Monday night's premiere of Last Night at the Tribeca Film Festival highlighted the audience and illusion that the festival itself is trying to draw downtown: young, hip, and flush with cash.
Started originally as a way to pump money back to downtown Manhattan after the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks, questions are now being raised about who is benefiting more from the reinvention of the Tribeca: the neighborhood or the investors -- namely the festival's founding father, Robert DeNiro.
At Last Night's premiere, the theater was filled with well dressed, professional-looking twenty- and thirty-somethings, many of whom presumably came from nearby offices to the early evening showing or took the subway from their apartments.
The film centers around a dreamily attractive Manhattan couple (Keira Knightly and Sam Worthington) whose marriage is tested by dreamily attractive coworkers (Eva Mendes) and ex-flames (Guillaume Canet). The film's plot fell very much in line with the festival itself and the type of image that it is trying to develop as appealing to a larger audience: that lower Manhattan is cool, with trendy bars and hotels, ludicrously spacious apartments and filled with young, attractive people.
As easy as it is to argue that the festival has helped the surrounding neighborhood financially, some have questioned the financial incentives of the festival's father figure, co-founder Robert DeNiro. The actor started buying real estate in Tribeca as early as the 1980s and is co-owner of several big-name restaurants and a hotel in the neighborhood, prompting questions about what he stands to gain financially from the success of the festival, and the neighborhood in turn.
With a 'founding partner' sponsorship from American Express and individual ads from Cadillac, Stoli Vodka, Heinekein, and Jet Blue, the festival is bringing in brands hoping to attract financially flush spenders. And, with movies like Last Night that glamorize the downtown lifestyle of having drinks at the SoHo House Hotel and dining at swank restaurants, the festival is fueling the dreams of Manhattanites and would-be Manhattanites alike.
Founded in the wake of 9/11, the Tribeca Film Festival started as a long-term way to bring tourism and business back to lower Manhattan after the terrorist attacks.
"It brought tourism and made people willing to come downtown, it was a huge help to the community," said John DeLidero, press spokesman from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. The LMDC partnered with the festival for its first seven years and provided some financial aid through cultural grants, but ended its relationship when the grants expired.
DeLidero thinks that, because of the festival's success, the end of the grant was of minor importance to festival organizers. "It grew to become a cultural and New York icon," DeLidero said.
And my, how it has grown: while this year's festival is only halfway through, over 410,000 people attended last year, meaning the audience nearly tripled from its first incarnation.
Bombarded with posters and billboards, Tribeca resident Chelseay Boulos agrees that the festival has become bigger than its original version.
"They've branded it in a way that it's its own animal now," Boulos said. "I can't think of any other event associated with a neighborhood in New York City that brings this much traffic to the area."
Restaurateurs in the area say that, no matter the numbers, their business improves during the festival's run in late April. Kitchenette, a small diner and pastry shop located opposite the Chambers St. subway station -- the closest to the Tribeca Film Center where the festival is hosted -- has certainly felt the difference.
"This is normally our slow season -- when it starts to get warm out -- but during the festival you can see the increase," said manager Stacey Leibowitz. "If you look at the books, you can see the numbers quadruple."
Christina Cates, assistant general manager at The Palm restaurant located around the corner from the theater, said that their restaurant doesn't notice the festival so much in the books as it does in the air.
"It's very exciting for the neighborhood, you can feel it come alive," Cates said. The influx of Hollywood heavyweights is also nice for a restaurant famed for decorating its walls with caricatures of actors and business tycoons. "It really floods the area with celebrities: last year alone we had Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek both came in and signed their names."
After Last Night finished, as Eva Mendes and the film's director Massy Tadjedin took a few questions from interested viewers, the majority of the packed theater headed outside. Overheard were couples talking about the moral implications of the film and whether or not they would have cheated -- sure -- but one of the most common reactions was 'Can you believe that apartment!? It was so big!' And that was exactly the point.