Beyond the Festival

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NYRemezcla’s Pablo Goldbarg interviews Sydney Meeks, president of the Tribeca Film Institute.

Remezcla: One part of the mission that TFI has is to celebrate filmmaking for all ages. I’m wondering about the importance of engaging young filmmakers. That’s probably not happening in most film festivals.

S.M.: It’s definitely something that we thought about when we were coming out with the programs that we wanted to do. Of course it’s New York city, and there is just a wealth of incredibly interesting people. It’s such a filmmaking city, but we were surprised even to know about all the different organizations out working with youth, and so we wanted to come out with something to do, to celebrate not only those filmmakers but the organizations working with them. In addition, this year we started a new program; it’s a pilot program that we hope to expand and perhaps take to other schools of the city and maybe even beyond that called “Tribeca Teaches”. And there we reach an even younger set because we work with middle school students. So we have fifth- , sixth- , seventh- , and eighth-grade students along with high school students working in their schools, and we brought festival films into the schools. So, yes, I do think that with a lot of major film festivals I know, certainly there are some children film festivals, and there’s a lot of emphasis on having films that work for all ages, and they have family-friendly film festivals, but there aren’t many film festivals working with youth in the way that we are. We are doing free screenings, especially for the high school grades. We reach close to 3000 students with free community screenings during the festival and beforehand during the year. So, we are trying to expand and make new and more independent film more accessible to young people thorough the city.

RE: Tribeca All Access connects with filmmakers based in New York if they are “diversity” — from Latinos to Afro-Americans. How do you feel in terms of working with all these groups that probably they don’t have the same access to everything?

S.M.: That was one of the reasons the TAA program started. Our festival programmers were seeing lots of films coming, and they weren’t seeing the kind of diversity of voices we’d like to see. We’d like to see the actual representation our country actually is <laughs> in terms of the stories that are being told. In TAA we do have a lot of filmmakers who come from New York, but it’s open to filmmakers of color from all over the United States. Most of them are based in L.A. or N.Y. because that’s where you go if you’re trying to make movies, but they do come from other places as well. It’s something we think is important if you look to the statistics from, for instance, the WGA [Writers Guild of America] or the DGA [Directors Guild of America], there’re still pretty low. I think, and I could be wrong, but the last stat we had from the WGA was that filmmakers of color comprise about six to seven percent of their membership. It probably has some interesting stats about women as well <laughs>. This program really does focus on men and women, and the feeling is that there are incredible stories to tell. These are talented filmmakers. It’s a competitive program. They are filmmakers who really persevere. They’re gonna get their stories told with or without TAA, but the idea is that whatever we can do to help them facilitate the process of getting the work made and to help them with their careers in some way, shape and form… that’s what we wanna do. The industry is excited about it too. It’s not just that we were thinking, “Oh, these filmmakers are getting the comments, are meeting these people, and that’s great for them”. It’s great for the industry. They’re getting to see works that probably they wouldn’t see. Not because they don’t really want to. It’s just such a crazy, competitive and busy world in this business that we are actually helping them by saying, “Here there are thirty-two wonderful projects for you to choose from. Which one are you interested in?” And maybe they take meetings with a filmmaker, and we hope that that connection is gonna go somewhere.

P.G.: Can you tell me about this year’s experience with the Film Fellows?

S.M.: Well, the Film Fellows is obviously a separate program, and that’s for the younger set. That is just for New York-based students, most of whom already produced or participated in the making of a short film in some capacity. It was really great this year. Lisa Lucas, who runs the program, worked really hard to make that a diverse slate of programming for the students. So, they did everything from [meeting] individuals from the industry that work as film producers, as cinematographers, as PR people, even people from the non-profit world, from a funding organization… they came and they met with the students, and they talked about the different jobs that are possible in the industry. They met with representatives from film schools, so they have a sort of “here are the practical things” – and I think they had a really good time. They learned about networking; they went to film festival events; they went to screenings; they met with other filmmakers; they did Q&A sessions and that type of stuff. So, the idea was really to immerse them in a “behind the scenes” of the festival the film industry. I think it was really successful. At the end they had to present a film pitch to their friends and families and special guests <laughs>. A lot of them were very, very nervous! But they got up on the microphone in front of the group, and they did a one-to-two-minute pitch about the films they want to work on. Lisa is working on getting each of them into another new element she is doing this year, setting internships. We are trying to set them up for at least a six-week internship in the Fall. I know they are working really hard to actually match them well, so if the student says “I really want to be an editor, this is what I’m interested in, I’m working on Final Cut”, well, let’s try to make them set up with another editor or somebody working on post. The other thing about the Fellows program is that it’s this two-week immersion, so they all become close friends, and they are gonna keep in touch. We do activities during the year. We have a screening; we invite them all; we do a workshop just for them. But, for instance if we decide there is a movie coming out we want or we get permission to screen maybe for third graders or younger students, we also ask the fellows to volunteer time with the Institute, so they serve as Ambassadors for youth media thorough the city. So they also have to give us a commitment for service. We take them to different schools and have them meet with other students and tell them their experiences as fellows and how using film can be another way to get your story out there.

RE.: You have a lot of involvement with the New York communities of different kinds of backgrounds, not only with the TAA but also with “Tribeca Teaches” in the Bronx and other neighborhoods. This is not only Tribeca and Chinatown. You also have a collaboration with the “Made in NY” program from the Mayor’s Office and the New York Council of the Arts. How important is this task and mission of integrating New York into the Institute?

Oh, that was very well put. I need to say what you just said. I agree with you <laughs>. Yes, it’s very important. You keep hearing it in the press and our founders will say that: The festival itself started over one thing. That was 9/11 and what happened down here. The mission was bringing people back down and revitalizing the neighborhood and celebrating, saying, “What can we do to help the community?” One thing was, they’re film producers and they thought about film. And the fact also that film can be healing and it can bring people together. But, in general, most of them who work here can’t think of a better place to have a film festival than in New York City. It’s just this giant, incredible… all these people that are here. So, it’s important to us to be a festival for New York and about New York. We want to reach out. We started downtown. We care about these neighborhoods, but at the same time we’re moving forward. We want to expand, and we want to be as inclusive as we can of different neighborhoods, different groups, and really try to have a wide representation of the city, because it’s certainly a city with lots of vibrant communities that can be and should be celebrated.