NEW YORK — Where but in New York - indeed, where but at the Tribeca Film Festival - would you find a party with guests such as Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Kevin Spacey, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu?
Even the archbishop, a driving force behind South Africa's democracy movement, seemed excited by festival's celebrity cachet. "My stock will go up with my children and grandchildren," he joked in his lightly accented English, "when I say, 'I was telling Bob De Niro at lunch...' and, 'I was talking with Willie Smith the other day....' I am an excellent name-dropper!"
Although it's only three years old, Tribeca has gotten more press and audience attention since its inception than any new festival since Utah's Sundance fest struck it big 15 years ago. Movie buffs make pilgrimages here while New Yorkers purchase tickets by the handful. What's the secret to its success?
One is the wildly growing popularity of film festivals in general, with more than 1,000 now flourishing around the world, by one estimate. Some, such as Cannes and Toronto, have vast amounts of international cachet. Others are specialized and obscure. (Know anyone who's been to the Hi Mom Film Festival in North Carolina or the Tacoma Tortured Artists International Film Festival in Washington?)
Another factor bolstering the Tribeca festival is its location - in the heart of lower Manhattan, with many screening venues just minutes from where the World Trade Center once stood.
The inaugural festival, rushed into action by cofounder De Niro and his partners as part of an effort to revitalize the downtown area, brought some 150,000 moviegoers into the financially devastated district. This year's corporate funders have poured around $15 million into its budget, helping fuel the festival's energetic - nay, relentless - promotion. Posters adorn almost every wall in sight and sponsoring businesses scramble to mention it in their own publicity.
Artistically, film festivals have soared in importance by providing an alternative to more directly commercial outlets. Richard Peña, program director of the long-established New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, calls them "a refuge from the vicissitudes of the marketplace."
On an entertainment level, many festivals have garnered appeal by becoming "discovery" events, providing the first showings of future hits. During its first two years, Tribeca had little success in finding first-rate new films that would help it enter the "discovery" club. It hopes to join this year, however: Among its 200-plus movies are 30 premières, more than twice last year's number.
One thing the Tribeca festival doesn't have - or want - is any kind of unifying theme. "Diversity is the theme," says programming chief Peter Scarlet.
The festival's movies come from almost 40 countries and represent almost every genre. That isn't surprising. In a city this varied, multiculturalism is a major plus. Even the celebrity jury - which will award its prizes Sunday night - includes everyone from Whoopi Goldberg and Glenn Close to South African filmmaker Anant Singh and Queen Noor of Jordan. Archbishop Tutu was guest of honor at the opening luncheon because South Africa is a special focus of the festival, inspired by De Niro's desire to celebrate 10 years of democracy there.
I'm participating as a juror in the "New York, New York" section of the program, which presents locally made pictures by a wide assortment of new filmmakers. I'm also taking advantage of Tribeca's value as an accurate barometer of world cinema's current state. By the time Sunday's award ceremony kicks off I will have seen 13 films as a juror, plus such buzzed-about attractions as "House of D," the first movie written and directed by "X Files" star David Duchovny, and "Stage Beauty," an Elizabethan romp that hopes to beat "Shakespeare in Love" at its own game.
Some of these could end up in the next Oscar race. Or fame might descend on other, more offbeat offerings. Perhaps the biggest surprise will be "Men Without Jobs," directed by Mad Matthewz, billed as the emerging Spike Lee of his generation; or "Winter Solstice," a gentle family drama with an exquisite Anthony LaPaglia performance; or the oddly titled "2BPerfectlyHonest," with John Turturro, described as a "surreal and cautionary tale" about a hippie, a "pseudo Zen master," a "psychic she-wizard," and a "shady venture capitalist," among other characters. ("Kill Bill" meets "Wall Street," maybe?)
And then there are the many high-tech digital productions, which Tribeca gives more attention to than most other festivals. Among them is "Kaena: The Prophecy," the first French computer-animated feature. Its producers say it was "originally conceived as a video game," as if that were something to brag about!
All this makes for a mighty mixed bag of movie programming, and Tribeca's rising reputation has drawn plenty of the film-industry players who can bring the best of this fare to a theater near you.