The Tribeca Festival Is Back, Happy to Restart Along With the City

Paula Weinstein can’t remember the last movie she watched in a theater.

“Oh, golly,” Weinstein, the chief content officer of Tribeca Enterprises and an organizer of the 20th Tribeca Festival, said in a video call last week. “I don’t remember — it’s so gone from my head.”

The 12-day festival, often held in April, was canceled last year because of the pandemic. But with coronavirus cases plunging across the country, she hopes this year’s event, which kicks off Wednesday with the world premiere of the movie musical “In the Heights,” will once again help provide a catalyst for the city’s recovery.

“I’m so excited to see people again — to hear them laughing, gathering together, having fun,” said Jane Rosenthal, a co-founder and the chief executive of Tribeca Enterprises. “Everything the past 15 months have taken away.”

Rosenthal, a longtime film and TV producer, first staged the festival with her producing partner Robert De Niro and then-husband, Craig Hatkoff, in 2002, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. They wanted to bring people back downtown and spur the economic and cultural revitalization of Lower Manhattan, she said.

More than 150,000 people attended that event, and Rosenthal and Weinstein are hoping for a replay this month. They’ve lined up nearly two weeks of in-person and online screenings of 66 feature films, culled from a record 11,222 submissions.

In separate video conversations last week, Rosenthal and Weinstein discussed the changes to this year’s festival, how the challenges they faced are similar to those of the first Tribeca, and what films they’re most looking forward to. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Tribeca normally happens in April, so yours was one of the earliest events affected by the pandemic.

JANE ROSENTHAL We knew that if New York schools were going to close, we were going to have to pivot. Then came the stay-at-home order. It was very sad, but we were going back to our origins of diving into the unknown.

What did you do instead?

ROSENTHAL We started putting out a short film a day, and then we figured out how to get film festivals from all around the world to curate a massive festival online together. We worked with YouTube and were one of 21 festivals — Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Tokyo, Sydney, Toronto, Sundance — that each curated about 10 hours of programming.

WEINSTEIN We’re scrappy by nature. The only thing we know how to do in a crisis is get up and put one foot in front of the other.

What was happening in the world when you were planning the 2021 event?

ROSENTHAL It was bleak. Biden hadn’t yet been elected. We were looking at how many people were going to hospitals. Would it actually start to go down in the warmer climate in the summer months? Could we do the festival outdoors and socially distanced?

WEINSTEIN Of course, there were moments of “OMG is this really going to happen?” But when we opened up for submissions, we got more than 11,000 from filmmakers around the world — up 7.5 percent from last year and more than we’d ever received.

What’s been the most challenging part of planning this year’s event?

WEINSTEIN We couldn’t run into each other’s offices and say, “I have this idea, what do you think?” Everything was so disciplined. It was like, “If I forget something in this meeting, I’ve got to wait until the next Zoom.”

Join Times theater reporter Michael Paulson in conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda, catch a performance from Shakespeare in the Park and more as we explore signs of hope in a changed city. For a year, the “Offstage” series has followed theater through a shutdown. Now we’re looking at its rebound.

ROSENTHAL The changing health and safety protocols.

The first Tribeca Film Festival was conceived as a way to bring people back to Lower Manhattan after Sept. 11. Jane, that was your idea, right?

ROSENTHAL I was obsessed with how to bring people back downtown. I said, “Why don’t we do a film festival?” I knew we’d have at least one film, “About a Boy.” [She was among the producers of that movie.] I felt if I could produce a movie in three months, I could do a film fest in three months. It’s really good that I was blissfully unaware of a lot of the issues we were going to confront.

Do you have a similar goal to spark a recovery this year?

ROSENTHAL We have outdoor screenings that go from the Battery to Brooklyn to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx — we’re not just in Lower Manhattan anymore. We’re bringing films that will give joy and importance to those communities and hopefully help stimulate some local economies and communities in a way similar to the first festival.

Do you think people are ready to come back?

WEINSTEIN They’re sure ready from our ticket response. Filmmakers are all coming from out of state. One of them told me, “I don’t care if I have to rent a camper and sleep on the way, I am getting there.”

What precautions are in place?

WEINSTEIN Where we can, we’re enlarging the number of seats to allow for more audience. We’ll tell people to wear masks, but we’re not going to restrict it. We’re following every guideline possible.

What does this year’s lineup look like?

WEINSTEIN A good portion of the films we wanted in 2020 are getting their premiere at this year’s festival. We have 56 world premieres and 23 countries represented.

ROSENTHAL I’m really proud of our representation. More than 60 percent of the feature films this year were directed by women, people of color and L.G.B.T.Q.+ artists.

What films are you most looking forward to this year?

ROSENTHAL One of my favorites is the documentary about Dick Gregory [“The One and Only Dick Gregory”], as well as “Mark, Mary & Some Other People” by a young woman, Hannah Marks. And our VR films, curated by Loren Hammonds. There are so many terrific new voices.

WEINSTEIN I don’t want to choose! I feel so optimistic about all the young filmmakers represented. So many of these films were finished or shot under Covid protocols, and they made such good work that makes me excited for the future of storytelling.

You dropped ‘Film’ from the festival name this year. Why?

ROSENTHAL We’re looking at different ways of creating an immersive experience, and as long as people are telling a good story, that should be part of what we do at Tribeca. This year, we have stories based on games and podcasts in the competition. Ten years ago, we screened our first video game, L.A. Noire. We’ve always been at the forefront of looking at how we could shift our storytelling to get to an audience.

WEINSTEIN We were simply looking for a way to embrace everything.

Might the move to a summer festival potentially be permanent?

WEINSTEIN We haven’t discussed it yet. We did it this year because we knew we had to be outdoors to protect our audience. June seemed right because we thought it’s not going to be cold [and] audiences will be ready.

Will you continue to provide a streaming option in future years?

ROSENTHAL It’s definitely something we’re looking at doing. That said, I do love the experience of sitting in a theater and watching movies with an audience — particularly comedies. You don’t get the same pleasure from comedies by yourself as when someone next to you starts to laugh because all of a sudden they’ve gotten the joke.

Fill in the blank: Ten years from now, Tribeca will be _________.

WEINSTEIN Open to new voices and new ways of telling stories, because we know the world is going to expand enormously in the next 10 years.

ROSENTHAL Maybe we’ll be creating a movie in Fortnite, or screening movies from Mars!

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