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NEW YORK (Reuters) - It opens with a comedy, Tina Fey's "Baby Mama," but when the seventh annual Tribeca Film Festival unspools later this week, organizers promise many of this year's movies will be no laughing matter.
Founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal told Reuters that Tribeca, started in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, has now found its own unique voice, borne from years of screening films that highlight difficult global issues and create conversation among audiences.
The 2008 festival opening on Wednesday can now afford to be "more picky," said Rosenthal, and as a result, organizers reduced the number of feature-length films to be shown this year to 120, which is about 25 percent fewer than 2007.
"Tribeca and Sarajevo are the only two film festivals that started because of an act of war, and I think that we very much look to program difficult subject matters at times and have conversations that ask global questions -- questions mainstream media doesn't necessarily delve into," Rosenthal said.
This year several films from and about Iraq will screen including "Baghdad High," made by four classmates who were given cameras to videotape their last year at school, and "War, Love God and Madness," a documentary about a filmmaker trying to make a movie in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Nearly 5,000 submissions were received for this year's event. Of the 120 feature films being screened, 24 are competing in the narrative and documentary categories, and 79 short films were submitted from some 40 countries.
"For an American film festival we're pretty global in reach," Rosenthal, who founded the event with De Niro and her husband Craig Hatkoff to economically and culturally rejuvenate lower Manhattan after September 11. Tribeca is a neighborhood near the site of the September 11 attacks.
The festival has easily achieved that goal since its inception in 2002, attracting more than 2 million visitors and more than $425 million in economic activity for New York City.
Tribeca 2008 debuts with the premiere of "Baby Mama," starring Tina Fey, creator and star of hit TV comedy "30 Rock," playing a woman who hires a surrogate to have her baby. The closing film is May 3's premiere of "Speed Racer," an effects-filled movie based on a cartoon about a race car driver starring Emile Hirsch and Christina Ricci.
Madonna will premiere her documentary "I Am Because We Are" about children in Malawi orphaned by AIDS, singer Mariah Carey will grace the big screen in the premiere of "Tennessee," and John Cusack will premiere his film "War, Inc," which he wrote and starred in alongside Hilary Duff and Marisa Tomei.
But beyond star appeal and the media attention celebrities draw, festival organizers will screen more than 50 other world premieres and feature films from 64 first-time directors.
The festival has developed a mentoring program for up-and-coming filmmakers where they can take part in workshops and meet potential investors, agents, producers and directors.
"As a filmmaker to get a movie done, get the financing -- no matter what the budget -- it's a lot of perseverance," De Niro said. "This is all sort of corny cliched stuff, but you got to keep plugging away, there's no easy way."
Like other festivals, a market has sprung up at Tribeca where distributors acquire movies to release later this year and next, and the growth of that market has helped boost Tribeca's clout. Rosenthal said 42 of last year's movies found distribution deals.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte, Philip Barbara and Eric Walsh