NEW YORK — Since it was founded 12 years ago, the Tribeca Film Festival has sometimes swerved between identities like a barfly at happy hour, exuberant but hardly always clear.
The festival looks to change that this time around. Tribeca has entered an era in which it hopes the sale last month of a 50% stake to James Dolan’s Madison Square Garden Corp. gives it economic stability. It also believes it has finally found a mix of eclectic documentaries, international favorites, well-chosen independent features and even digital experiments to supplant earlier missions, which relied on a kitchen-sink approach to U.S. features or, for a number of years, star-heavy studio premieres.
"People used to say, ‘There are so many agendas,’" said Geoffrey Gilmore, the Sundance Film Festival veteran who now serves as chief creative officer for Tribeca Enterprises, the festival’s umbrella organization. "I don’t think you can say that anymore. We’re in our 13th year now. Like any 13-year-old, we have a sense of self."
That doesn’t mean there is always a clear through-line to the festival, which on Wednesday kicks off its ambitious 12-day run of narrative and nonfiction films, name-studded live events and unorthodox storytelling initiatives with the world premiere of "Time Is Illmatic," a documentary about the landmark 1994 Nas album that will be followed by a performance from the rapper.
The Tribeca Film Festival was founded shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal — De Niro’s producing partner and a veteran Hollywood filmmaker — and investor Craig Hatkoff as a way to revitalize lower Manhattan both commercially and creatively. The festival quickly generated buzz and attracted consumer interest — not to mention corporate sponsors — but also spurred confusion thanks to an unusually large number of titles, a varying level of quality even by the loose standards of film festivals, and what to the movie industry could seem like a murky mission.
Though Tribeca has basically halved its slate from a few years ago — there are now just over 80 features in its program — it continues to take shots in a large number of areas, which can make for an enjoyably diverse, if at times frustratingly uneven, film-festival experience.
The biggest change this year is the investment by MSG. Organizers hope the move will allow it to reach beyond a traditional festival audience; the "Illmatic" premiere will take place at the MSG-owned Beacon Theatre and sell tickets to the public, a rarity for a film festival’s typically more insidery opening night.
It is the first step in what organizers say is a bid to lend Tribeca a new sense of scale and purpose based on MSG’s experience of mounting big-ticket events including Rockettes performances at its Radio City Music Hall and concerts at the Forum in Inglewood, which it also owns.
"To be aligned with an iconic brand that can help with our business and our venues is a really good thing," Rosenthal said. "It’s still new so we are figuring it out, but let’s put it this way: the festival was a startup, and everyone gets to the point as a startup where they need additional support." (In this regard Tribeca is not alone; festivals from Toronto to Sundance have in recent years embarked on initiatives cementing their evolution from informal fan gatherings to more established businesses.)
The MSG-fueled ambitions aren’t the only change at Tribeca.
The festival has been more willing under the direction of artistic director Frédéric Boyer, formerly of the Cannes Film Festival, to show decorated movies that have played elsewhere, particularly if they’ve only played overseas. So this year’s selection includes the North American premieres of acclaimed foreign titles such as "Black Coal, Thin Ice," the China-made and -set detective story that won the Berlin Film Festival‘s top prize in February, and "The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq," the trippy "Being John Malkovich"-like feature starring Houellebecq and offering an alternative imagined life for the French genre writer that has been garnering buzz on the fest circuit.
"What we found was that a lot of international films want the New York premiere as a way to launch in the U.S.," Boyer said. "They’re choosing us over other places they could go."
The list of U.S. narrative premieres, meanwhile, is intriguing and leaner and meaner than is once was, if still somewhat scattershot.
Directorial debuts by the actors Courteney Cox and Chris Messina (the suicide-themed black comedy "Just Before I Go" and the marital drama "Alex of Venice," respectively) will be presented on the same slate as a writing effort from Joss Whedon ("In Your Eyes," a metaphysical romance described as a cross between the "Avengers" director’s fantastical sensibility and Nicholas Sparks) and a Millennial look at sex and love, titled "X/Y," starring America Ferrara and Amber Tamblyn. All are world premieres.
The festival also will occasionally venture into decidedly quirky territory. Leading that list this year is "My Brony Tale," Brent Hodge’s nonfiction look at the phenomenon of grown, mostly straight men who embrace the fandom of "My Little Pony" collecting, and "Zombeavers," a genre pic that is either a "Sharknado" knockoff or a trenchant comment on feminist politics, or maybe both.
"We can be serious but we can also have fun," said Genna Terranova, the festival’s director of programming. "I mean, ‘Zombeavers.’ How could you go wrong?"
Documentaries, meanwhile, continue a pattern of mixing the personality-driven with the issue-oriented, often as world premieres.
Movies that fit the bill this year include such environmental docs as a work-in-progress screening of "6," a look at mass extinction from "The Cove" director Louie Psihoyos, and "Virunga," Orlando von Einsiedel’s examination of an endangered species at a UNESCO World Heritage site in Africa. They also include films on political figures such as Barney Frank and Ann Richards ("Compared to What" and "All About Ann," respectively); "Beyond the Brick," a timely look at Lego builders that will be narrated by a Lego-fied Jason Bateman; "When the Garden Was Eden," about the glory years of Knicks teams featuring the likes of Phil Jackson that will open a sidebar section Tribeca runs with ESPN; and an untitled James Brown documentary from Oscar-winner Alex Gibney.
The festival has always been adept at drawing bold-faced names to its live events; this year’s highlights include NBC’s Brian Williams interviewing Ron Howard, a conversation between Aaron Sorkin and former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau on the nature of morality in storytelling, and a panel with "House of Cards" creator Beau Willimon and math-pundit Nate Silver on the intersection of creativity and Big Data.
Despite these well-known figures, however, organizers have avoided the Hollywood premieres that over the years saw studios debut spring tent poles such as "The Avengers," "Spider-Man 3" and "Shrek Forever After" — offerings that for a long time both characterized and complicated Tribeca’s mission.
This shift, said organizers, is by design. "Years ago we needed to make these big statements with premieres to say, "Look, we’re here; pay attention to us,’" Rosenthal said. "I don’t think we need to do that anymore."