The Tribeca Festival was created right after the attacks on September 11, 2001 to revitalize New York City. This year, on its 20th anniversary, it had the mission of adding a spark back to the city after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The event, which dropped the "Film" from its name in order to reflect the growing nature of content it included like podcasts and immersive experiences, was held June 9 through June 20. It was one of the first major film festivals in 2021 to return to in-person screenings.
"It was so important for us to have in-person, especially in New York City," said Tribeca Festival vice president of immersive programming Loren Hammonds. "We were hit so hard by the pandemic earlier, and to be able to be at this place now where we can welcome audiences back into the streets, socially-distanced with outdoor screenings and also indoors, safe and masked, to all of these wonderful immersive experiences, was a key to us."
The festival kicked off with Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights and closed with a screening of Dave Chapelle's untitled documentary in Radio City Music Hall. With the demand for content at an all-time high and audiences increasingly streaming TV shows, more people submitted projects than usual and interest from streaming media companies was high.
"I do think we've had much more buzz than we've ever had," said Tribeca Enterprises CEO Jane Rosenthal. "I think it's forced us to be very, even more choosy than we normally are."
Some projects, like the immersive documentary Lovebirds of the Twin Towers, paid direct homage to New York. The experience included a virtual reality film about Carmen and Arturo Griffith, two elevator operators that fell in love in the World Trade Center and both survived the 9/11 attacks. Viewers can walk around the ground and observation floors while listening to the narrators' tell their stories with the help of a headset. In addition, an augmented reality experience by StoryFile allows viewers to ask Carmen questions about her memories.
Creator Ari Palitz said he wanted to create content that would help younger audiences develop memories of the Twin Towers outside of the images of devastation. Filming was completed just one and a half months before the Tribeca Festival because of COVID restrictions and vaccination levels.
"Especially for future generations, the images that they have of the World Trade Center are usually of the attacks. For me, who has such amazing and beautiful memories there, I just wanted to try and give them an opportunity to have those as well," he said.
About 60 percent of this year's features were from LGBTQ+, women, or minority directors. The festival also offered a special dedication to Juneteenth, highlighting black filmmakers including Venus as a Boy director Ty Hodges. With Juneteenth and Pride both being celebrated in June, it gave people a chance to celebrate being free after the pandemic and reset their mentalities, Hodges pointed out.
"What it did was it brought us all to the same space, everyone had to kind of figure this out," he explained. "We all had questions about mortality, no matter what race you were. It didn't matter how old you were. It didn't matter how much money you have. We all were kind of put on pause and had to really look within and, and be healthy. Right?"
His film, which premiered at Tribeca Festival, explores the definition of modern masculinity, what it means to be an artist, and the stereotypes the world puts us in.
"It's only natural for us to kind of start expanding our point of views, our personal ideas, challenging stereotypes," Hodges said. "And I think, you know, as a creative, that's kind of what I want to do is be a part of the change."
It wasn't just traditional creatives that saw opportunities in the post-pandemic film market; It was also brands seeking to get in front of audiences that don't watch traditional commercials, pointed out Roku Brand Studio head Chris Bruss.
"Roku has a very large audience," Bruss said. "We're in over 50 million households, and that audience is looking for great, entertaining content. Obviously brands are coming to us at Roku because of that shift of viewership from traditional TV to streaming. They're looking to Roku to reach that big audience and also they're asking us 'How can we reach that audience in an interesting and innovative way?'"
Roku Brand Studio launched in March to work with companies that want to create sponsored or branded television shows and content for Roku.
"We need to be thinking of content not just in terms of the traditional 30-second spot, but we need to be offering that audience something delightful, something more entertaining to watch," he said.
These shows, movies, and documentaries can air on the Roku Channel right next to other programming. Projects so far have included Roku Recommends, which is sponsored by Walmart, and an upcoming project with Maker's Mark.
"The most searched word on Roku's platform is free, right?" Bruss explained. "I think that audiences in general, particularly on Roku, understand there's a value exchange there. The ability to access premium free content comes with a relationship with an advertiser either because there will be ads that run during your favorite movie or TV show or because that brand has actually created something they think you will enjoy."
Allowing everyone to gather in person at the Tribeca Festival and watch content was even more impactful after a year and a half of being socially distant, Venus as a Boy's Hodges noted.
"I didn't know that certain things were funny," the director said. "I didn't know that things landed this way. And so just to have, like, a bunch of people in a room watching something that you've worked on for almost two years, to me, it was amazing."
And, Tribeca Enterprises' Rosenthal is crossing her fingers that it stays that way.
"My hope for the next year is that everybody stays healthy, that we can all see each other in person and that the world opens up again," Rosenthal said.