developer Craig Hatkoff, as a way to bring life back to lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks. They say their mandate is "growing the audience for independent film," but that seems to include a puzzling mix of stuff, from Hollywood films that don't need a festival push, to industry panels, to family-friendly events (this year, there's a soccer day, a street fair and outdoor screenings by the Hudson River). As of last year's 10th anniversary, attendance had grown from 150,000 to three million, but the festival's reputation was kind of a catch-all bin, films of varying quality seeking a showcase. And lower Manhattan certainly doesn't need any more financial boosting – walking around here, I'm dazzled by how shiny and booming it looks.
A new team is programming the festival this year, including artistic director Frédéric Boyer, who was the chief programmer for the Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, and chief creative officer Geoffrey Gilmore, who for 19 years ran the Sundance Festival. Their mandate is to offer a leaner (there are 89 feature-length narrative and documentary films, down from 150 two years ago), less industry-oriented slate, with films from around the world that reflect the diversity of New York, including 50 world premieres.
In that spirit, I tried to make my first day as diverse as possible. I started, appropriately enough, with Side by Side, a documentary that examines the state of the film industry, rocked as it is by seismic shifts in technology (digital versus film) and delivery systems (watching at a theatre versus at home on one's TV, tablet and phone). It's produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves, who also does the on-camera interviews with an impressive range of filmmakers at the peak of their powers, including directors James Cameron, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan, as well as a host of cinematographers and editors.
The subjects are great talkers – Fincher, describing old-school filmmakers' panicked reaction to digital, says they thought it would "not just kill the goose that laid the golden egg, but sodomize it first." And Reeves makes an affable host, once you get past his terrifying facial hair – a patchy, scraggly beard that shrinks and grows depending on when he did which interview, which he cannot keep from scratching.
The doc is a crash course in Film as of Now: It takes you through the filmmaking process chronologically, from shoot to edit to colour timing to release and also charts the rise of digital technology and its impact on all those phases. Some subjects love the new toys, others (especially cinematographers and editors) decry their loss of control over the finished product. But all agree that a) the impact of digital is huge at every level of the business; and b) no one knows what the future looks like, for filmmakers or distributors. "This is a hinge time, isn't this a hinge time?" Reeves keeps asking.
From there, I headed to a splashy event, an on-stage chat with Robert De Niro and Judd Apatow, moderated by Mike Fleming, a Deadline Hollywood editor, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Universal Pictures. De Niro's made 12 movies with the company, including The Deer Hunter and Meet the Fockers, and Apatow's done Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and produced this year's opening-night film, The Five-Year Engagement.
The event started with a six-minute clip reel, a breathtaking run from To Kill a Mockingbird through The Sting, American Graffiti and ET, to Jurassic Park, Bridesmaids and Mamma Mia! It's impossible not to note a shift in emphasis in that timeline, from Oscar bait to box-office grosses – especially since the clip reel included Jaws, the "hinge" movie that kick-started the blockbuster, go-for-the-grosses mentality we have today. Apatow said it all in his opening salvo: "Was I in the clip reel? So we went from Schindler's List to Steve Carell getting his chest hair ripped out?"
During the interview, De Niro said little and Apatow joshed, while Fleming visibly sweated over how to toggle between the two. Though De Niro laughed at everything Apatow said, and tried to play along with the questions, there's something about the set of his face, or maybe we've seen him in too many scary roles – even when chuckling, he looked ready to sock somebody.
He ended several answers with a terse, "That was it." What drew him to The Deer Hunter? "I liked the story. That was it." Before Analyze This, did you know you could do comedy? "I never had a problem thinking I could be funny. So that's it." His longest answer, appropriately enough, was about learning to trust saying nothing onscreen, taking dialogue out, letting the audience "read into the actor's reaction, the way you read into a novel. The longer I do it, the more I realize, the less said the better."
They both agreed they knew nothing about the future of filmmaking or film viewing, but admitted that they watch movies on computers and tablets. "Anything that allows me to watch a film while I go to the bathroom is awesome," Apatow summed up.
I finished my day at the opposite end of the spectrum, at a world premiere of a movie that's as indie as it could possibly be: First Winter, which was shot in a month in a country house by a first-time writer-director, Benjamin Dickinson, with a cast of his non-professional-actor friends largely playing themselves, and a script they mostly improvised. It's about a group living off the grid at a yoga retreat led by Paul – a guru type with a beard even more terrifying than Keanu's, an enormous, walrus-like thing he attributed to, in the Q&A afterward, "not shaving and being a man" – whose harmony falters when a nationwide power outage leaves them cold, hungry and on their own. The entire audience, as far as I could tell, was made up of the cast, crew, their families and friends, and all the questions were about authenticity and gratitude.
Finally, I realized where I was – at a festival that doesn't quite know what it is, representing a film industry that doesn't know what it will be. We're all on the hinge, and it's pretty hairy.