Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal On The Digital Future of Film Festivals

The Tribeca Film Festival co-founders talk about some of their daring new digital strategies

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Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival on Apr. 26, 2012, in New York City

The Tribeca Film Festival mostly takes place in the New York City neighborhood for which it is named. Mostly, we say, because the TFF ( (which, this year, runs from April 17 through April 26) has been steadily expanding its presence on that vast  realm called the Internet. In fact, the annual Gotham gathering, now in its 12th year, provides a tantalizing look at the digital future of film festivals.

“We didn’t know when we started it how long it would run for, what the interest would be,” Robert De Niro, one of the festival’s founders, tells TIME, “and I’d always hoped it would have its own character and be a part of Tribeca, and New York, and even the country.”

“When we started Tribeca, there was no YouTube or Facebook. Social networking meant something different,” says his co-founder, producer Jane Rosenthal. “It was a different world and it wasn’t that long ago.”

(MORE: TIME’s complete coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival)

One obvious example of how their festival has has adopted new technologies is how it’s challenging the notion of what it means to “attend” events like these. Last year, there were four world-premieres feature (as well as several short films and panel discussions) made available to stream for free. This year, the Tribeca Online Festival has more of the same: three features—Alias Ruby Blade: A Story of Love and Revolution, Lil Bub & Friendz, Farah Goes Bang and four short films—can be viewed on the festival’s website; viewers can also vote on which of those films should receive cash prizes.

The festival will also offer What Richard Did, Greetings from Tim Buckley, Fresh Meat and The English Teacher on video on demand (VOD) via cable, iTunes, Amazon and other services. Aspiring filmmakers were even given the opportunity to enter a competition:  #6SECFILMS , cosponsored by social-networking service Vine, is a contest — judged by celebrities and with a $600 prize — to find the best six-second movie.

“The viewer has gained more and more control of when and how they look at films,” Rosenthal says. “We’re sort of in a transitional state.”

It would be easy to wonder why a film festival— with its long lines and attendant expenses — would actively venture into the internet and VOD. If you can access the films from home, why bother?

Tribeca organizers are betting that the opposite is true: that the festival can extend brand and experience by widening its audience to those not physically in attendance. Furthermore, it can emphasize its selectivity and critical judgement. Rosenthal point to Tribeca’s “curatorial voice”: the 89 films — narrowed down from than 3,000 feature films submitted this year — chosen by festival programmers.

(MORE: The 100 Greatest Films of All-TIME)

There are also benefits for filmmakers to bringing their work to a festival with a large online component. Audience members watching at home, using that wider access to the festival’s material, also provide an opportunity for filmmakers to build word-of-mouth across the country. Plus, the format allows filmmakers to experiment to the full extent of their creativity. “You aren’t limited to just two hours the way you are in a movie theater,” says Rosenthal. “I think the biggest thing for us is looking at where technology and creativity are coming together. There’s definitely a shift going on right now.”

Still, there are some kind of experiences the Internet can’t provide. “The evenings I’m always thrilled to see are our ‘drive-ins,’ free outdoor screenings for the public,” says Rosenthal. “There’s nothing better than sitting in an audience laughing or crying and sharing those experiences together. It’s a much different experience than just watching a film alone.”

Rosenthal and De Niro don’t see that element changing any time soon, even if they can’t predict what a film festival will look like in another dozen years.

“We look forward to being there to wave,” she says.

“How many years?” asks De Niro, joking and knocking on wood. “If I’m still around. Hopefully!”