Like many movie gatherings, the Tribeca Film Festival has sought to carve out an identity in the face of such encroachments as the emergence of high-end television and the proliferation of, well, other film festivals.
This year the movie confab is doubling down in an unlikely area: non-film entertainment.
Or, at least, non-film-specific entertainment.
When the 14th annual New York event kicks off Wednesday night, it will do so with a fusillade of onstage interviews, reunions, performances and an expanded virtual-reality and transmedia section.
“The industry has radically changed, so the film festival business has radically changed,” said Jane Rosenthal, Tribeca’s co-founder and guiding hand. “You could almost call it a story festival now.”
There will of course be plenty of films this year too. An adaptation of the bestselling book “The Adderall Diaries” starring James Franco will make its world premiere at Tribeca '15, as will other anticipated narrative pieces, such as the rural coming-of-age story “King Jack,” the Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie drama "Maggie" and the Greek financial thriller “Wednesday 04:45.”
On the nonfiction side, “As I Am,” a tale of the late music-world figure DJ AM; the New Yorker-cartoon doc "Every Semi-Serious," about the unique job of editor Bob Mankoff; and “Thought Crimes,” a look at the tabloid fixture known as the “cannibal cop” (directed by David Carr daughter Erin Lee Carr) will seek to maintain Tribeca’s reputation as a venue for quality fact-based storytelling.
But it is some of the live events that will attract the most interest.
At the festival’s opening festivities Wednesday, a “Saturday Night Live” reunion of sorts will take place at New York’s Beacon Theatre as assorted cast members past and present are expected to turn out. The fest will then screen Bao Nguyen's “SNL”-themed “Live from New York!,” a retrospective piece that picks up where NBC’s February anniversary special left off.
The Lorne Michaels-ers will be followed in the 12-day confab by John Oliver convening a rare reunion with members of the Monty Python comedy troupe (a documentary, “Monty Python — The Meaning of Live,” will also be shown); Jon Stewart interviewing cast and filmmakers for a “Goodfellas” reunion; and “Rifftrax: The Room,” a live event from the people behind “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
Performances will also come to the fore as Mary J. Blige takes the mike after a new documentary about her creative reinvention is screened, while a ballet performance will be held in conjunction with the world premiere of Nelson George’s “A Ballerina’s Tale,” about the African American ballerina Misty Copeland.
Auteurs will be on display too, and in interesting combinations — see under, “Foxcatcher” director Bennett Miller engaging in conversation with “Interstellar” helmer Christopher Nolan, and a talk from “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, who is collaborating with Rosenthal on a CBS pilot.
And in a match made in several kinds of heaven, Stephen Colbert will temporarily emerge from his late-night interregnum to interview George Lucas, eight months before “Star Wars Episode VII” hits theaters.
The changes are in part the result of Tribeca partnering with Madison Square Garden, which last year acquired a 50% ownership stake in the festival’s parent company, Tribeca Enterprises. Several of the events — including opening night and the Blige performance — will take place at the MSG-run Beacon Theatre, and the fest's overall goal is to create high-profile public spectacles as much as become a place where industry buyers and sellers make deals.
Some of the additions are also coming about as the result of Tribeca hiring Paula Weinstein two years ago to serve as an executive vice president. The Hollywood and theater producer with a flair for staging entertainment has sought to bring some new energy to the live events.
“To me it’s all about ideas,” Weinstein said. “A film festival is a chance to put these on display, in so many forms."
As long-form storytelling has emerged, festivals have been struggling with how much to incorporate television and streamed series into their slates. This year, Sundance premiered the first two episodes of “The Jinx” and also showcased a Duplass Bros.-produced indie television piece.
Tribeca is also going the TV route. The festival is debuting the first episode of the new season of "Inside Amy Schumer,” with the provocative comedian, fresh off her MTV Movie Awards turn, appearing at the festival with her creative team. (With Schumer, Stewart, Oliver and Colbert all making prominent appearances, Comedy Central can add “Tribeca incubator” to its long pop-cultural resume.)
And in Storyscapes, the fest's transmedia section, Tribeca will again showcase the interactive storytelling that it inaugurated three years ago, an addition that has since been embraced by other festivals. Separately, it will host exhibitions for the burgeoning form of virtual reality, drawing on native sons such as Chris Milk and hosting demonstrations from the likes of power-player Oculus and the technologists at Stanford’s VR labs.
"The business is all about discovery, whether it's a new artist on YouTube or a new way of experiencing content like VR, and we think a film festival should be about that too," Rosenthal said.
Tribeca has tried on some different identities since being founded by Rosenthal, her producing partner Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff in 2002. (De Niro remains its public face and also, sometimes, its entertainment-industry lever.)
The overall number of movies has swollen and then contracted, and taken on different characteristics. Under current festival director Genna Terranova and senior programmer Cara Cusumano, it has settled into a mix of narrative premieres, debuts of personality-driven and socially relevant docs (this year they also include the Noam Chomsky-centric “Requiem for the American Dream" and the taser-themed “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle”) as well as selections cherry-picked from other festivals.
Aiding in that effort has been Geoffrey Gilmore, the longtime Sundance veteran who joined Tribeca several years ago.
“To us it’s less about the perfect execution of a movie as it is a place where audiences have a chance to see interesting new voices," Gilmore said, alluding to a reputation the festival's films have sometimes earned for an unpredictable level of quality. "It's about saying 'this is the place where I first saw that director,'" he added, noting that Damien Chazelle, the "Whiplash" filmmaker, premiered his first movie, "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" at Tribeca several years before his breakout.
Tribeca has cut back in recent years on the glitzy premieres that studios often piggybacked on the festival, including “Spider-Man 3” in 2007 and “The Avengers” in 2012. Instead, much of the celebrity quotient comes from the events as well as personality-driven docs. This year’s slate also include “Roseanne for President” — about Roseanne Barr's political-statement run in 2012 — and the ESPN sports section of the festival, which will open Thursday with a premiere of the Tony Gonzales doc “Play It Forward.”
The festival has also restarted a partnership with the Regal multiplex in Tribeca, allowing it to concentrate screenings closer to its headquarters instead of scattering them throughout the city, and lending the festival a more geographically concentrated feel.
"A lot of what's changing is technological and virtual," Rosenthal said. "But sometimes physical spaces and community are important too."