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The partygoers entered the large, black fabric cave in single file, balancing their drinks in hand and squatting low in order to sit at the computer inside. They typed away, sharing stories about sleepless nights for “A Journal of Insomnia,” a cloud-based, digital art project produced by Hugues Sweeney, head of French-language interactive media at the National Film Board of Canada.
“A Journal of Insomnia” made its physical debut as interactive sculpture at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival as part of the festival’s inaugural Storyscapes exhibit. It was just one of five hybrid artworks on display at the Bombay Sapphire House of Imagination, a pop-up exhibition space off the beaten path from the Tribeca Festival screening venues, located on the upper floors of a Varick Street office building.
The team behind “A Journal of Insomnia,” Sweeney, Bruno Choinière, Philippe Lambert, Guillaume Braun, and Thibaut Duverneix, was working to break down the walls of media, performance, and cinema projection with a participatory piece that encouraged Tribeca visitors to share their insomnia stories and join the project’s fast-growing digital community. Sweeney agreed that “Journal” is primarily designed for the web, but he and his crew worked hard to create a site-specific installation in time for Tribeca and were thrilled to see their online project attract sizable crowds and acquire physical life.
“The analogy or the metaphor is that the interior or inside shows insomnia active, while outside people are watching the insomnia come out,” Sweeney told me, as daytime visitors popped through the entryway to contribute their stories, all of which were simultaneously projected onto the cave’s dark surface. “It’s stunning how people open up and share their personal life in a space like this and how insomnia becomes the surface of projection.”
Other hybrid media works at the Bombay Sapphire House of Imagination included “Robots in Residence” by Brent Hoff and Alexander Reben, who created a short film made up of conversations between visitors and their small, four-wheeled robots known as BlabDroids. “Sandy Storyline,” winner of the Bombay Sapphire Award for Transmedia, is a crowd-based, online documentary from Rachel Falcone, Laura Gottesdiener, and Michael Premo that allowed anyone to share Hurricane Sandy stories via audio, photography, video, or text at their onsite viewing pod, or later via the project’s website.
And all of the Storyscapes installations were sustainable, meaning they’ll continue to grow and interact with people digitally long after the House of Imagination exhibition space and branding lounge has closed and the Tribeca Festival has ended.
After multiple visits to Storyscapes and watching the steady stream of visitors both day and night, one sensed a future Tribeca, a creative meetup that emphasizes innovative technology and multiple platforms for storytelling while steadily sweeping away film festival stereotypes of red carpet photos and crowds clamoring for a glimpse of the latest celebrity-of-the-moment.
Granted, films — some 89 features this year, 53 of them world premieres — are still central at Tribeca, which wrapped up on Sunday following an outdoor family festival. But there’s a strong creative shift coming from the event’s operator, the Tribeca Institute, and a concerted effort to push the boundaries of what a film festival is and can be.
The sustainability model for Tribeca, if not all film festivals, is building digital bridges between hybrid artists, as well as the tech, branding, new media, and content marketing communities that help drive New York’s economy.
Ingrid Kopp, director of digital initiatives at the Tribeca Film Institute, is leading the organization in a transmedia direction, creating year-round programs like the Tribeca Hacks workshops and the Tribeca Online festival to help artists interact 24/7. She’s also committed to making the Tribeca Festival a happening worthy of the time, energy, and resources required to attend. Connecting digitally across the globe with fellow artists and fans is one thing; Kopp is convinced that place-based, real time, nose-to-nose encounters are just as important.
“I have always been a huge fan of bringing digital and interactive together,” she said, speaking at the festival. “There is something magical that happens when you bring people together into a physical space.”
Opening weekend calendars at major film festivals tend to focus on high-profile premieres with celebrities, packed press conferences, and stacked press days. This year, Tribeca instead made a bold shift away from red carpets toward the Frank Gehry-designed IAC Building in Chelsea, where TFI Interactive, was taking place — a daylong conference dedicated to the new media projects supported by the TFI New Media Fund and the Ford Foundation. Celebrating its second year, TFI Interactive is the artistic future of Tribeca. With Kopp functioning as emcee, the conversations focused on crowdfunding, thanks to a presentation by Kickstarter’s Stephanie Pereira, and a passionate call to push the digital boundaries of storytelling from Zeega co-founders Jesse Shapins and James Burns.
More excitement came from execs at Vice Media, ESPN, and GE, who talked about new content initiatives within their companies, offering hybrid artists opportunities for multiplatform storytelling. And around the corner from Tribeca Cinemas, at 92YTribeca, GE and the production company Cinelan celebrated their Focus/Forward program of documentary short films that focused on creativity making a difference in the world. Winner of a Tribeca Disruption Innovation Award, Focus/Forward is an example of the bridge building that Kopp promotes at TFI Interactive, a convergence of award-winning documentarians and a global corporation to tell stories of innovation that never once mention or promote a GE product.
These interactive programs are important because when it comes to Tribeca, the most important of New York’s spring film festivals, there’s the problem of generating enough awareness and excitement to rise above the Manhattan skyline.
There’s no escaping the fact that the city swallows up Tribeca despite its best efforts to create a village atmosphere in Chelsea, home to its key screening venues this year, rather than Tribeca. After all, anchoring a festival in an established center of the universe for the culture industry that’s already home to publicists, studio execs, reporters, actors, and agents comes with real challenges. How does one increase the excitement in a city that’s already the most exciting place on earth?
Instead of the tech start-ups that serve as the core at Austin’s SXSW or the specialty film marketplace as Sundance, Tribeca opts for a programming shift that’s in sync with New York City’s Chief Digital Officer Rachel Hunt and the city’s Made in NY programs. The festival is grasping at both Silicon Alley and City Hall’s efforts to grow the tech community. The timing is perfect, as the Sundance myth of the big money acquisition is slowly fading away and the models for making and releasing movies are changing dramatically.
Still, there are flashes of classic showbiz glamour and commerce to be found throughout the festival. After all, this is New York. There are post-premiere after-parties and endless cocktail receptions, including one to celebrate the Ford Foundation and its festival artists atop Trump SoHo New York. Early morning interviews take place at the Hilton New York Fashion District, and an upper-floor hallway becomes a holding pen for Tribeca attendees. Festival crowds pack the Clearview Cinemas Chelsea and AMC Loews Village 7 while filmmakers pose for photos at a staging area on the Clearview mezzanine.
For the many New York–based filmmakers premiering their latest movies at Tribeca, there’s something familiar and comfortable about a film festival unfolding in their own backyard. The hope is to discover young festival crowds and the right crowds to connect with your movie.
Brooklyn director Lance Edmands’s drama Bluebird reintroduces Mad Men star John Slattery as a blue-collar hero capable of supporting a deliberately paced drama of working-class life in rural Maine. Filmmaker Daniel Patrick Carbone, also Brooklyn based, introduces his debut feature film, the coming-of-age drama Hide Your Smiling Faces, by explaining to the audience that New Jersey is called the “garden state” because of its beauty and how he the film succeeded because of its low budget, short shooting schedule, and the salary sacrifices made by his cast and crew. Standing in the lobby after his screening, Carbone talks about the New Jersey landscape, shooting in the same woods he used to play as a teenager, and how he treated this hilly New Jersey landscape like a major character in his movie.
Six Acts director Jonathan Gurfinkel came to town with his screenwriter Rona Segal and lead actress Sivan Levy with the hope of a US acquisition deal and positive audience feedback to take back to his native Tel Aviv. He’s convinced that the universal themes of a teen girl (Levy) making difficult choices in order to be popular will resonate with young people all over the world.
“A young woman who works at the cinema came up to me after the first screening and spoke passionately about how Six Acts was also her personal story,” Segal says, sitting across the street from the Clearview Cinemas Chelsea in a back booth at Trailer Park with Gurfinkel and Levy. “She was moved to tears, and I saw firsthand how this story can connect with people.”
Documentary director Sean Dunne provides an immersive look at the OxyContin epidemic in rural West Virginia in his award-winning documentary Oxyana, while Kim Mordaunt, director of the festival-prize-winning family drama The Rocket, tells the story of a displaced family in rural Laos and the young son who tries to help by building a homemade rocket to win a festival’s cash prize.
When it comes to forecasting the future of Tribeca, though, one looks to Storyscapes and the interactive programs than run as a complementary to the movies.
“I don’t think feature-length narrative films are going anywhere, but clearly the landscape is changing,” Kopp adds. “It’s really important that we are part of this as we continue to support and celebrate film and storytelling … Technology forces us to think about our place in the world and about the sort of stories we can tell and how we can reach audiences. I am not Polyanna-ish about this, but I do think it is incredibly exciting to see the innovative, interactive work that is emerging.”
What will stand out at Tribeca next year? None of the conference experts can predict that, except to say that media industries are changing and Tribeca is trying its best to keep up.
The 2013 Tribeca Film Festival took place April 17–28 at various venues around New York City.