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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Known as a champion of independent filmmakers, the Tribeca Film Festival shifts into a new gear and embraces the future of film when it opens next week with a 3D "Shrek" movie and online streaming for Web audiences.
The festival begins April 21 with animated "Shrek Forever After," Tribeca's first-ever 3D film, and after that comes 11 days of movies and stars such as Renee Zellweger and Colin Farrell parading up red carpets in downtown Manhattan.
Tribeca was co-founded by actor Robert De Niro in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center as a way to bring people back to the Big Apple, and in those years it has ripened into a high-profile launch pad for independent films and world documentaries.
For the 2010 edition, organizers have continued to expand beyond the "indie" film arena with bigger budget movies, and this year they are opening a virtual theater door to several films so North American audiences can watch movies online.
De Niro, 66, is optimistic about the changes.
"I might find myself having to be in a 3D movie, I don't know when," De Niro told Reuters, before he mischievously punched the air in a move suited for 3D and straight out of his classic 1980 film "Raging Bull," which earned him an Oscar.
"If it's a good story and it works and it's appropriate for that way of expression, of showing it, then it's OK."
This year's Tribeca Film Festival will screen 85 feature-length films, including 55 narrative features and 30 documentaries, as well as 47 short films. Twelve narratives and 12 documentaries will compete for $100,000 in cash prizes.
As usual, stars are expected to turn out in droves. "Shrek" brings Cameron Diaz, Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy. Zellweger and Forest Whitaker star in French director Olivier Dahan's "My Own Love Song." Farrell is in Neil Jordan's "Ondine" and "Get Low" has Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek.
Even the documentaries feature some starpower. "Last Play at Shea" intertwines a story about singer Billy Joel with the ups-and-downs of the New York Mets baseball team while rapper Ice Cube will show up for his film, "Straight Outta L.A."
"Freakonomics," is adapted from the best-selling book co-directed by "Super Size Me" director Morgan Spurlock and Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, who is also showing two other films, "My Trip to Al Qaeda" and an untitled work-in-progress about the life and demise of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer.
Other non-fiction films De Niro talked up in advance of the festival include Rwandan tale "Earth Made of Glass" that includes uplifting stories of President Paul Kagame and a survivor of genocide in that nation.
Environmental documentary "Climate of Change" is showing, as well as model Christy Turlington's directorial debut, "No Woman, No Cry" another non-fiction movie.
Turlington's husband, director and actor Ed Burns, sees his latest effort "Nice Guy Johnny" screen as part of what festival program director David Kwok called "a huge change" for 2010 -- Tribeca Film Festival Virtual.
This year, movie lovers who can't make it to Manhattan can instead pay $45 for a virtual pass that will let them watch eight full-length features and 18 short films online. At the same time, they can comment on the movie in a chat space simultaneously as they are watching it.
Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal said Tribeca was keeping up with way younger audiences were watching films -- whether via mobile phones, IPods or computers.
"For us to be able to offer our filmmakers additional platforms to premiere their films and expose them to a wider audience can only help those films later on," she said.
But amid the changes, Rosenthal said Tribeca was still dedicated to offering a stage to low-budget films that depend on festivals to find distributors and audiences.
"I still think we are pure to that mission, its still about bringing diverse filmmakers to a diverse audience," she said.
editing by Bob Tourtellotte