Everything Actors + Filmmakers Need to Know About the Tribeca Film Festival

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Since its inaugural year in 2002, the Tribeca Film Festival has attracted big names and increasingly large audiences to lower Manhattan. Launching shortly after the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the festival was a hot spot for huge industry names right out of the gate. Martin Scorsese was on a panel about food in film. Whoopi Goldberg was a judge; in fact, she’s been a judge every year. Even Nelson Mandela was at the opening ceremony. Seems crazy for a first year? Well, Robert De Niro is one of TFF’s founders. Now that’s a big name!

Still, the festival maintains a focus on making its program accessible. Former festival executive Tammie Rosen said in 2014, “The festival is...meant for the general audiences to explore and to dive into and discover new filmmakers and new voices as much as it is for the industry to come and look at the films that are in the marketplace.” Corinne Matlak, a volunteer in 2014, summed up the fest’s vibe: “You are surrounded by people who have similar interests, and it’s awesome.... There’s a greater chance you’ll see people that are up-and-coming in the industry...a ton of independent directors, producers, and actors that come through that you wouldn’t have known about otherwise.”

TFF is also a great place to catch A-list talent in more independent fare, and allow publications like Backstage to help showcase rising and established film artists alike. “Love After Love,” starring Andie MacDowell, premiered at TFF in 2017. She told Backstage, “It was an amazing process and different from anything I had ever done before.... [There was] a lot of improv within the scenes; if we used it or not, it didn’t matter. It’s keeping that feeling of real life.” In 2014, “Lucky Them” starring Toni Collette screened at the fest. “[Toni’s] character’s very challenging because she’s this sort of non-traditional female role,” director Megan Griffiths told Backstage at the time. “We were always able to find [the right take.] So my respect [for Toni] was just off the charts.”

Although the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival has been indefinitely postponed this spring due to the novel coronavirus, it’s historically taken place every April in its namesake neighborhood. This guide covers all the basics for the beloved NYC event, with an eye on many future celebrations in the city. Learn about the history of TFF, its past award winners, and how to submit your project for next year below.

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When did the Tribeca Film Festival start?

Preparations for the first Tribeca Film Festival began in 2001, in the wake of the tragic events of 9/11. The November after the World Trade Center attacks, producers announced their plan for a new film event in lower Manhattan. Their aim was to revitalize the region, particularly the TriBeCa neighborhood, which was facing the prospect of an economic downturn. These original planners remain with the festival today: award-winning actor Robert De Niro, film producer Jane Rosenthal, and real estate investor Craig Hatkoff.

The first festival took place only 120 days after being announced, starting May 8, 2002.* TFF opened with a modest 140 screenings but lots of star power, including high profile guests like Scorsese, a personal friend of De Niro. Among the festivities for the first year was the world premiere of “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” and “MTV’s Rock and Comedy Concert” in Battery Park, featuring, among others, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, and downtown NYC resident David Bowie.

“Our mission [is] to do something for our neighborhood,” Rosenthal told the NYTimes in anticipation of the first year. “We have to acknowledge what we’ve been through and find a way of moving on.... Movies help you feel better.” De Niro added, “As it goes on, hopefully it will define itself.” Over 150,000 people attended the festival that year. It grew quickly, with 445,000 by its fifth anniversary.

What is the Tribeca Film Festival’s purpose?

The festival’s major aim has always been to bring artistic activity to lower Manhattan through the celebration of film culture. TFF has overwhelmingly succeeded in this task, attracting an audience of more than 2.3 million and generating an estimated $600 million total for the city. By the anniversary in 2007, events had expanded all the way to 68th street. The festival further increased its audience in 2010, by allowing audience members nationwide to stream some of the panels, shorts, and red-carpet coverage. 

Tribeca has established itself in the film world as an important annual event, attracting an audience of up-and-coming filmmakers and industry insiders. The number of films screening at TFF expands each year, with 103 features getting their debut in 2019. This includes selections from around the world, many of them screening in TFF’s International Competition. Last year, “House of Hummingbird” from South Korea took the top prize

TFF also has plenty of titles from major studios, thanks to its location and founders De Niro and Rosenthal. The fest opened in 2002 with the premiere of “About a Boy,” produced by De Niro and Rosenthal’s Tribeca Productions. Popcorn fare has remained popular at TFF through the years, with both “Spider-Man 3” and “Mission Impossible III” taking their first bow at the festival. 

At the same time, TFF has worked to maintain its identity as a local festival, creating opportunities to showcase local talent. For example, TFF runs the Tribeca Film Fellows, a program for NYC youth filmmakers, aged 17–21. The festival has also developed a track record for celebrating innovation in filmmaking; in 2007, they screened the North America premiere of the first feature film ever shot on a cell phone. Tribeca Film Interactive was launched in 2012, with Storyscapes, a juried competition for interactive film, following in 2013. The next year TFF added Tribeca N.O.W. (New Online Work), which showcases new film-based work designed for access through the Internet. 

Who selects the films that screen at Tribeca?

The Tribeca film festival has a team of programmers that select the films screened each year. One of their senior programmers is Loren Hammonds, an NYC native and “digital evangelist.” His experience as a programer and supporter of the interactive medium is a perfect fit for the festival—Tribeca gives plenty of space for projects working in VR, interactive, and new media.

Another senior programmer, Liza Domnitz, sees a “strong thread of ‘discovery’ ” in TFF’s line-up. This extends from the VR arcade at Tribeca Hub to the Tribeca N.O.W program, which started six years ago, exhibiting online work such as “Broad City,” which premiered the first year of the program before running on Comedy Central as a series. Television and other short-form programming also became part of the official selection process five or six years ago, creating a “mini festival,” according to Domnitz.

Festival Director and programmer Cara Cusumano emphasizes that “it’s all about the audience.” As she told WLNY, “Tribeca is an event that was founded for the community and bringing people together. Being able to bring New Yorkers together to experience their favorite shows with the cast and creators is a pretty unique moment that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

How can I submit a film at Tribeca Film Festival?

The submission process for TFF starts every year at the end of summer. Submissions for 2020 opened on August 19. Submissions can be done either with FilmFreeway, an online service that streamlines the process for submitting to multiple festivals worldwide, or the official Tribeca Film Festival website

Films are submitted by category and filmmakers can make multiple submissions. The categories are: (1) feature films over 40 minutes in length, including both documentary and narrative; (2) shorts under 40 minutes, including narrative, documentary, and animated; (3) TV projects; (4) immersive work ranging from VR to 360 degree films, for the Storyscapes competition, the Virtual Arcade, and Cinema360; (5) the N.O.W. (New Online Work) category for storytelling on the web; (6) and Tribeca X, for storytelling supported by a brand at the intersection of advertising and entertainment.

All films must provide an entry form, a password protected link to a streaming link of the project (or similar for VR, etc.), and a fee. There are three submission deadlines. This last year, September 25 was the early deadline, October 30 was the regular deadline, and December 2 was the late deadline for all submissions except for Tribeca X projects. Fees range by submission date—for example, early feature film submissions pay $65; at the official, filmmakers pay $85; and the late deadline costs $110. The other categories vary: short films range from $45 to $60, N.O.W., TV, and immersive categories range from $40 to $80, and the Tribeca X Award ranges from $325 to $525. 

All submissions (excluding Tribeca X) must have had no public screenings in the year prior to the film festival, and no commercial screenings in the U.S. In other words, if a film is submitted for the 2020 festival, it can’t have screened at all before Jan. 1, 2019, and only for limited commercial purposes outside the U.S. after that date. That includes DVD, digital, and TV broadcast as well. Additionally, submissions can’t have appeared at any other festival in the NY State Region.

What awards does Tribeca Film Festival present?

Tribeca screens films for competition in several categories: US Narrative, International Narrative, Documentary Narrative, Shorts, Storyscape, and Tribeca X. Audience awards are given to two films: one narrative feature and one documentary feature. Tribeca also celebrates new filmmakers with two awards, one for a narrative feature director, and one for a documentary feature director—the Albert Maysles award. TFF also honors each year one female director and/or writer with the Nora Ephron award, named after the pioneering filmmaker.

Here is a full list of past award winners. In 2019, cash awards totaled $165,000, with artwork bringing in an additional $91,500. But that’s not the whole fest. Every year, a number of screenings take place out of competition, including at galas, spotlight screenings for narratives and documentaries, midnight films, Tribeca N.O.W and Tribeca TV selections, and more.

What usually screens in competition? Tribeca has a record of awarding emerging, and often very young, filmmakers. The winner of 2019’s Best U.S. Narrative Feature award was “Burning Cane,” the debut of 19-year-old Phillip Youmans. The New Orleans filmmaker had reached director Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) via Instagram, who then served as executive producer on “Burning Cane.” Youmans told Indiewire, “It’s hard to really separate my age from the discussion...I totally understand that it’s part of the story. But I do want people to be able to appreciate the film on its own merits.”

In 2017, Nadia Alexander won best actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature film for “Blame.” The film was the debut feature of Quinn Shepard, who also starred in the film. “We cast the actors we felt were going to be the truest versions of the characters. That’s why the film is what it is,” Shepard told Backstage. “I’m a firm believer that there is still a life for auteur films that don’t compromise on their artistic integrity.” Clearly, Tribeca Film Festival is one of the venues for this sort of work.

What are the Tribeca Film Festival award categories?

Here is a full list of the screenings that were scheduled for the 2020 festival, with the categories of competition below.

Best U.S. Narrative Feature Film
Best Actor in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film
Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film
Best Cinematography in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film
Best Screenplay in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film
Best International Feature Film
Best Actress in an International Feature Film
Best Actor in an International Feature Film
Best Cinematography in an International Feature Film
Best Screenplay in an International Feature Film
Best Documentary Feature Film
Best Cinematography in a Documentary Feature Film
Best Editing in a Documentary Feature Film
Best New Narrative Director
Best New Documentary Director (Albert Maysles Award)
Audience Award for Narrative Feature Film
Audience Award for Documentary Feature Film
The Nora Ephron Award
Best Narrative Short
Best Animated Short
Best Documentary Short
Student Visionary Award
Storyscapes Award
Tribeca X Award for Best Feature Film
Tribeca X Award for Best Short Film
Tribeca X Award for Best Episodic Film

Check out the award winners of 2019 here.

How often have Tribeca winners and premieres gone on to win major film awards?

Winners of the various awards for feature narrative films at Tribeca have not frequently gone on to win major awards at the Golden Globes and Oscars. So if you are hoping to catch the new Best Picture early at Tribeca, you might be disappointed. But the festival is big, and there are lots of films that receive Academy attention. For example, many of the short films recently receiving nominations and wins at the Oscars have premiered at Tribeca—as they did in 2019.

Tribeca is a great place to catch emerging talent, with plenty of new names among its slate of films screening in competition. Many young filmmakers that go on to bigger things show their first film at TFF. As mentioned above, Youmans’ 2019 best feature winner “Burning Cane” was later picked up by ARRAY for worldwide distribution. Not bad for a 19-year-old director!

Of course, Tribeca also screens plenty of films out of competition, many of them from big name directors and studios, and some going on to win other awards. “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” premiered in 2002 at the inaugural festival. “United 93” opened the festival in 2006, with family members of victims from the titular flight in attendance and director Paul Greengrass eventually nominated for an Oscar for his work on that film. “Transamerica” won best actress at TFF for Felicity Huffman, who went on to win the Golden Globe for her performance. The Swedish film “Let the Right One In” won Tribeca’s Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at its US premiere in 2008. It went on to win many more awards, both internationally and also at the Saturns, and became a stage play, returning to NYC for a run at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

When and where does the Tribeca Film Festival happen?

Each year, the Tribeca Film Festival takes place in Manhattan. Since its inception, screenings have been held in the Tribeca district as part of an effort to revitalize downtown NYC in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The TriBeCa area derives its name from NYC real estate lingo. Triangle Below Canal is its full name, because the neighborhood is a “triangle” of area below Canal street, a wide thoroughfare that demarcates lower Manhattan. (Actually, it’s more of a trapezoid, but that’s NYC neighborhoods for you.)

However, screenings aren’t limited to the neighborhood, extending throughout Manhattan since 2006. The major venues in Tribeca are Spring Studios on Varick street, Tribeca Film Center on Greenwich street, and BMCC on Chambers street, with additional screenings in the Village East Cinema and SVA Theatre outside the neighborhood. In 2019, there were screenings in Harlem, and there were plans for films to be shown in Hoboken, NJ in 2020.

How can I usually experience Tribeca, and what is happening with this year’s festival?

The 2020 Tribeca Film Festival was scheduled to open April 15 and run through April 26. However, per restrictions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the festival has been forced to postpone indefinitely all activities, to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Due to concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, ordered all nonessential business activity in the state to cease for the time being, making it impossible to continue the festival during the planned dates. The festival released a statement and will be rolling out information on refunds and details on future plans. In the meantime, a curated selection of short films is being made available each day on the fest’s site; to stream past works and new premieres, check it out daily.

In a typical year, however, the Tribeca Film Festival provides several ways to attend screenings and events. Passes bundle together several of the festival’s offerings. The Awards Day Pass gives access to all the Award Winner or Back By Popular Demand screenings, with no pre-selection required. The Hudson Pass provides access to a gala event of your choice; all evening, weekend, and matinee screenings; and all Tribeca TV screenings and Tribeca Talks events. The Z Pass is the most inclusive, providing access to opening night, all the gala events, and unlimited access to screenings, with perks like reserved, premium seating and the ability to skip the line.

Packages let viewers purchase several tickets at once. Ticket selection must be completed early, either online or by phone, one week in advance of general sales. Packages come in three sizes: 16 tickets, eight tickets, and six matinee tickets. 

During the festival, each venue operates their own box office. Discounts are available for students, seniors, and residents of downtown Manhattan. Once a screening sells out, rush tickets are available at the same price as advanced tickets, functioning basically as a stand-by line. Regular attendees should be aware that they must be at the screening 30 minutes in advance or they may forfeit their ticket to those waiting in the rush line. For those trying to catch events at the Beacon Theatre, tickets are only available online through Ticketmaster.

New to visiting New York City? The festival has travel and hotel partners, but it isn’t hard to find good info for traveling to the best city in the world. (But for the foreseeable future, stay home and stay safe!)

For all things Tribeca Film Festival, check out Backstage’s coverage here!