Last year the Tribeca Film Festival shook things up a bit, both on screen and behind it. Most notably it introduced TV programming, allowing festival goers to view premieres of some of the industry’s most buzzed-about shows. Then Cara Cusumano was promoted to director of programming. Cusumano, who has been with TFF since 2008, served as the festival’s senior programmer for two years.
Prior to Tribeca, the Rhode Island native and Brooklyn resident programmed for the Hamptons International Film Festival. During her tenure Cusumano curated HIFF’s signature Conflict & Resolution competition and Oscar-qualifying shorts program. The NYU and Barnard graduate has also worked with film organizations including the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and the Brooklyn International Film Festival. In her new role she will be responsible for spearheading the 16th annual New York City-based festival’s feature film and TV programming, which continues to evolve.
Will the programming look different this year than in year’s past?
This is my first year as director of programming, but actually my tenth year at Tribeca. With that double perspective I tried to bring both fresh eyes and a deeper knowledge of what works and what doesn’t to how we put the program together. There will be a few targeted tweaks in the shape and size of our sections, and we’ve reduced the total number of films in the festival, but I think we are all about consistency and our primary objective has been and continues to be to present the strongest films possible.
Tell us about those “targeted tweaks.”
We will have 97 features this year, which is down from around 120 last year. One of the targeted tweaks was to split our “Spotlight” section into “Spotlight Documentary” and “Spotlight Narrative.” It may seem like a tiny change, but it takes a section that last year was nearly 40 films altogether and creates two sections of about 15 films each. I think this makes things clearer and more navigable without fundamentally changing the mission and identity of the program. And it helps each film get more attention.
Did you decide to program fewer films because of the criticism of the festival as having an “overstuffed schedule?”
As the festival has grown in more interdisciplinary ways—into VR, TV, online work, etc.—it’s always important to be sure that each element is adding value rather than distracting. That process of self-editing is so important, and always ongoing. We hope the result is an overall festival that is both broad but highly curated, and not “overstuffed.”
What are you looking for in a film? Is there any one characteristic across all genres?
Something I haven’t seen yet. When you watch the number of films that we do, a filmmaker that is doing or trying something different really stands out. We are always looking to be surprised.
Is there an overarching cinematic theme to this year’s festival?
The festival takes place over Earth Day this year. We definitely used that as a jumping off point and programmed an interesting range of environmental work, which we hope will bring a spotlight to these issues in new ways. We have a rich tradition at Tribeca of launching films with real-world impact—for example, Oscar-nominated Virunga—and hope to see some of these selections go on to do the same.
While Earth Day is the most specific example, it’s part of a larger trend that speaks to our current moment in time. Some, like Get Me Roger Stone or even our “Midnight” selection Tilt, do so directly. Others, like The Reagan Show, LA ’92 or Elián, do so by looking back at moments in history that seem to resonate with what we are experiencing today.
There are a number of stories about citizen-journalists and artist-activists, individuals working for change and having an impact. More conceptually, we noticed a trend this year of filmmakers looking at ideas of truth and objectivity, and the unreliable narrator— how do we know what’s real and whose story is the truth?—in films like Flames, A River Below or A Gray State. When journalism and fact are as challenged as they are today, these filmmakers look at the very idea of objectivity and in many cases, achieve a greater truth. TV programming was arguably the biggest addition to last year’s fest.
What is the value in adding the television component to a film festival?
We are here to provide a platform for the best storytelling and filmmaking. Increasingly, we are seeing work that really inspires us as much in the world of television as in film—there is just as valuable a role for a curator and festival celebration in TV as there is in film. It’s the same reason we created space at the festival for VR, for online work, for branded content. We follow the filmmakers’ leads and want to create a platform for them and an access point for audiences across all mediums.
This year, Tribeca’s TV programming will be open to submissions. Why the change?
We want our TV program to be a place of discovery. Just like the feature films slate, we want it to be open both to distributors looking to launch their premieres to a public audience and also to independent creators who maybe don’t have the support of a broadcaster behind them but just need the opportunity to have their work seen to potentially open those doors. The festival can serve that purpose of saying, “Hey, we’ve seen everything that’s out there and we think you need to pay attention to these handfuls of new voices we have selected.”
Barbra Streisand and Alejandro González Iñárritu will take part in two Tribeca Talks this year. How important is the celebrity component to the festival?
The participants of our Storytellers and Directors Series are chosen because they speak to the overall mission of the festival: artists and creators of amazing vision, often working across disciplines in ways that push storytelling in unexpected directions. We love these talks because they give our audiences the opportunity to hear directly from these legends in an intimate context.
The documentary Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives is this year’s opening night film. How and why did this film get selected?
It is a celebration of artistic collaboration, which is something very close to our hearts at Tribeca. This is a film about artists and storytellers and one incredible producer, and the impact they had together on their field and on the world. Following up such an inspiring story with the once-in-a-lifetime concert we have put together is the perfect celebration of artistic community to kick off the festival.
How does TFF stand apart from other festivals?
The biggest difference would probably be our size. We show less than 100 feature films compared to most other major festivals, which are 50 percent or more larger. We like to keep the program focused to be sure every film is getting the spotlight it deserves. And to be sure that we are able to work closely with each film and give them as much of a custom experience as possible based on their goals, which we wouldn’t be able to do if we were showing twice as many films.
About two-thirds of the films at Tribeca are making their world premiere. We definitely program films that have played elsewhere, but we always want to be sure that we are adding value to the film’s journey. Rather than show something just to show something if it’s played at a lot of festivals, we often prefer to give that opportunity to a new film that hasn’t had the chance to be exposed to the press, industry and audiences.
How does New York City influence TFF?
Every festival is programming for its local audience and often makes choices based on the films that will do well in their specific community. We are so lucky that our specific community is New York City—the biggest, coolest, weirdest, most diverse community in the world. We are given so much freedom in the kinds of films we can choose to program. I know they will find their audience here.