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Interview with TRIBECA director Geoff Gilmore

Geoffrey Gilmore joined Tribeca Enterprises in 2009 as Chief Creative Officer. He is responsible for Tribeca's global content strategy and leads creative development initiatives and expansion of the brand. He was before in charge of the Sundance Film Festival.  Under his direction the Tribeca Film Festival has become the most important market oriented U.S. film festival serving commercial and artistic interests. Running from April 18 and through April 29, 2012 the Festival provided nearly 400 screenings and panels for a capacity audience. This year 5,950 productions, including 2,860 shorts were submitted. The final selection included 89 feature length films and documentaries as well as 60 short films from 46 countries which were shown to more than 116,000 movie-goers and panel attendees. As in past editions, documentary programs played an important part enhancing Tribeca's reputation.
Claus Mueller :        Compared to other major film festivals and their development what are the significant changes you have observed over the last years?
Geoff Gilmore:         In several ways it used to be that festivals were cultural events. But there has been a shift, festivals have become business events. The major thing to understand is the intersection between the two spheres, the business and the cultural one, the commercial and the artistic. The idea that every festival can be a business is fallacious. Festival [organizers] may think  about attracting  business  but the industry  only attends  certain festivals ,  certainly they do  not have the time to go to all festivals, thus they have to  be selective.
CM:     Would that amount to every major festival adding a market?
GG:     Every major film festival has different functions and agenda, they cannot be considered  as a uniform block. The formal markets in Berlin and in Cannes are rather different from the kind of informal market you have at Tribeca, Sundance and Toronto. What we also have to consider is the proliferation of productions over the last decade, a significant growth in the number of productions and the question  how to cope with it.
CM:     When I interviewed Peter Scarlet several years ago he suggested the possibility of setting up a market at Tribeca. Is that still under discussion?
GG:     I don't think we want to set up a market. The way you become commercially significant is to become high quality and people want to place films into programs that are high quality. If you program a good festival you program a commercial festival.
CM:     You had 6000 submissions this year; the Brooklyn International Film Festival claimed having received 2000 entries and an editor of the student filmmakers magazine told me that it has a subscription basis of 130.000. Thus there is undoubtedly a tremendous increase in the number of productions due to inexpensesive production technologies, a surplus of trained film makers and other factors.  At the same time you have an explosion of film festivals.  Is there a problem absorbing all those productions?
GG:     Absorption is not the problem; the problem is the quality of the films. There are a huge number of productions and the quality overall has gotten better, the number of films which you can dismiss out of hand from the total submission pool has decreased.  Ten years ago if 6000 films had been submitted we would have chopped of the bottom third, that is not true anymore.  Now you find a diminished quality of production and storytelling in a lot of different works.  If there is a mass of mediocrity in the middle area it may be due to a number of factors, story, acting, lack of vision, whatever you want to say.
CM:     So you would not agree with Richard Pena's [long term director of the New York Film Festival] observation that the rapid increase in production has not been accompanied by an increase of outstanding work?
GG:     I disagree with Richard's point slightly;   he has a very specific agenda in what he would call the top echelon of quality films which he has a difficulty finding. What I am more interested in is quality, fresh films, films  which are diverse in their esthetics or original in terms of a new perspective chosen by the film maker. That may not result in the highest quality of work.  One of the contradictions of all of this is that one may find high quality [productions] from an art film perspective, film festival material, which does not make it into the market place at all.  There is a kind of contradiction between high quality and the market place.
CM:     Well he suggests a scarcity of the kind of films he is looking for, a problem of finding high quality art films.
GG:     Well I would propose that art film is in crisis.  In the United States, art films and experimental films constitute a very narrow area. I am not suggesting that one cannot find quality films with some artistic aspiration.  But the art film category or genre is so different from what it was a decade ago that we almost have to talk about a transformation.  The auteurs used to dominate the festivals to an extent that these festivals became synonymous with certain kind of major film maker. That is no longer true and this holds for Berlin, Sundance, Tribeca, almost any festival but Cannes. The one festival that sticks to privileging great directors is Pena's festival,  selecting from the 2500 directors in the world.   I find that to be ultimately stagnating. I am happy to see the current development of Cannes into different directions from the primarily auteurism approach.
CM:     Let's go back to an issue we discussed earlier at the Hunter College seminar, the decline of film culture.  In light of your exposure to a large number of productions, to film festivals and the audiences they attract, would you still maintain that there is a decline and that it has been replaced by the consumption of culture?
GG:     I am not sure that the conception of film culture is something that can be applied across the board. I also think that many of the new film festivals which have been created were not necessarily driven by the idea of film culture. Rather, many festivals are set up since they are intended to serve a promotional activity, as an attraction for tourism, providing film as a [consumer] product, or as an event that brings different international venues to the attention of cultural travelers.
CM:     Can these new festivals still have a curatorial function such as yours at Tribeca?
GG:     They are not about creating new notions of what cinema is, they are not about giving America a first taste of a new wave, or discovering a different vision. That said would the Asian cinema of the last decades be as exposed if it would not be for film festivals, and the answer is probably not. It would not come to commercial markets without the festivals.  The biggest crisis in film culture is the lack of critical appreciation because the role of critics has been so diminished by the new media.  Now it [traditional film criticism] is almost a kind of relic, most difficult to identify. Do I read critics on a regular basis, yes, do I know many other people who read reviews, hardly.  I even ask filmmakers frequently, name me a critic you read and invariably they come back to me and say none.
CM:     What you also observe in most film departments is   a decline of critical reasoning about films and greater emphasis on production and editing skills.  Obviously, it is much more difficult to teach creativity and easier to lecture film production techniques, which shots to us, how to set the camera what kind of filter is needed, etc
GG:     Let's talk about the complexity of these phenomena. Film culture has different meaning in different cultures.  In France film culture is as significant as it is in Italy. It was never that significant in the United States. In the US it was always a struggle to find the difference between a film that is entertainment versus a film that is part of film culture. I sometimes have real concerns when I talk about film literacy. Have you seen the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, William Wyler? Do you find people who know anything about these directors? And you ask what your appreciation of cinema is and invariable the response covers what is currently in the market place at this moment.  So the question becomes how much do people actually know about cinema anymore and how much more difficult is that now [compared to what] it used to be when film knowledge was grounded in classic cinema and the quality of it. Today it has become much more complicated in terms of exposure.  The idea of World cinema used to mean France, now we talk about world cinema in the sense of Asia, India, Latin America, even the world of Africa.  It has almost become more esoteric even after films have become more accessible. Yes we can see films you could never see before, we can access international films, but I would not argue that this is a platform or a solid foundation for   current film culture. I can ask your students to name me three Asian directors they admire, my guess they would name someone from 20 years ago as opposed to talking about someone contemporary.  The difficulty in trying to figure out who in the world is operating at the high quality level we like is the same difficulty we have in defining who is independent and how do we find their films.
Claus Mueller:         Yet in spite of this problem of finding top international and independent film makers, we observe the expansion of film venues at Lincoln Center in New York since there is a growing audience for their films.
Geoff Gilmore:            It is the kind of ‘is the cup half empty or half full' situation. So if we ask is film culture better than it was years ago, the answer is yes, are people more knowledgeable about it, the answer is yes, is the struggle to find certain kind of high quality cinema more difficult. The answer is yes. You certainly can find high quality films in major metropolitan areas such as New York; in other areas it is almost impossible.
CM:     Is this tied to the process of gentrification of major metropolitan areas? Sure we still have here in New York a 20% poverty rate yet average apartment rental on Manhattan have gone up to $3.500 according to some recent research. If you look at the massive expansion of Lincoln Center as a cultural and a film hub, the gentrified population consuming culture including films, must be growing.
GG:     I am not sure if it so much gentrification, it [increased culture consumption] may be a function of an aging population. The urban generation that has become wealthy. This baby boom generation now well over forty is definitely embracing film culture in a way the younger generation does not, may be because they did not grow up with films.
CM:     The shift our attention back to Tribeca.  Do you plan to reposition the festival?
GG:       There are two different things. One is what we can call the identity of Tribeca. But repositioning the festival is really opening the festival up to new technologies that is something we have to do to since the new generation demands it. You have to find ways in which the access points to the festivals are opened through new technologies and no longer restrict yourself to the theatrical platform, thus the need to use VOD, digital platforms and interactive on line festivals. We are trying to develop it and are still at the nascent stage.  As much as the new technologies are discovered, watching films digitally on line is more an exception than the rule.
CM:     Thus eventually you would have a scenario where people would watch the Tribeca festival at home rather than physically going to the theaters?
GG:     Tribeca as an on line event is only one part of our repositioning.  There are some on line festivals that exist by themselves and they are invisible, sure they will tell you how many hits they get, the connections they establish with people, but they are essentially a community that is almost invisible and has little significance. Thus when you talk about an online event it has to be operated within a larger context
CM:       When you develop new platforms they serve to facilitate access of the outside audience to your festival. But in addition you are also focusing on distribution,  you have now 24 features in your portfolio and are acquiring more.
GG:       Yes, our festival serves definitely as a distribution point. We are trying to do use new approaches no other [US] festival is applying. I am very interested in it since in many ways theatrical distribution for independent and international films is in trouble. Theatrical distribution is no longer expanding and its fate co-defined by other new distribution platforms and strategies, be it VOD or other digital platforms. This is not only determined by financial  demands but in many ways these platforms are the only way you can reach you new audience, As I mentioned earlier, just go to the typical arts theaters and check the audience,  they are well over 40 years old.  [You see] the aging of the traditional art house crowd. Thus it is not a question of young people not watching films, more that they watch them differently through our new electronic devices
CM:     Certainly this is a point supported at a recent meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations by news programmers. When designing new programs some suggest that  they basically start with the latest play back device used by a younger audience and move up. Thus you move from the iPad to television rather than the other way around.  But let's have your take on the role of documentaries at Tribeca. In a recent interview I did, Beckie Probst from the European Film Market stressed the importance of documentaries at the Berlinale.  Ever since its inception Tribeca has been receiving praise for its documentary programs.
GG:     We will expand our showcases for documentaries. As you know we have the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund,  the TFI Fund, and others. The response we have been receiving from documentary film makers has been great. The significance of docs at Tribeca can only increase.
CM:     Overall there seems to be a decline of resources with the National Endowment of the Arts and PBS having cut back sponsorship. HBO apparently will maintain funding levels of the documentary programs under Sheila Nevins' direction and strengthen its hold on documentary productions in the U.S.
GG:     Yes, but none the less there are many different routes to documentary film making and programming. What I like about Tribeca is our ability to use docs from a variety of sources and a wide thematic range. In this and prior years we featured important subjects which are crucial to our society. We also stress international issues and diversity.
CM:       As to the international scene let me ask you a question about transnational festival growth. It applies to few other festivals like Sundance with its newly established Sundance London Film and Music Festival and the Berlinale   and its worldwide Talent Campus.  Though you dislike the term there is the branding of the most important major festivals and its export to other countries. Tribeca has facilitated its international expansion by setting up Doha Tribeca and the just unveiled Tribeca Firenze fest which will be part of the June Tuscan Sun Festival.  Are there other regions you may get involved in such as the Caribbean and Asia?
GG:     We are certainly interested in other regions, though as a market oriented international film festival, the cultural tourism of the Caribbean is of little interest. China with its rapidly developing film industry and the second largest film market in the world is a different story and we would certainly like to explore it.
CM:    Thank you for the interview
Claus Mueller for

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