Young festival and filmmakers find their way

Times Staff Writer

Jennifer Elster attended her first film festival as an outsider, a wannabe trying to “maneuver” her way into parties at Sundance in 2001, where she hoped to scout out “the politics and the vibe” of such events. “I was preparing myself,” she says now.

Elster was a 27-year-old Manhattan fashion stylist then, making her living working on photo shoots and music videos. She wanted to make movies, though, and already was tinkering with a script about two lonely neurotics who meet on the streets of Manhattan. So she was thinking ahead when she listened in at those Sundance parties and picked up this piece of festival wisdom: “The most important thing is that the right people are seeing your film ... that ‘the industry’ is able to take it in.”

Two years later, that’s why she was frantic as the Tribeca Film Festival got underway here this week, headlined by several premieres of big-budget studio movies, novelty events such as open-air screenings on a pier and panels with the likes of Al Pacino. But as with most such festivals, the schedule also included screenings of scores of independent films searching for a commercial home, including one called “Particles of Truth,” which was written by Jennifer Elster, produced by Jennifer Elster, directed by Jennifer Elster and co-starred Jennifer Elster.

Why, then, was the fashion-stylist-turned-auteur fretting as her big night approached?


Tickets. She couldn’t find enough. The festival, conceived in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was set up with an eye more to the ailing community than “the industry.”

So most tickets were placed on sale to the public and the prices kept to a modest $10, with most screenings held in a multiplex across the West Side Highway from the old World Trade Center site.

“They’re all gone! It’s sold out!” Elster exclaimed three days before the debut of her film in a 440-seat theater in the upper reaches of the multiplex.

Never mind any potential distributors she or her agent might line up at the parties here. “I can’t get all my family in, some of my friends, four of the lead cast. “There’s an incredible amount of strategy with your world premiere,” she said, “and I can’t get anyone in.”


No theme, except laughs

The Tribeca Film Festival was the brainchild of Robert De Niro and his partners in his production company based in the now-chic Lower Manhattan community just north of ground zero. When the festival had its debut last year, the “core mission” was obvious.

“The world did not need another film festival but Tribeca needed a film festival,” said De Niro’s partner, Jane Rosenthal, who has become the front person for the event, even more than the shy actor. “One way we could help was to do what we do best -- to show movies to people for four days.” This year, they expanded it to nine days, counting an opening-weekend Family Film Festival that included the premiere of “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” and a scavenger hunt for kids. But the challenge was greater this time, when the festival had to start making the transition from being a civic-pride event with few high expectations.


“Last year, I kept saying, ‘If just one picture is good I’ll be happy.’ Or if just one found a distributor [or] found its audience,” Rosenthal said.

“Then we planned this [year’s] festival in the midst of the worst winter we’ve had with snowstorms and sleet, and the possibility and inevitability of going to war, with terror alerts going up and down -- and it was hard to plan.”

The festival hasn’t settled on a niche in its sophomore year -- “a lot of people are still scratching their heads at us,” Rosenthal said -- so it’s taking the cafeteria approach, offering something for everyone, including the usual film-festival array of provocative documentaries and edgy features from around the world. But to the degree there is a theme, it’s “we needed to laugh,” she said. “We wanted a happy movie to open the festival. We wanted happy colors. ‘It’s spring!’ We needed the sun to shine. It sounds so corny. Ridiculously corny. But New York needs to laugh. So we have a hot pink carpet.”

It was out for Tuesday evening’s “official” opening events, when a stage was erected in the heart of Tribeca to seat such invited guests as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Irish rock star Bono and movie stars Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, who were here for their “Down With Love,” a takeoff on the old Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies. Aside from De Niro, who looked typically uncomfortable in public, all swayed or bobbed their heads as a choir sang “Oh Happy Day” to an audience heavy on TV cameras and light on local residents. Then Rosenthal announced, “See you at the movies,” and a band led the way, oompahing down Greenwich Street to the Tribeca Performing Arts Center and the pink carpet to the premiere of the movie, which is set in 1962, before the twin towers loomed over the Manhattan skyline.


Afterward came the opening party at the glass-walled World Financial Center along the Hudson River, drawing attendees from Lauren Bacall to documentary maker Michael Moore, who is among the competition judges. Novice filmmaker Elster was at the party as well, talking to Jim Sheridan, the acclaimed director of “My Left Foot,” whose semiautobiographical “In America” was due to screen Thursday night, at the same time as the premiere of her “Particles of Truth.” Elster had become a bit more relaxed about the impending opening, in part because she had discovered why tickets were so hard to get: Fans of her co-star, Gale Harold, who has appeared for three years on the Showtime TV series “Queer as Folk,” had gobbled them up.

“We’ve bought tickets back from the fans,” Elster reported. “We’re meeting one of the fans and buying back six tickets. Some ordered two or three times [over the Internet] because they weren’t sure they got through.

“I think,” she said, “we’re going to have enough.”



Eclectic films and forums

Wednesday morning saw the first “Directors on Directing” forum of the festival, and it provided film fan Sam Stellatella with his first glimpse of the Prada store in Soho, the $40-million extravagance designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, which had the misfortune of opening as the area’s economy went into its post-Sept. 11 dive.

“This is a clothing store?” asked a disbelieving Stellatella, a retired teacher and football coach from New Jersey who had tickets to 10 festival films and wanted to make as many workshops as he could.

This one had actor Liev Schreiber interviewing writer-director Neil LaBute, known for such dark films as “In the Company of Men,” about two friends who plot to victimize a deaf girl, and the play “The Mercy Seat,” in which Schreiber played a man who wants to use the Sept. 11 attacks to fake his death and leave his wife.


Schreiber told an audience of 200 that they both share an affinity for “characters who seem peripheral and unattractive,” and LaBute said such characters need only be interesting -- he has a “childhood fear of being boring.”

Schreiber asked how he came to direct “Nurse Betty,” which starred Zellweger.

“That was a pure money thing,” LaBute confessed.

When they were done, the gray-haired Stellatella got their autographs and said he planned to see “the Russian documentary where they put a camera on a manhole cover.” That night’s schedule included another “gala premiere,” of a comedy on hip-hop music. The producer was Damon Dash, the real-life head of the Roc-a-Fella music company, who told the opening-night crowd that he made “Death of a Dynasty” after growing tired of the negative portrayals of rap. In the film, a naive white reporter is duped into hyping a supposed feud that culminates in the apparent shooting of a rap mogul by his star performer, played by Jay-Z -- all a scam to sell CDs.


“This is a spoof,” Dash reminded the audience, a mix of white and black this night.

But Dash’s message that “we spend more time having fun than being angry” could not have anticipated an item that made the news the next morning: A 20-year-old actor with a bit part in the film had been arrested outside the premiere and charged with carrying a loaded .357 magnum.


Sorry, I need these seats


It may be that no filmmaker in history has had a shorter trip to the debut of her first movie. Elster lives in an apartment building “300 feet away,” she calculates, from the United Artists Battery Park Theaters, whose 16 screens are the hub of movie-watching at the festival.

But once she reached the lobby with her delegation of friends, family and business associates, it was panic time. “Where are the tickets?” she asked. “I can’t believe it!” A co-producer had only a few in an envelope. “I think I gave them to an intern,” Elster said. “Can you imagine?” So at 9:20 p.m. -- 10 minutes to show time -- she did what she did at the Sundance Film Festival parties two years ago. She “maneuvered,” leading her delegation up the escalators while telling the event staffers, “It’s my movie. I have 28 tickets to tonight’s screening, but I don’t have them with me,” and simply pushing on. At 9:27, they reached the theater, where ushers started clearing two rows of seats to accommodate her people.

“It’s so obnoxious. I’m sorry,” Elster told one woman being displaced -- Jennifer Compton, 27, from Long Island, who said she bought a ticket for the movie because she’s a fan of Harold.

“Is this your film?” Compton asked the now 29-year-old writer-director-actress as she headed to a lower seat. “Then don’t worry. Good luck.” When everyone was in place, a festival official took a microphone to say, “It’s films like this that are going to put us on the map” and that Elster could receive a $25,000 prize if her movie wins “audience favorite” balloting conducted through the weekend.


Then it was time, finally, for the 101-minute film, in which Elster plays an artist so insecure she fears she’s been selected for a group show merely to make other paintings look better, and who is trying to decide whether to visit her drug-addict father before he dies of AIDS. Harold’s character is a germ freak who takes notes as he watches the world from the safety of his car, but whose father won’t acknowledge reading the book he wrote based on those jottings. The climax takes place at a bar in Harlem, run by a neo-Nazi, where pit bulls fight for entertainment.

At the end, after the applause, Elster took questions from the audience. Someone asked what’s next for the film.

“I went into it with a lot of ambition,” Elster said. “I guess it worked. I hope. Who knows? “Hopefully it goes into theaters.”

One place it goes for sure is two showings next month at the Los Angeles Film Festival.


“I know it’s absurd, but I’m scared that the fans will buy up all the tickets there too,” Elster said later before heading off to her own film’s after-event at a Tribeca restaurant, one party for which she definitely did not have to wrangle an invitation.