NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Tribeca Film Festival opens on Wednesday, dampened by a U.S. recession that cut the movie slate by nearly a third, but organizers chose more upbeat films in a bid to cheer moviegoers.
While the festival in New York City traditionally screens films focusing on difficult global issues, founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal said a special effort was made to lift the mood.
"In challenging times, people like to go to the movies and we have tried to program lighter fare so people can have a few more laughs," Rosenthal told Reuters in a interview with Oscar-winning actor De Niro before the eighth annual festival.
"There's a balance, but we did look for a few more comedies," she said. "This year, there's a theme that does run through the festival, whether it's comedies or documentaries or shorts or narratives, it's about survival."
The festival faced sponsorship hurdles, losing support from General Motors Corp, which is surviving on billions of dollars in government loans. But it signed a three-year deal with Heineken and gained other sponsors.
"The festival is leaner, it's been difficult," Rosenthal said. "It's definitely been challenging, but I do feel like it will be a great festival because it always forces you to come up with some more creative solutions."
Due to the financial crisis, she said it was more important than ever that the festival stay true to one of its original aims -- bringing as many filmmakers as possible to the widest audience through free events, including outdoor screenings, a street fair and panel discussions.
"We hope that at least through movies we can provide a little inspiration and hope and a few laughs too," said Rosenthal, who founded the event with De Niro and her husband Craig Hatkoff to help rejuvenate downtown Manhattan after the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks.
The festival has met that goal since its inception in 2002, attracting more than 2 million visitors, creating more than $530 million in economic activity for New York City and screening more than 1,100 films from 80 countries.
Woody Allen opens the festival with the world premiere of his comedy "Whatever Works," starring Larry David.
The event closes with another comedy, "My Life in Ruins," starring Nia Vardalos and Richard Dreyfuss.
Other light offerings include Australian actor Eric Bana's directorial debut with documentary "Love the Beast," a film about his love for his first car, and a documentary following U.S. rock band Bon Jovi that will be screened as a "work in progress."
The festival will show 85 feature films from 32 countries. They were chosen from more than 2,200 submissions.
While attracting industry buyers to the Tribeca Film Festival was initially "the last thing on our minds," Rosenthal said the event has helped filmmakers find an audience in New York and sign distribution deals. Last year, 29 films were acquired at or after the festival.
While 2008 was a rough year for the independent film industry -- Picturehouse, Warner Independent Pictures, Paramount Vantage and THINKFilm were among the "indie" film companies that either went out of business or drastically changed their business plans -- Rosenthal still expects a strong industry attendance at the festival.
"As Bob (De Niro) always says, 'If we just keep doing this, people start to trust that you are here and keep coming,'" she said.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst