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NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Last year should have been triumphant for Robert De Niro and his fellow founders of the Tribeca Film Festival.
Launched in 2002 to help revive post-9/11 downtown Manhattan, Tribeca expanded throughout the city, drawing more than half a million people.
Instead, 2007 turned out to be a Tribeca kvetch fest: New ticket prices were too high, people complained. Added uptown theaters made the festival too hard to navigate, with some missing tightly scheduled screenings due to travel delays.
The volume of films (157 features) and the quality of many got slammed. Film executives carped it wasn't commercial enough to work as a market -- while others called the lineup too commercial.
So in the months that followed, De Niro and partners Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff did what some never thought would happen: They decided to put the so-called "festival that ate Manhattan" on a diet.
"We started so quickly and tried a lot of different things," Rosenthal says. "As people brought up constructive criticism, we addressed it."
For 2008's event, which runs from Wednesday through May 4, Tribeca has cut its lineup by nearly 25 percent (to 121 features), eliminated those uptown venues and set up just two screening hubs, in Union Square and Tribeca.
Ticket prices that jumped from $12 to $18 last year have been reduced to $15, and many weekend and midnight shows are now just $8.
"One of our growing pains was learning how to say no, condense and hone in on the best films," explains Nancy Schafer, one of the festival's executive directors.
The festival ran a $1 million annual deficit in its first five years -- money that came from the founders' pockets. Last year's event cost an estimated $13 million to produce; organizers declined to say if it finally made money.
In a grand irony, as overall attendance grew to more than 500,000 people last year from 465,000 in 2006, the festival's positive economic impact on the city actually fell 11% to $106 million, according to organizers' estimates. The drop reinforced what critics were saying -- that bigger isn't necessarily better.
The new, leaner Tribeca aims to achieve more realistic goals. Arguably the biggest change this year is an effort to make the fest more industry-friendly by improving the selection, logistics and services for potential film buyers.
At the same time, Tribeca is also trying to get a bit closer to its egalitarian roots. Aside from ticket price reductions, tickets for the opening-night film ("Baby Mama," starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler) and closing-night film ("Speed Racer," starring Emile Hirsch) are being made available to the public for the first time.
Other smaller-scale events returning include an athletically themed selection of features and a street fair. Attendees should expect more post-screening Q&As with filmmakers.
But all the services and events in the world won't help if the films aren't up to par. Getting the best films is a challenge for any festival, but Tribeca's slot between Sundance in January and Cannes in May (and following trendy up-and-comer South by Southwest) has made competition for premieres fierce.
The 2008 lineup ranges from the obscure (Nina Paley's animated Indian tale "Sita Sings the Blues" and the downtown club docu "SqueezeBox!") to one of the most commercial titles without distribution to ever hit Tribeca: Phedon Papamichael's supernatural thriller "From Within."
Buyers are keeping a wait-and-see attitude about this year's fest; after all, even more established markets like the Toronto International Film Festival and Sundance had disappointing sales.
Yet Mark Urman, co-founder of indie distributor ThinkFilm, says he's heard from more sales agents visiting Tribeca than ever before: "It may be more festival as theme park than as museum ... but that's OK."