By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Tribeca Film Festival, born as a way to revive downtown Manhattan after the September 11 attacks, turns ten this week and is leading a push for new ways for audiences to watch independent films.
The high-profile festival, which kicks off on Wednesday with a Cameron Crowe documentary about the making of the Elton John album, "The Union," and a performance by the British singer, has gained a reputation for critically acclaimed documentaries and global indie cinema.
Ten years on, although some detractors feel it lacks identity and have criticized it for a weak narrative film selection, Tribeca is making a strong bid to be at the forefront of new methods of distribution and deals in the online and video-on-demand markets.
"At ten we are very, very young," said executive director Nancy Shafer, saying the festival had both "come into its own" but was still evolving after its launch in 2002.
The festival was conceived as a bid to revive the neighborhood of Tribeca after the devastating September 11 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. The city estimates the festival has since generated $600 million.
This year more than 5,000 films were submitted, resulting in 93 feature films, which include 41 documentaries and 52 narrative fiction films. Festival attendees will include Julia Roberts, Will Ferrell, Martin Scorsese, Orlando Bloom, Jeremy Piven and Ryan Phillippe. The festival runs April 20 to May 1.
Riding off the premiere of "The Union," 15 music-themed feature films are showing this year. They include a new look at the life of veteran rocker Ozzy Osbourne called "God Bless Ozzy Osbourne, "Mama Africa," about South African singer Miriam Makeba and a documentary about film and Broadway star Carol Channing, now 90.
A documentary about Kings of Leon, called "Talihina Sky," will show some of the early life of the band's three brothers before they became the popular U.S. rock group.
INDIE FILMS FOR VOD
Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney's new documentary, "Catching Hell," focuses on the psychology of die-hard sport fans and the hysteria that turned lifelong Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman into the most hated man in Chicago when he fatefully deflected a foul ball.
It is the most high profile of a number of sports-related films, including "Renee," about transsexual tennis player Renee Richards, and two boxing movies, "Klitschko," about Ukrainian champion boxing brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko and "Like Water" about Brazilian Ultimate Fighting Champion Anderson Silva.
In the narrative arena, "Jesus Henry Christ," a film about a boy genius whose world gets turned upside down, starring Toni Collette and Michael Sheen and executive produced by Julia Roberts, will show among several star-powered indie films.
Foreign films "Black Butterflies", a drama based on the life during apartheid of South African poet Ingrid Jonker, "Grey Matter" from Rwanda and "Cairo Exit" about a young woman's struggles in the Egyptian capital.
But some of the industry's eyes will instead be watching Tribeca's one-year-old own distribution arm, which this year is doubling its output to 26 films and will release them on digital platforms, such as video-on-demand, in the space of one year.
And Tribeca will again experiment with online, aiming to lure audiences in the United States with a limited number of films for free online this year after charging for them in 2010.
Geoff Gilmore, chief creative officer at Tribeca, said Tribeca was trying "to not just figure out ways to make films available, but how to make them visible."
Gilmore said improving marketing was key to better visibility and box office of indie films released to video on demand.
(Editing by Jill Serjeant)