This is the tale of two film festivals. One of them has become a huge event in just five years of existence while the other rarely gets any attention from anyone outside of the local media. One of them is partly owned by an Academy-Award winning film star while the other is owned by a company that specializes in gay and lesbian videos. One of them exists not more than 10 minutes from my place while the other is an almost 2 hour drive and yet that’s the one that I’m planning on attending on two successive weekends. Why is it that the Philadelphia Film Festival kicks the Tribeca Film Festival’s collective ass every year and yet no one in the east coast film community seems to care or notice?
Well, one of the obvious answers is that Tribeca has Robert De Niro behind it, and with him he brings movie stars, more money and bigger films and that’s sort of true. Sort of, I say, because the films shown at Tribeca are, for the most part, a second rate lot. I mean seriously, name one film that’s emerged out of Tribeca the way films do from Sundance, SXSW, or Toronto ? None of them, I tell you, none of them do. Certainly there are some good and decent films shown there, but where are the surprises? Where are the hits that help to make a film festival’s name? Nowhere, that’s where. The programming at Tribeca leaves a lot to be desired. I understand that it’s not an easy thing to and that they’re at a disadvantage in that they’re just before Cannes and all of the major films that may play there are holding out from other festivals in the hopes that they’ll get that Cannes slot. But where are the Sundance and SXSW success stories? They’re not always there. Granted, you’re not supposed to program your fest exclusively with titles that premiered elsewhere first, but in looking over this year’s listings I don’t really see a lot of crossover and that’s a shame. Part of the fun of a film festival to see those films that have great word of mouth from other fests and that’s something Tribeca has always lacked. If you want to make your film festival one that specializes in premieres then please keep in mind that at this point in the year you’re going to have to settle for the films that couldn’t pass muster with Sundance and SXSW. Tribeca is a second-rate fest at best.
Philly, on the other hand, always seems to try hard to put on a good show and give their audience the best possible mix they can. There is always a mix of films from all over, with an emphasis placed on the new films from throughout Asia that seem to make their initial U.S. play dates here before moving on to pretty much every other festival. THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS, MEMORIES OF MURDER and FUNKY FOREST: THE FIRST CONTACT were three such Asian hits that got their U.S. premieres in Philly before showing anyplace else. There is also a running sidebar on Muslim cinema and a wide assortment of foreign comedies, along with new indies, festival favorites and the occasional studio film, although those are usually the low points of the fest. Philly is fresh and unpretentious and even though the screenings are held all over the city, making it hard to get from one screening to another (a “Sophian choice”, as another festival programmer friend of mine once said), the same is true for Tribeca these days. It’s an opportunity to visit a nice city and if you’ve got sufficient downtime then I’ve got one word, and one word only for you, my friend: Cheesesteaks. Yes, they are as good as you’ve heard and from some reason taste their absolute best in Philly. I’ll mostly be playing catch up while I’m there, seeing Doug Buck’s SISTERS, Kim Ki-Duk’s TIME, an extra showing of Johnnie To’s EXILED, and whatever else strikes my fancy. I’m looking forward to it.
So while Tribeca still gets the press and the attention and for some reason gains in importance every year, it hasn’t really done enough to deserve it. Sure, it was a good idea to help revitalize the downtown area after September 11, but it’s been doing fine for more than a few years now, and besides, the bulk of this festival doesn’t screening in Tribeca anymore. I’m not saying they should hang it up, but there’s a lot of work to do to improving this puppy in my eyes. While they get that going, I’ll be in the city of brotherly love enjoying movies and hoagies with Philly Boy Roy. Oh yeah!