Tribeca Fest provides a platform for emerging filmmakers


Red carpets, world premieres and celebrity interviews have driven the Tribeca Film Festival since its opening days. But behind the scenes, the festival has become an increasingly significant platform for emerging filmmakers.

AT&T is not only the long-term presenting sponsor of the festival, but for the last two years it has also helped host “AT&T Presents: Untold Stories,” an inclusive program for filmmakers who are underrepresented in the industry. A joint project with the Tribeca Film Festival and the nonprofit Tribeca Film Institute, “Untold Stories” is a contest with a million-dollar prize.

This year on April 11, five teams participated in a live pitch event before a panel of six judges. Winning for Lucky Grandma were director and co-writer Sasie Sealy and filmmaker Angela Cheng. The previous year's winner, Faraday Okoro, screened the world premiere of his finished film, Nigerian Prince, at the festival. AT&T will distribute the film on platforms like DirectTV Now.

The four other participating filmmaker teams received $10,000 each toward their project goals. They include director/producer Bridget Stokes and Vicky Wright for Emmett; writer/director Neil Paik for The Beautiful Ones; writer/director Alex Heller, producer Eugene Sun Park for The Year Between; and director Jennifer Suhr and producer Carolyn Mao for You and Me Both.

For Aaron Lieber, director and cinematographer of the documentary Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable, Tribeca was an opportunity to bring his work to the industry as well as the public. "This is my first time being in a festival," he admitted before appearing on a radio show with Hamilton and her husband Adam Dirks. "Looking at the festivals around the country, Tribeca is not just one of the top three, but a lot of distribution deals for documentaries seem to be happening here."

Lieber has been shooting surfing films for 12 years, including all-women action films for Nike when it was promoting the sport. He shot and directed a 50-minute narrative film about champion surfer Lakey Peterson (Lakey Peterson: Zero to 100). He finished Leave a Message in 2011, around the time Hamilton's Soul Surfer was wrapping. The two got to know each other.

Traveling with Peterson, Hamilton and Carissa Moore, another champion, Lieber realized that Hamilton could still compete with the world's best. When she saw the Peterson film, she decided to work with Lieber on a new project.

"[Sponsor] Rip Curl gave us a little money, so we started shooting," Lieber said. "About four months in, she got pregnant with her first son, Tobias. That's when I thought we might have to do a bigger film."

Three years later, Lieber realized he needed help to fully capture Hamilton's story. He hired a female editor and female producers to fill out what had principally been a solo crew.

"Bethany was working out during her pregnancy, having these emotional journeys I'll never go through, so I wanted women there to help make sure there was a strong feminine voice to the documentary," Lieber added. "Film's a team sport, and the more diversity and perspectives you have, the more viewers you can reach. Plus, women are just great to work with. They bring a great energy and vibe. Everyone had a turn speaking, everyone listened well, and at the end of the day everyone's giving each other hugs."

Lieber says he was struck by the emotional response viewers had during the film's screenings at Tribeca. Unstoppable finds Hamilton relying on her husband and their faith during setbacks in scenes that are intimate while still respecting their privacy. And Lieber's surfing footage is extraordinary.

"I've invested five years in this project not knowing where it was going to end up," he confided. "Right now we're negotiating with some buyers, and I'm also staying focused on submitting Unstoppable to other festivals. Submarine, our sales reps, will be doing a market screening at Cannes. But it was so great to get that emotion from the Tribeca audience. It was fantastic being here."

Tribeca started as a film festival, but over the years it has broadened its scope to include television, virtual reality, and now augmented reality, a rapidly evolving technology that some in the industry feel has more commercial potential than VR.

On April 25, Loren Hammonds, senior programmer of feature films and immersive, moderated a panel, "AR We There Yet?" with Graham Sack and sisters Jhanvi and Ketaki Shriram. Sack was debuting “objects in mirror AR closer than they appear,” an interactive AR/physical installation at Tribeca's Immersive Storyscapes.

The Shriram sisters were there to talk about Krikey, an AR app that allows users to customize, manipulate and interact with AR figures on smartphones. Still in its early stages, Krikey is a program with potential.

"We just launched eight weeks ago," Jhanvi said after the panel. "We're very excited by our growth so far—we have users in over 50 countries. That's brought challenges as well in trying to understand pop-culture icons in international markets, and what AR objects might have meaning in those markets."

Krikey lets users select from figures like dogs or birds, choose colors for them, and then animate them so they can appear to be walking or flying. Users in Vietnam have been taking their AR dogs on walks around town. After the release of Black Panther, Krikey's panther became a fan favorite, with some users animating the panther to make it seem as if it was emerging from the poster. Other users have built green screens to make short films starring the figures.

"We thought about how we can work with movies and movie theatres," Jhanvi said. "I know studios are trying to create VR and AR promotional materials. We think we can offer a more engaging experience for users, more control over their objects, and create better fan engagement with whatever IP a studio wants to promote."

The Shriram sisters began working on the app in January 2017, and now have a staff of ten, mostly engineers. Their most challenging task has been finding a way to render the same AR objects across several different platforms. In coming weeks, the team will unlock video editing tools and introduce AR Social Games, which let two users interact with the same object.

The sisters are only beginning to explore the app's educational and branding possibilities. Krikey also offers users new ways to experiment with narratives.

How the Shrirams got to the AR panel is a story in itself. "I come from a narrative background," Jhanvi explained. "My sister and I worked together previously on a film we premiered at Tribeca in 2014, a feature-length documentary called True Son. It was about a classmate from college, Michael Tubbs, who ran for city council in Stockton, California."

Tubbs, 22 at the time, became the youngest council member in a city that was in bankruptcy and had one of the highest homicide rates in the country. Both sisters served as producers, and Jhanvi received a story credit.

"We love Tribeca for recognizing us early on and continuing to stay in touch with us over all these years and all our different adventures in school and beyond traditional film," Jhanvi said. "Jane [Rosenthal] specifically has been so supportive to us and a great mentor over the years. We stayed in touch, and when we told her what we were working on now, she invited us back to do this panel."

Jhanvi and Ketaki Shriram are at the forefront of a new generation of creative artists, one that is redefining how moving images are used.

"We're very grateful to the entire Tribeca Film Festival team for getting us out here again and helping set everything up," Jhanvi concluded.