Six Questions for Nancy Schafer

Annie Nocenti

A downtown community seeking solace and meaning after the 9/11 attacks: this is the world Nancy Schafer entered when she joined the Tribeca Film Festival in 2002. Schafer was the programmer for the festival’s first year, and in the executive director role, which she landed in 2007, she handles programming, budgeting, operations and funding for the event. Before arriving at Tribeca, Schafer created and ran the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, TX, for eight years. SXSW had previously been solely a music festival, and integrating the film festival was prescient on Schafer’s part, a programming tack that many arts festivals have since taken.

What characterizes the Tribeca fest? Nancy Schafer: Tribeca prides itself on including other arts. We’ve had strong music programs. We’ve done our artist program for eight years. Unlike any other film festival in the world, you don’t get a statuette when you win at Tribeca—you get cash and a piece of original art from a famous artist. This year we have Fritz Chesnut, Clifford Ross, Hank Willis Thomas, David Salle, Tom Slaughter, Stephen Hannock, Kalup Linzy and more. The fun thing about Tribeca is that we’re always thinking, What could we do that’s cool? How could we support more artists? How could we get the community more involved?  So we’re developing different platforms to do those things. The Drive-In and the street festival are massive events. This year we’re doing a ton of panels, half of which are free. And then there’s the art exhibit. All that art is up at the Chanel store in SoHo.

Is there a theme or character to the film selection this year? NS: We’re New York City, so we’re always going to be able to show documentaries that have a lot of edge and talk about subjects that are important, but this year we seem to have found a bit more levity throughout the festival.

How have film festivals evolved over the past decade, and where do you see them going? NS: Film festivals play a vital role in the United States and abroad, primarily because they show films that people wouldn’t normally get to see. In a city like New York we’re very lucky, because we have a lot of options, but a lot of places don’t. So the way smaller cities get their film culture is through film festivals. As the distribution landscape changes—as in, less theatrical releases because there is less screen space in the world—film festivals will become launching pads for independent films that go on to have a life online. Film festivals are going to be the last refuge of seeing movies on a big screen.

Film festivals have a long history of being just for the film buff. Do you think that applies to Tribeca? NS: One of the reasons we created the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival, which is a subcategory of the big festival, is that we thought, What a great way to get people who might be scared of the whole “independent film” moniker to see movies. What’s an easier gateway than sports?

You’re premiering Kobe Doin’ Work, a Spike Lee documentary about Kobe Bryant, and The Swimsuit Issue, a fictional narrative about an all-male synchronized swimming team that looks to be the new Full Monty. NS: Exactly, it’s Full Monty  with swimming, and it’s pretty awesome. That’s going to be a huge crowd-pleaser.

As bellwethers of film’s future, critics cite what happened to the music industry, and others talk of the death of publishing in its current form. What do you foresee? NS: Right now, the film industry is dealing with how the landscape is changing. We’re where the music industry was eight to 10 years ago, which was—if you remember—when Napster was around and everything was changing in the music industry…. We’re now in the same place. We’ve learned some of the lessons from the music arena, but the industries are different. I don’t think that watching movies on theater screens is going to go away; I think the format in which we watch them is already in the process of changing. You see a lot more 3-D these days, and everything is going digital quite rapidly. If we hadn’t gone into a recession, most screens in New York City would be switching over to digital projection right now. Things are changing very rapidly in how movies get shown, but the audiences will probably not know the difference.