NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - With Wednesday's world premiere of DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek Forever After," the Tribeca Film Festival is not only raising the curtain on its ninth edition, it's looking to redefine how indie movies are distributed.
The New York festival will open its doors to a wider online audience with a new offering, Tribeca Film Festival Virtual. The program will offer as many as 5,000 passholders (at $45 per pass) the chance to view eight features as well as shorts, panels and other streaming video online for a week.
Although the Sundance and South By Southwest film festivals have ventured into these waters, Tribeca Virtual's effort will be the most extensive test to date on whether online video streaming can help or hurt a film's quest to find commercial distribution.
Simultaneously, a new distribution arm, Tribeca Film, will offer a dozen first-run features, at $6-$8 per rental, via cable and satellite VOD.
Both throw significant curveballs into the conventional acquisition scene. Tribeca Film (with hefty marketing backing from American Express) has selected seven films from the current lineup, effectively taking them off the market before the festival begins. The Virtual program will be streaming eight features from the festival's 50-plus available titles to computers worldwide before distributors have a chance to snap them up.
Festival programmers insist they went about their job without worrying whether individual titles would be available for either Tribeca Virtual or Tribeca Film. "We were all adamant about keeping the selection processes very church and state," said Tribeca executive director Nancy Schafer. "We never knew how many titles were going to coincide until we locked all 12 films on the VOD platform."
Competitors who also deal in VOD distribution, including IFC chief Jonathan Sehring, don't appear concerned about Tribeca entering the arena. Because most of the festival's initial batch of titles have been on the market for months and available to others, no one is arguing that Tribeca enjoys an unfair advantage.
But the Virtual program is a trickier experiment. Several hundred passes were purchased on the first day of sale, and if Tribeca hits its goal of 5,000, the eight features might not be viewed as "virgin titles" by other distributors, Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen noted.
As for the larger sales prospects at Tribeca, "There are a few movies worth serious consideration, and while there may not be many on the surface that everyone's really excited about, there could be some surprises," Cohen said. "But I don't think anyone's dying to buy movies right now."
The sales market is beginning with some wind in its sails: In the past few days, HBO purchased domestic TV rights to "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," IFC bought U.S. rights to "Heartbreaker," Magnolia took North American rights to "Freakonomics," Verve Pictures nabbed U.K. rights to "The Arbor," and Gravitas Ventures acquired North American VOD rights to Variance Films' "The Lottery." The common denominator is that distributors, rather than eyeing a traditional theatrical release, see value in the revenue streams from VOD, TV or home video.
"We've been noticing a trend of newer distributors with slightly different releasing patterns, like Tribeca Film for that matter," Schafer said. "Last year, there was this black cloud -- people were saying, 'Who's going to buy films?' -- but this year, things seem to be picking up."
Some of the festival's more commercial prospects include the ensemble teen comedy "Beware the Gonzo," the Midnight hermaphrodite entry "Spork" (also viewable in the Virtual program), the Kim Cattrall vehicle "Meet Monica Velour" and the romantic drama "Monogamy," starring Chris Messina and Rashida Jones.
As festival co-founder Robert De Niro noted Tuesday, the fest also is continuing its traditionally strong lineup of docs. De Niro's favorites touch on such subjects as Down syndrome ("Monica & David"), Rwandan genocide ("Earth Made of Glass"), polygamy ("Sons of Perdition") and the war on terror ("My Trip to Al-Qaeda").
Then there's what's arguably the most anticipated project on tap: Alex Gibney's work-in-progress untitled Eliot Spitzer film. A portrait of the disgraced New York governor, it's guaranteed a media spotlight.