Inside the Sudden Closing of Tribeca Film Institute

The pandemic took the blame for TFI’s end, but Tribeca Enterprises’ new owners are focused on corporate partnerships that will help them grow the brand.

Tribeca has long been a difficult thing to understand. First came the nonprofit Tribeca Film Institute and the namesake festival, founded in the wake of 9/11 with a mission to revitalize lower Manhattan’s arts economy. Then came Tribeca Enterprises, a for-profit offshoot that quickly took over festival-producing duties. For nearly as long as Tribeca has been a brand, it’s held numerous identities — some overlapping, many conflicting.

Freed from its New York mandate, TFI flourished over two decades to become a prominent funder and mentor of independent filmmakers across the globe. More visibly, Tribeca Enterprises grew, too, building out the Tribeca Film Festival and branded-content agency Tribeca Studios — both of which were powered by deep-pocketed companies seeking something different with their ad budgets.

While remaining legally separate, the two disparate entities were shepherded by some of the same people and together created the Tribeca brand. New York civic pride. Worldwide filmmaker funding. The Tribeca Film Festival, presented by AT&T. Patron of the avant-garde. Branded content. It’s a lot to ask from one name.

In service to forging a cohesive identity with new ownership under James Murdoch and Joe Marchese, something had to give. TFI took the bullet September 15 when it entered a state of suspended animation its board refers to as a “pause.”

“A ‘pause’ implies that there will be a reboot in the future,” said one source familiar with the workings of Tribeca and who, like others in this article, spoke on condition of anonymity citing repercussions for speaking publicly about it. “No one really believes that story.”

Tribeca leaders positioned the TFI closure as a sad and inevitable side effect of COVID-19 — perhaps of a piece with the forced cancellation of the 2020 edition of the festival in April.

However, reviews of publicly available documents and interviews conducted with more than a dozen people familiar with the work of TFI suggest that the pandemic was a plausible way to wind down the nonprofit as Tribeca the brand enters its third decade with new owners and a new mandate: To grow into a force that shapes the future of commerce and culture through curatorial prowess. (Tribeca executives declined several requests for comment.)

For what was such a respected organization, TFI suffered an unceremonious demise. Public knowledge of the news came in late May not from an official announcement, but a leaked internal email from co-chairs Jane Rosenthal, Scott Rechler, and Robert De Niro. They forecasted fundraising trouble, blaming “shifting priorities during the global pandemic.”

It had only been about 10 weeks since the pandemic thrust much of the country into lockdown, but somehow that was enough to kneecap the 19-year-old institution. It came as peer organizations like the Sundance Institute felt the pandemic squeeze, forcing job and program cuts, but still carrying on their missions.

Filmmaker support tactics would be “re-evaluated” by Tribeca brass, who wrote in the email that this was not the end for TFI. But the TFI site now reflects the past tense, stating: “We provided funding, mentorship, and networking opportunities for entry- to mid-level filmmakers.”

That it did. Outside Sundance, TFI was one of the few major U.S. nonprofits to support timely documentaries and ambitious storytelling. Among its successes: Its funding backed the acclaimed 2016 documentary “Weiner;” Chapman and Maclain Way’s 2018 hit docuseries “Wild Wild Country;” and Heidi Ewing’s drama “I Carry You with Me,” which won the NEXT Section audience award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. For the last three years, its executive director was Amy Hobby, the Oscar-nominated producer of “What Happened, Miss Simone?”

TFI also supported hundreds of films that gained little mainstream attention, including daring cinematic undertakings and experimental swings that reflect a side of the independent filmmaking community that doesn’t measure its successes in dollar signs alone. Director Rodrigo Reyes, who described his TFI-supported 2020 docufiction hybrid “499” as “radical,” said TFI staffers, including documentary programs director José Rodriguez, followed a guiding edict of supporting uncompromising visions.

“I never felt like [Rodriguez] was trying to shape my work, or make it fit a certain label,” Reyes said. “It was just very empowering. A lot of the films that Tribeca supported ended up doing really well — they did change the way we think about filmmaking. [TFI] took a lot of risks.”

Despite that track record — and the gap left by TFI’s closure — official notice of the board’s decision came in the form of a post on the TFI Facebook page the day after the email leaked to the press.

Legally, TFI and TE are separate; in practice, they shared common leadership, collaborated on a number of programs, and in casual perception were indistinguishable from one another. Rosenthal, co-founder, CEO, and executive chair of TE, served as co-chair of TFI. Marchese joined the TFI board in 2015; in August 2019, his Attention Capital joined forces with Murdoch’s Lupa Systems to purchase a controlling stake in TE.

TFI served the independent film world with an official mission to provide “funding and mentorship for storytellers whose POVs have been/are marginalized based on race, gender, class, or politics.” Much of its $4 million annual budget came from foundations, donations, and grants.

By contrast, the work of TE — with its annual festival and its brand-content production arm — is built almost entirely on close partnerships with brands whose corporate messaging aligns with the social values that Tribeca wants to represent.

Public documents show that TFI was in the black at the end of the 2018 fiscal year, and multiple sources say that was still the case when TFI ended. On April 14, the organization also was approved for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan for an amount between $150,000 and $350,000.

Multiple sources told IndieWire that in the first weeks of the pandemic, the TFI board floated the idea of a hiatus or closure. Staffers responded by drafting a COVID response that laid out various financial scenarios to keep the nonprofit running, some of which included layoffs or furloughs.

“Were the co-chairs actually hoping for some kind of solution, or were they just kicking the ball down the road and then trying to make this seem like somewhat of an inevitability?” a source said. “Rather than hunkering down and working together to make it through a difficult year, or year-and-a-half, it was mere weeks before staff was told ‘OK, we’re pulling the plug.’”

Major institutional funders remain interested in TFI programs. The MacArthur Foundation continues to fund the IF/Then Shorts program, which as of July is based at Peabody Award-winning documentary production company Field of Vision. Points North Institute and CNN Films in October launched the American Stories Documentary Fund, a successor to a program the pair put on in conjunction with TFI called Camden/Tribeca Film Institute Filmmaker Retreat. (A source indicated that the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, which backed Rachel Lears’ hit “Knock Down The House,” will not continue after 2020.)

Former TFI director Hobby has been consulting with documentary production company Story Syndicate. She’s one of around 20 staffers who were laid off as part of the “pause.” One former TFI staffer was hired at TE, according to sources.

Shane Smith, James Murdoch and Joe Marchese attend as Ghetto Film School hosts their annual fall gala at a private residence in Beverly Hills, CA on Monday, November 5, 2018 (Photo: Alex J. Berlliner/ABImages) via AP Images

Tribeca Enterprises controlling stakeholders James Murdoch and Joe Marchese, center and right, with Vice founder Shane Smith at a 2018 gala for Ghetto Film School.

AP

It’s less clear if TFI figured into the plans of Murdoch and Marchese. In the Tribeca press release that announced their purchase, Murdoch promised “to help grow the unique Tribeca brand,” while Marchese said Tribeca offered an “immense opportunity to develop and scale valuable experiences globally.” The release also invoked storytelling, as well as curation and human connection, but there were no references to filmmaking and no mention of TFI.

Maintaining a philanthropic identity may continue to figure into the TE growth strategy. At this writing, according to TFI’s website, TE continues a number of programs it ran in conjunction with TFI. These include Through Her Lens: The Tribeca Chanel Women’s Filmmaker Program, which provides funding, support and mentorship for female filmmakers, and the $1 million AT&T Untold Stories grant. That said: TE is very much a for-profit entity.

In March, the organization announced that the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival would be “postponed,” adding that “We will be back to you shortly with our plans.” Those plans took the form of We Are One, a free online festival held May 29-June 7 to benefit COVID relief organizations. A curated selection of 100 films from 21 festivals, it included 34 features. Of those, two screened at prior editions of TFF and only one — documentary “Ricky Powell: The Individualist” — was a 2020 TFF premiere.

Beyond that, some films slated for the main sections of TFF were available online to press and industry. There were jury awards, but the net effect was Tribeca 2020 films premiered with little publicity, promotion, or exposure.

At the start of May, TE, IMAX, and AT&T announced a series of summer drive-in experiences screening popular fare like “Bridesmaids” and “Meet the Parents.” Beyond two short films from the Tribeca Studios partnership with Procter & Gamble and Queen Latifah, there were no Tribeca titles. It also teamed with Walmart for 320 screenings of family-friendly movies like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” in Walmart parking lots.

Meanwhile, other spring festivals like CPH:DOCS, Cleveland, and HotDocs made efforts to convert to an online format, which included setting limits on geography, capacity, and pricing that could help filmmakers secure other distribution. As a free festival, We Are One played into filmmaker fears that their work would be devalued by a no-limit model.

Tribeca will screen 2020 selections at its 2021 festival, the festival said in an August release, but it’s unclear exactly what form that will take.

As a for-profit film festival, TFF is unusual but not unique. SXSW Film Festival is also for profit, as are all festivals and conferences organized by its parent company SXSW LLC. Brand support is also key to every festival in North America, which operate with little to no government support. The Sundance Film Festival and its parent Sundance Institute are nonprofit operations, but every year Park City’s Main Street is dedicated to sponsorship activations, official and otherwise; every fall, it hosts a summit in which official sponsors look for ways to collaborate.

The major difference lies in the depth of Tribeca’s corporate relationships. “We started as a consumer festival, and industry, because of who we are and because we’re in New York,” Tribeca senior VP of partnerships Jackie Hassell told Adweek in May 2019. “And when we really changed a couple of years ago, we looked and said, ‘We don’t want to do any gratuitous partnerships.’ It was very much, ‘Let’s come together and do things with partners that will enhance the consumer experience.’ That’s really something that when we look at a partner, at a brand, it has to check those boxes.”

At TFF 2019, Chase and Marriott promoted a joint travel credit card by sponsoring the festival’s main theater with, per Adweek, “digital posters of travel destinations lining the hallway outside the theater.” The festival’s Spring Studios location — a kind of analog to Park City’s Main Street — included a Nespresso lounge; the Bai Lounge hosted talks and receptions; and a Diageo-sponsored rooftop bar “where it served ‘Game of Thrones’-themed ‘White Walker’ Johnnie Walker whiskey.”

However, the crown jewel of that partnership strategy is Tribeca Studios, a brand-content production company that pairs filmmakers with opportunities to direct shorts and features for clients like Bulgari, Prudential, Allergan, Tumi, and many more. (Below is “Identity,” one of a series of documentary shorts that Tribeca Studios produced in partnership with 23andme.)

Tribeca Studios has produced work like the Emmy-nominated feature documentary “Keepers of the Game,” which tackled Native American culture and sexism through the prism of lacrosse; it was sponsored by Dick’s Sporting Goods. It also won a Bronze at the Cannes Lions, which awards advertising and marketing.

Other Tribeca Studios productions more closely resemble brand content, such as those made for TFF founding sponsor American Express. It sponsored a series of shorts that focused on people who are “transforming the American business landscape” and made them available through Amex social channels as well as on demand. It’s a clear distinction from TFI’s brand involvement, which included grants bearing the names of Heineken, Gucci, AT&T, and others.

Like the films that TFI supported, Tribeca Studios is rooted in the very broad category of storytelling. The difference is where TFI sought films with uncompromising visions, Tribeca Studios is a commercial production agency that markets compromise. The best-case scenario is an alignment between Tribeca’s filmmaking brand and an advertiser’s vision, but the paying client is the one in control.

Not long before COVID hit, sources say the TFI board began to express interest in a pivot for the organization. A source described it as a directive to reimagine TFI’s programs with a new emphasis specifically around New York City — a perspective that would have reconnected TFI to its origin story and might have been more attractive to brand-based fundraising.

“TFI had just spent years expanding its programs globally and also throughout the United States,” a source said. “It seemed a rather out-of-touch request.”

Carlos Gutiérrez, co-founder and executive director of the New York-based Latin American film nonprofit Cinema Tropical, said TFI’s robust support of Latin American filmmakers made it an outlier among US nonprofits.

“TFI became that place: The first meeting point for Latin American filmmakers to get some sort of validation in the US, mostly in terms of funding, but also in that they brought filmmakers to programs like TFI Network,” Gutiérrez said. “They did support amazing filmmakers, and they’re leaving a big gap.”

Tribeca the brand is moving into a new phase under its new ownership. It will continue supporting filmmakers, but it won’t include a division wholly devoted to nonprofit film funding.

Looking at the dissolution of TFI is a little like understanding the end of a marriage: Over the last two decades, TFI and TE each succeeded in creating distinct identities — but that evolution also made them strange bedfellows.

“The Tribeca name is something that can feel flashy,” said a source. “It invokes Hollywood [and] TFI is actively working outside of that space, to change that landscape. TFI was artist-centric and never wanted to dictate what the artist had to be, and how that story had to be told. TFI actively wanted to break down that power structure and remove those gatekeepers.”

Dana Harris-Bridson contributed to this report.

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