It's Monday at noon, and I'm preparing to shrug off my lawyer-cum-renegade-blogger roots and begin my foray into the world of legitimate media. Armed with a notepad and official press credential, I head to the Tribeca Performing Arts Center for the first press conference of the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival. I enter the packed auditorium, glancing around nervously and clutching my manila press kit like a shield. With a meek smile, I approach a friendly publicist. "Uh, hi, I'm with the Huffington Post?" She smiles and ushers me to the first row of chairs marked "Reserved." Note to self: drop HuffPo's name, get front row seats. And they say blogs haven't moved up in the world.
I steal glances at my fellow writers, sportcoat-clad men chatting and scribbling in shorthand. I scan the press materials, running my eyes across the list of speaker names. Jane Rosenthal, Ed Burns, Peter Scarlet, John Polson, Robert De Niro - whoah! Hold on here! A bona fide cultural icon, scheduled to stand less than ten feet from my current location. Thank God I broke standard living room blogger protocol and wore deodorant.
The participants take the stage and form a semicircle, smiling and clasping their hands at their waists, perhaps to avoid physically crushing us with their massive combined income. First to speak is Jane Rosenthal, festival co-founder. With an energetic voice and easy poise that marks her as the group's Svengali, she briefly outlines her creation's history and tremendous growth. First launched in 2002, 120 days following the attacks of September 11th, the Tribeca Film Festival was intended to restore and revitalize both industry and art in lower Manhattan. In the past four years, it has attracted more than one million visitors to the neighborhood (or at least given them pause on their way to Nobu). This year, the festival received 4,100 total film entries and accepted 274 selections, making your likelihood of being accepted approximately the same as a blind emu's chances of breaking into the Ivy Leagues (unless, of course, he plays lacrosse). The 2006 repertoire includes 174 feature films, 100 short films and 96 world premiere features from over 40 countries. Highlights include panel discussions, filmmaker events, gala premieres of major studio releases, live music offerings from artists including John Mayer and Nellie McKay, a family street festival and international delegations from Morocco and Rome. In other words, it's massive and unforgettable, so get your butt to the movies.
As I scribble furiously, shooting sidelong glances at my BBC neighbor's notepad, a slim, sandy haired gentleman steps to the mike. His sleek pin stripes and perma-smile betray him as a likely corporate sponsor. I check my program - bingo! It's John Hayes, Chief Marketing Officer of American Express. His behemoth employer is the official Tribeca Film Festival founding partner, explaining the young Vito Corleone's recent appearance in a slew of credit card commercials. Mr. Hayes expresses his organization's pride at its involvement with the festival and assures the pack of ravenous reporters that American Express will once again be providing free popcorn at all festival screenings. I do some quick math - if I consume approximately 25 bags of popcorn per film, it should just about cover that 18% APR and annual fee.
Then Ed Burns, actor, director and favorite Brother McMullen, takes the mike. This year he's serving as a juror for the International Film Competition's 2006 Best Narrative Feature, as well as directing and starring in "The Groomsmen," premiering at the festival this weekend. The room erupts behind me in a whir of epileptic flashes: at last, a real live movie star! In his trademark rasp, he expresses his unyielding support of the event and joy at his involvement, keeping it poignant and brief.
Next up is actor and Matthew McConaughey doppelgänger Josh Lucas, a member of this year's 2006 Narrative Feature jury and star of summer blockbuster "Poseidon," premiering at this year's festival. I note his slicked hair, cowboy boots, weathered jeans, pink button-down shirt and white linen jacket, interesting wardrobe decisions considering he's spent the past two decades in Manhattan and currently resides in an apartment below Canal Street (as I learned from later eavesdropping during his TV interview). He stands at the podium shattering photo lenses with his burning movie star gaze as I scribble "Matthew McConaughey is to Josh Lucas as Gary Busey is to Nick Nolte" in my notebook. In closing, he says that the festival is about "a group of people bringing films to another group of people." Granted, the man could be reciting hemorrhoid cream instructions in Finnish, and not a single female occupant of the room would mind.
Then we hear from Peter Scarlet, the festival's Executive Director. I marvel at his sparkling energy, considering that he spent the past 364 days continuously viewing and reviewing over 4,000 movies. I picture him strapped to a chair facing a plasma screen, "Clockwork Orange" eyelid-clamps forcing his retinas to endure 68 straight hours of animated shorts. Nonetheless, he stands at the podium exuding intensity. "We continue to be excited at hearing new voices and being exposed to new ways of seeing," he says, noting that one goal of the festival is to "pay homage to the past, to the history of cinema."
Next up is tan and adorably-accented Australian actor and director John Polson. His directing credits include "Swimfan," the 2002 virtual (but mercifully bunny-free) teen remake of "Fatal Attraction." As Founder of Tropfest, the world's largest short film festival, Polson expresses enthusiasm over his brainchild's new venture out of Australia and into Tribeca. To be considered for entrance in Tropfest, films must meet three criteria: 1) a length of seven minutes or less; 2) status as a world premiere in the festival; and 3) subject matter containing mention of the year's chosen prop or theme, meant to ensure that all submissions are created for the festival alone, thereby thwarting the hordes of former film majors dusting off videocassettes of senior projects and reality TV entries. This year's theme is the quintessential New York icon, a manhole cover.
Next Empire State Development Corporation Chairman Charles Gargano, sporting a gorgeous suit and blindingly white hair, informs us that the festival will top $100 million in economic output this year, a substantial rise from last year's $77 million. Topping all prior warm fuzziness, he announces that the top of the Empire State Building will be lit in the festival's colors, pink and green, for the duration of the festival. Meanwhile, I am busy calculating exactly how many Shack Burgers $100 million would buy.
At last, only one speaker remains. The room collectively leans forward in its seat, pens poised, cameras focused. Without pomp or ceremony, he takes the stage. There it is, that indelible face. I can see them in his expressions - Jake La Motta! Sam Rothstein! Max Cady! Catatonic Leonard Lowe! As he steps to the podium, every fiber of his being emits obvious discomfort, and he wears a look that pleads, "For the love of God let this end quickly." It hits me: De Niro hates public appearances! Making him all the more endearing. For each split second he unburies his face from his notes to provide a clear photo op, the room erupts in strobe lights of flashes and deafening clicks. He delivers pithy statements like, "We look forward to our fifth year," and scrambles back to his safe wedge between Josh Lucas and Charles Gargano.
In seconds, writers are on their feet with questions. "Mr. De Niro! Why open the festival with 'United 93?'" Damn, great question. Time for me to hunker in my chair and let the real reporters do their thing. He reluctantly returns to the mike, muttering simple but effective answers like, "To not open with [the movie] would seem strange," and "you can't not be touched by it." The inquest continues and he shoots a pleading look at Rosenthal, who steps in smoothly. To the question, "Why show such a film right now, so soon after the attacks," she answers, "Why not now?"
At last, it's over, I've successfully faked my way through my first major media event. The crowd disperses as TV crews zoom in toward the stars. I make some attempt to mingle and come up with meaningful questions for any lingering celebrities (though somehow I doubt that "Ken Burns, tell us what you think of baseball in five words or less?" would have gone over so well had I worked up the nerve to actually speak to him). Lucas is still on the stage, drawing comparisons between his summer disaster-at-sea film and "Das Boot." Piercing and blue though his eyes may be, I take that as my cue to leave.