Ready, set, watch! The 16th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival kicks off Wednesday, April 19, and runs through April 30. What started as a showcase and support system for New York City’s independent film community following 9/11 has become an important cultural — and business — event where classic storytelling and technological innovations converge on a global stage.
The festival will open with the world premiere of the feature length documentary Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives about the legendary music man, followed by a live concert featuring Aretha Franklin. On April 30, the festival will close with back-to-back screenings of Godfather and The Godfather Part II, celebrating the 45th anniversary of the American masterpiece. In between, the days will be packed with film, digital, VR, music and gaming content. And at the center of this artistic storm is Andrew Essex, who describes the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival thusly: “12 days of mind-boggling, head-spinning cultural whiplash.”
Entrepreneur spoke with Essex about the challenges and joys of running such a mammoth undertaking. Challenge number one? Getting people off the couch.
You’ve been at Tribeca for just over a year now. What was the biggest problem you needed to solve as CEO?
I don’t think there was so much of a major problem to be solved as a chance to start focusing on the problems of the next five years. Tribeca has entered into its teenage years and anyone alive in the world today recognizes that consumer behavior as it relates to media has radically changed.
When the festival started there was no Twitter or YouTube, let alone iTunes, Netflix and Amazon Prime. And now, all of those things exist and my central hypothesis is that for consumers of content, there really is no reason to leave the house. There are 429 scripted television shows available on any device at any time. So the question becomes: how do you make the event more eventful? We realized that there is a very serious case of FOMO that we need to generate. And that means incredible programming that really can’t be seen anywhere else on the planet.
Tribeca CEO Andrew Essex (right) with co-founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal
To celebrate the 45th anniversary of the The Godfather, we’re going to have the original cast — De Niro, Pacino, Coppola, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton — all onstage together. In one of our featured talks, Bruce Springsteen is going to be interviewed by Tom Hanks. We have a VR piece called The Last Goodbye that is co-produced by Steven Spielberg, about a Holocaust survivor who returns to the Majdanek concentration camp. It is extremely challenging and compelling and is just one of the ways the festival is showing that there are new ways to tell stories.
What are you doing to help people who can’t make it to the festival experience it?
We have an amazing audience in New York, but we thought, how do we get a kid in South Dakota to see what’s happening here as well? So live streaming is key. We’ll be live streaming on Facebook for the first time, and will continue to work with our partner AT&T to use their expanding assets to scale the enterprise.
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How do you walk the line of integrating sponsors into your events and content while staying authentic?
I’m not a fan of traditional sponsorship. I think it’s an antiquated model. A brand doesn’t get a lot of return on being on a step and repeat. So we think about the event as a live experience, which brands can be natively integrated. For example, we are using IBM’s Watson to crowdsource creativity. We have Tribeca alumni making films for Tumi.
One of the biggest trends is brands telling authentic stories. We have a new category called the Tribeca X which is awarding interesting work that used to be called Madison Avenue work. Brands that are making content that is designed to attract an audience rather than repel one. That’s a very encouraging development for the industry. I think the main breakthrough has been brands recognizing that there is a person at the other end of the screen. The single-most important thing that successful brands do is recognize that just because they can doesn’t mean that they should. We learned that recently from a certain carbonated soda company.
Can you give us any kind of prediction of what you think the Tribeca Film Festival will look like in five years?
I would personally like to be cryogenically frozen in five years! If the rate at which media is changing is crazy now, I think it will be exponentially more intense in five years. But I can assure you that Tribeca will remain on the cutting edge. There is so much to discover this year. I would encourage people to download the app — we’re officially paperless — and explore and they will be blown away by the breath and depth of the programming. And if they’re not, I will personally give them their money back.