The Tribeca Film Festival celebrates entertainment in practically all its forms, from movies and documentaries, to virtual reality experiences, to television. This year’s event marks the second annual Tribeca TV program and it includes a number of prominent television premieres, including the first episode of NatGeo’s Genius, covering the rebellious life of Albert Einstein; Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the bestselling dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood; and Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as it kicks off its third season, among many more. These premieres are being shown in movie theaters to large audiences and they’re followed by live Q&A sessions with the cast and creators.
Cara Cusumano, director of programming for the Tribeca Film Festival, discussed this year’s Tribeca TV program with AListDaily. “We have a combination of about 15 shows in total,” she said. “They include new series premiering for the very first time, new seasons of fan favorite and critically acclaimed shows, some independent pilots that we curated from submissions, and we have a featured documentaries and sneak peeks. So, we have a cool spectrum of work.”
Cusumano then highlighted some of the most prominent show premieres. “Of the new series, I would highlight Genius from Ron Howard and Geoffrey Rush about the life of Einstein. It’s cinematic, and NatGeo’s first scripted TV show,” she began. “Then, of course, The Handmaid’s Tale is hugely anticipated. One of the executive producers on that, Reed Morano, directed the first episode and is a Tribeca alum. She premiered her first feature film, Meadowland, with us a couple of years ago. The Sinner, which comes from USA Network, is a gritty crime procedural about a murderer that stars Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman.”
Cusumano also emphasized how each show premiere was followed by in-depth conversation with the cast and creators behind them. “That’s one of the ways we do it a little bit differently and bring that festival energy to audiences so that they’re seeing their favorite shows on the big screen with an audience together getting to hear from those minds behind them,” she said.
Insights at the premiere for Genius included how Geoffrey Rush, who plays Einstein said, “We had to get beyond the two dimensional ‘emoji’ of Einstein.” While the Q&A session for The Handmaid’s Tale discussed possible parallels with today’s political climate, actress Ann Dowd stated that she hoped the show would have an impact on society. “I hope the series has a massive affect on people,” said Dowd, “and they picket the White House wearing these costumes [from the series], and we learn to never underestimate the power of morons.”
With both Genius and The Handmaid’s Tale dealing with issues of totalitarian governments, we asked Cusumano if there were any other trends that tied this year’s selections together. “I think one of the things we were drawn to that compelled us to create this section of the festival was how strong the storytelling is—and some of the work being made that we found the most exciting, beautiful and cinematic was happening in the TV space,” she replied. “I mentioned Reed Morano with The Handmaid’s Tale, Ron Howard with Genius, and (director) Antonio Campos with The Sinner. The folks behind The Eyeslicer (an experimental variety show) made the feature, Collective : Unconscious. There’s a kind of bleeding between television, film, online and even virtual reality, which we’re also involving in the festival—and I think the way those barriers are coming down is the trend we responded to the most.”
Netflix, Hulu, NatGeo and USA Network represent a broad mix of digital and more traditional cable channels. When asked how digital platforms were growing in comparison to traditional ones, Cusumano said, “I think audiences are adapting and companies are adapting too. Everyone is very agnostic about how they share their stories. We found that our audience was just as willing to come to a big theater as they were to watch things on a phone, online or on television. Some of these companies that are embracing the different formats are thriving. We’re certainly reflecting that in the way we’ve structured our programs. Things like our new online works section include Snapchat filmmaking.”
With the online works section and shows like The Eyeslicer shown to an “invite only” audience, where only watchers can invite others to watch, we asked Cusumano if she thought digital platforms were more likely to take risks with their content than traditional television. “Maybe,” said Cusumano. “I think that we’re a festival that likes boundary-pushing creators, so we gravitate towards that in the film, TV and online works programs. But if there are people who have a new out-of-the-box idea, often the internet is a great testing ground for that. That’s the place where they can bring their ideas—where the more institutional companies would want to see that it can be done successfully before they get behind it in a big way. So, I think if people are interested in stuff that’s a little more experimental, they should check out the new online works program.”
Cusumano also discussed how festivals may play a valuable role in promoting the launch of new shows as more audiences turn to digital viewing. “There’s so much amazing stuff out there, and audiences that are hungry for these stories might not necessarily know where to start,” said Cusumano. “So, having a curator who has seen everything come in and present them with 15 new shows or 10 new web series creators [is welcome]. You know Tribeca, you know our face, and we provide an easy access point for audiences to explore. We heard from TV show creators at last year’s festival, and they felt happy, proud and humbled that their work had been selected for a film festival. So, the exposure that we’re able to grant is beneficial for shows and audiences. Hopefully, we’re connecting the two in a very meaningful way.”
We asked Cusumano if binge-watching was having an impact on how the Tribeca Film Festival was presenting its selections. “Yes, it does,” she said. “I think that it depends on the project—each individual piece—and if it’s something that demands to be seen all at once. After we showed O.J.: Made in America [last year], we premiered the entire series in one sitting. People came in and had the whole seven-and-a-half-hour experience. This year, we’re showing The Eyeslicer—and officially, we’re showing one episode, but we’re co-hosting a bigger screening in early May for the binge audience that wants to experience it that way. We and the creators wanted to make it available to them that way.”
Cusumano also noted how binge-watching is, “bleeding over to film as well. We’re doing an amazing marathon event for The Godfather parts I and II on our closing night. That’s going to be an all-day affair, and it’s going to be epic and amazing. The fact that people are so open to experience stories of that magnitude [makes for] a great way to revisit these classic films.”
We asked if the theater experience for established digital shows such as The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt helped to attract first-time viewers. Cusumano said, “Certainly, when you’re familiar with the characters, it maximizes the humor. But I think the episodes will work on their own. If there are people who haven’t seen the show before and are looking to experience it, they can come and enjoy it.”
So, what brings audiences to the red carpet premiere of a single TV show episode? Cusumano explains that “it’s different than watching it at home by yourself. I think people love the access and the cast and being able to ask questions. For some, this might be their only opportunity to see some these on the big screen before they come to Netflix or Hulu in the coming weeks. So, there is a kind of ‘catch it here or you’ll miss it’ moment for these events.”