For me the epitome of the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival was the latest merchandise rollout by the Olsen twins (who’ll always be referred to as such so long as they do projects in tandem). The screening of NEW YORK MINUTE, the so-called “first adult film” (the kind girls like, not boys) on their trajectory towards dual-Martha Stewart moguldom, was both a perigree for teeming throngs of pubescent female partisans and a synergistic celebration of their temporary NYC residency – three days after having its world premiere in LOS ANGELES. A harmonically convergent promotion of film, the city, transitory econo-tourism, and family-friendliness (while the real action was taking place elsewhere), it mirrored the no-stone-unturned marketing campaign for the festival itself – a further example of Shopping Mall Culture overtaking Manhattan.

After three years it’s clear that expectations TFF would soon grow into or evolve an identity independent of the factors which spurred its existence are mistaken – it remains faithful to the purpose founders Jane Rosenthal and Robert DeNiro gave for its inception: returning patronage into the neighborhood most economically blighted by the 9/11 attack. As the nickname I’ve coined for it [see title above] indicates, functionally it’s not a film festival at all, but rather a weeklong theme park that happens to show lots of movies. By design it has more in common with other big New York plans which use entertainment as a fulcrum for civic boosterism and business development; and beside those hyped via dubious economic forecasts while dispersing government funds to primarily benefit private for-profit enterprises under highly questionable tax abatement and loan schemes, TFF is a model device of responsible, inclusive community planning and financial circumspection. Yet, while it was instrumental in restoring vitality to a devastated region in 2002, and is now a 9-day local windfall, its’ lasting legacy for participating filmmakers appears more ambiguous.

First, consider the timing, which is not fortuitous. Ending three days before Cannes starts effectively denies TFF a quality slate of New York and/or North American premieres. (Ask yourself which events present greater excitement: debuts of films by Garry Marshall and Ed Burns – or the latest provocations by Michael Moore and Pedro Almodóvar?) A TFF in June or July could supplant the New York Film Festival as the preeminent cinema happening here, but near-synchronicity with Cannes compels industry players to largely skip it. I saw Bingham Ray at the multiplex, but he’s hard-core; most execs you’d encounter, if at all, at parties for product they had in the fest (Wellspring, Showtime, HBO and A&E all hosted events).

In fact, TFF seems most useful as a launching pad for films with imminent release dates, as 16 had theatrical openings set, 7 were due to run on cable, and 4 more had distribution deals in place (including Richard Eyre’s STAGE BEAUTY – like the sole narrative acquisition announced during the fest, David Duchovny’s HOUSE OF D, a Jane Rosenthal-produced Lionsgate release). The atmosphere is that of a better-capitalized IFP Market set astride a block party, as films with distributors equal IFPM No Borders projects in standing above the sheer volume of films and simultaneous screenings overall. TFF is leavened by more foreigners, though among them veterans like Argentina’s Fernando Solanas (A SOCIAL GENOCIDE/MEMORIA DEL SAQUEO) or Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira (A TALKING PICTURE/UM FILME FALADO) face as hard a task getting US distribution as first- or second-timers who’re just happy to take part.

One the latter was BROOKLYN BOUND director Rich Devaney, who said at the closing party he was “glad to be in Tribeca, because we filmed right down here.” Likewise, LET’S ROCK AGAIN! helmer Dick Rude told Tribeca Institute President/CEO Madelyn Wils at the DGA reception that the fest “really feels like a family.” To Kisha Cameron, producer of DRESSED LIKE KINGS, which won the TAA Creative Promise Award for documentary as part of the new All-Access program intended to assist US-based filmmakers of color, the festival is much like others she’s attended in her previous role as a New Line/Fine Line executive; the largesse needed to stage them, she observes, makes most more user-friendly for sponsors than filmmakers, who “really have to work” the event to get the greatest benefit.

Her film reaped a $10,000 prize (Phil Bertelsen’s ROCK THE PAINT and Ellie Lee’s THE ROAD HOME split an equal award for narrative), one of a handful with tangible rewards to show. Docs garnering $25,000 were Paulo Sacramento’s THE PRISONER OF THE IRON BARS – SELF PORTRAITS (O PRISONEIRO DA GRADE DE FERRO – RETRATOS) in the ‘New’ category and audience winner EVERY MOTHER’S SON by Tami Gold & Kelly Anderson; the Best Doc was earned Sonia Herman Dolz $12,500 for THE MASTER AND HIS PUPIL, and the Best Doc Feature prize of  $12,500 was split by Cathy Henkel’s THE MAN WHO STOLE MY MOTHER’S FACE and Juliano Mer Khamis & Danniel Danniel’s ARNA’S CHILDREN – each of which were acquired by Sundance Channel. Deservedly winning a total of $45,000 for Best Narrative and Best New Narrative was Liu Fen Dou for THE GREEN HAT (LU MAO ZI), while Larry Golin’s CROSS BRONX won $15,000 for Best High Def Technology; each netting $48,000 from the TFI/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for script development were Gretchen Somerfeld for FACE VALUE and David Baxter for THE BROKEN CODE.

Last year’s slate seemed stronger, but ample original and interesting work was on display. Documentaries ranged from Andrew Douglas’s poetic travelogue SEARCHING FOR THE WRONG-EYED JESUS to the historic bio-detective procedural of Peter Chappell & Catherine Peix’s THE ORIGIN OF AIDS to Sergei Dvortsevoy’s tragicomic look at a blind man and his cat, IN THE DARK (V TEMNOTE). TERKEL IN TROUBLE (TERKEL I KNIBE) by Stefan Fjeldmark, Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen and Thorbjorn Christöffersen was a deliriously offensive CGI feature, and two films crafted with an eye to likely broad release were Léa Pool’s lushly photographed rainforest excursion THE BLUE BUTTERFLY (MARIPOSA AZUL), and Tricia Brock’s tale of musical misfits, KILLER DILLER. Almost as a cultural corrective, TFF always shows a decent amount of Middle Eastern films; among others there were AFGHANISTAN, THE LOST TRUTH (AFGHANISTAN, HAGHIGHAT-E GOMSHODEH), ABADAN, THE WALL (DIVAR BOLAND), ZAMAN, THE MAN FROM THE REEDS AND CRYSTAL

Like filmmakers, journalists for cinecentric outlets were given less access than larger mainstream media who tend not to focus on lesser-known directors’ work, so if you didn’t win any prizes you had to hustle to get good coverage. Getting people into screenings could also be a chore – a shorts director told me he counted 200 empty seats at his program after friends who came from out of town were told it was sold out and denied entry. I’ve heard that same story every year; clearly the stand-by policy needs to change when paying customers can’t get into unfilled theaters. Even big names weren’t immune to last-minute glitches. TFF’s the only film fest I know of that’s postponed a premiere due to conflict with a TV sitcom broadcast, Duchovny’s flick being moved to the day after Friends’ final episode.

As festivals go, TFF is sort of like McDonald’s: there are nutritious ingredients on the menu, but they’re overshadowed in a venture that’s super-sized, pitched aggressively to all ages, and is something of a franchise operation. Recently announced programs by Tribeca Institute include the Tribeca Theatre Festival, co-produced with the Drama Dept., set for October, and So You Wanna Be In Pictures, a November expo at the Javits Center focusing on decoding the movie business to the public. In light of the consumer-oriented emphasis of TFF, the expo seems more than a little redundant, but, in this age of all-out brand extension, is perhaps inevitable.

Though the county fair vibe of TFF is fine for folks with children, browsers and downtown vendors, serious filmmakers may be given pause. Sans a distribution platform, or a science-themed script for the Sloan competition, it shouldn’t be a priority on the level of Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, Rotterdam, Berlin or Venice, which all, rightly or not, have established status as hothouses for new talent and new work by veteran directors. Unless the timing of TFF is reconsidered, it’s unlikely to join their ranks.