But there is one distinct area that sets the annual confab apart. Some of the movies that premiere there actually premiere everywhere—which is to say, in living rooms and on computer screens nationwide. The festival has developed a robust, multi-faceted digital presence, anchored by video-on-demand offerings and a smart innovation called the Tribeca Online Film Festival, now in its third year. Four of the 90 feature films from 2012 will debut through cable companies' on-demand services during the fest. At the same time, the online festival will present features, shorts and live-streamed events to a first-come, first-serve online audience for free. The only catches are that the various events and screenings are only offered at set dates and times, and there is a cap on the number of viewers permitted.
While film festivals typically aim for location-based exclusivity, trading on the appeal of getting a privileged sneak peek at their picks, Tribeca adopts a big-tent, everyman approach. The digital initiatives exemplify Tribeca's populist bent. After all, you don't even have to visit New York for a taste of what the event offers.
The films that will premiere on demand and be made available online between now and April 29 also encapsulate Tribeca's populism. They're as unclassifiable as the rest of the diverse fest's offerings, a portrait-in-miniature of an event made up of countless niches.
On cable, Hollywood names get their due in the romance The Giant Mechanical Man, which stars Jenna Fischer and Topher Grace. A police detective tries to barter for his kidnapped son in the French thriller Sleepless Night. Death of a Superhero, a drama with fantastical elements, follows a teenage artist coping with a terrible medical diagnosis. Finally, the terrific documentary Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story looks back on the late Booker Wright, an African-American waiter who courageously testified about racial injustice to NBC News in 1965.
The Tribeca Online Film Festival offers the Bronx-set coming-of-age story Babygirl, documentaries about high school wrestling (On the Mat) and an Ethiopian town that's produced multiple Olympic running champions (Town of Runners), and a film about musician John Forté (The Russian Winter). Multiple shorts join the online film-festival program, as do special events such as the TFF Awards Night next Thursday.
Tribeca might never achieve the cachet of its top-of-the-line counterparts. The festival is not a first-rate marketplace, or a staging-ground for prestigious world premieres. In fact, it's most notable for these online and on-demand initiatives, groundbreaking pursuits that have made Tribeca the first truly nationwide film festival. The focus is a logical evolutionary step, given the independent film business's increasing dependence on leveraging digital platforms as tools to earn the sort of instantaneous national exposure that smaller movies simply can't get theatrically. There's no better way to achieve what is ultimately Tribeca's primary purpose, building the audience for independent cinema, than by embracing that reality.