When the Tribeca Film Festival opens on April 19, there will be significantly fewer feature films and more virtual reality projects, TV programs and video games—a year after the event experienced a dramatic drop in attendance.
“Early on, the goal was to curate the strongest films available to us and create experiences that brought people together around film,” said Andrew Essex, CEO of Tribeca Enterprises. “The same goal stands, but as the business of entertainment has changed, we have expanded past film to create homes for how stories are being told today.”
Founded by Robert De Niro, Craig Hatkoff and Jane Rosenthal in response to the 9/11 attacks, the festival was intended as a vehicle to help revive lower Manhattan’s economy. By 2015 it grew to 467,000 attendees and 101 films. But last year attendance plummeted to 280,000 due to a reduction in the number and scale of public events—particularly family events and a street fair—according to a festival spokeswoman. However, the number of ticketed attendees grew from 9% between 2015 and 2016.
The shift away from film—this year there will be 97 feature films shown, down from 120—is being driven by creative impulses, Essex said, not by declining interest or revenue, which the festival declined to disclose.
The move toward other mediums has been several years in the making. The festival first began exhibiting non-film and emerging media in 2013 with Tribeca Immersive. This year it is showcasing 26% more virtual reality programming. The second annual Tribeca TV will feature 15 shows including the world debut of Hulu’s A Handmaid’s Tale. And the festival will debut Tribeca Games, offering a series of discussions with video game designers.
“We have grown from a film festival to a critical cultural event,” Essex said.
The shift toward television and new media does follow industry trends. According to a report this month by market research firm Greenlight Insights, global virtual reality revenue is projected to exceed $7 billion by year-end and keep trending upward.
“If Tribeca takes it seriously, that encourages young people to take a look at this medium,” said Ken Perlin, a VR expert and professor of computer science at the NYU Future Reality Lab.
In the city, meanwhile, the TV industry is booming while film activity is shrinking. There were 52 episodic TV series shot here last year, a 15% increase from 2015. In that time, only seven feature film productions with budgets greater than $66 million were filmed here, down from 13 in 2015. The decline bumped the city out of the top five major motion picture production centers, behind California, Canada, Georgia, Louisiana, and the United Kingdom.
Now that Tribeca has transformed beyond film, Essex said, it is looking beyond the traditional festival model altogether and seeking to plan events year-round. “We are not limited to the 12 days in the spring,” he said.
Correction: There will be 97 feature films shown. The festival declined to disclose its revenue. The revenue for the Tribeca Film Institute was misattributed to the festival in an earlier version of this article, originally published Apr. 17, 2017.
Clarification: While overall attendance dropped, the number of ticketed attendees grew from 9% between 2015 and 2016.