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Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal on Reinventing the Tribeca Festival as New York Reemerges from COVID

After a COVID hiatus, the Tribeca Festival is back, hosting panels and film premieres in the heart of New York City. At the same time, it is demonstrating that the city’s arteries stretch far beyond a radius of a few blocks.

This edition, which runs from June 9 through June 20, will look a little different from previous iterations, and that’s not just because Gotham is slowly reemerging from months of social distancing and lockdowns. Tribeca is ditching the word “film” from its moniker and moving far beyond the sliver of lower Manhattan that shares its name. Instead, the festival will be held largely outdoors across all of New York’s five boroughs, offering screenings at the likes of MetroTech Commons in Brooklyn, the Empire Outlets on Staten Island, and the United Palace theater in Washington Heights.

“A film festival comes to town in every sense,” says Jane Rosenthal, one of Tribeca’s founders. “What that does for these local economies is huge. For us to do this throughout the boroughs is a positive thing, especially right now when our economy is suffering and unemployment levels are high and tourism is low.”

The goal, Rosenthal says, is to “recreate and reimagine what our festival can look like,” while also offering the first major in-person film festival in the U.S. since coronavirus scrambled everything and made communal experiences impossible.

As for the removal of “film” from its name, that’s a concession to the fact that Tribeca isn’t just a showcase for movies. It now highlights everything from podcasts to gaming to virtual reality. But it remains, since its inception, a booster of civic life. And that mandate remains as relevant in 2021 as it was nearly 20 years ago when Rosenthal and her co-founder and producing partner Robert De Niro joined forces to host a global festival in lower Manhattan months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks had decimated the local economy.

“It is similar mission and we’re keeping with the tradition of why the festival was started in the first place,” says De Niro. “Last year we did a virtual festival because of how bad the situation was. This year we’re reemerging from it, coming out of it and taking the next step.”

“Our mission from year one to today is bring people back out from their homes,” adds Rosenthal. “It was originally about bringing people back downtown who were afraid to come there or people who were afraid to come to New York. This time, it’s about creating new rituals now that we’re able to gather together and enjoy things together again.”

COVID also brought film production to a standstill during parts of 2020, but Rosenthal said that most of the movies that will screen at this year’s festival were completed before the pandemic hit and used that time to finish post-production work. A few do reflect the plague era, such as Roshan Sethi’s “7 Days,” a romcom about two people set up on pre-arranged date by their old-fashioned Indian parents, who find themselves forced to spend a lot more time together during lockdown.

It’s a diverse slate, highlighting established masters such as Steven Soderbergh (“No Sudden Move”) and Jon M. Chu (“In the Heights”), as well as exciting new cinematic voices such as Nana Mensah (“Queen of Glory”), Geeta Malik (“India Sweets and Spices”), and Jim Cummings (“The Beta Test”). Some of these films, such as “No Sudden Move” or “In The Heights” are screening out-of-competition and arrive with big studio distribution. Others, like “India Sweets and Spices,” will be looking to land deals and are among the 50 films eligible for feature prizes.

Documentaries continue to be a highlight of the festival, with this year’s premieres including deep dives into troubled geniuses such as “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road,” “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” and “Bernstein’s Wall,” which looks at composer Leonard Bernstein.

“It’s one of our strongest programs ever,” says Rosenthal. “Our competition section is very strong. We’ll probably have more films sold out of this festival than ever before.”

Tribeca will end on Juneteenth, which has prompted the festival to redouble its efforts to highlight issues of diversity and inclusion. This year’s program will include the release of four 8:46 short films, “influenced by the length of time it took for George Floyd’s life to change the world,” as well as a 10 shorts from 10 Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) filmmaker teams. The latter were produced in partnership with Lena Waithe and her company Hillman Grad Productions. There will also be talks and panels with Black filmmakers such as Gina Prince-Bythewood, Kasi Lemmons and Melina Matsoukas.

“What we’ve decided to do is highlight Black creators in all the different categories including gaming and podcasting,” says Rosenthal.

Both Tribeca founders believe that this year’s festival has the potential to be one of the best ever, as well as a welcome respite after a year spent staying largely disconnected and physically distanced from their fellow New Yorkers.

“I’m excited to see things get back to as close to normal as possible,” says De Niro.




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