An Afternoon With Jane
Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal sits down with Embodied's Editor-in-Chief to discuss women in film, funding for the arts, and fifteen years at the helm of Manhattan's greatest movie-going extravaganza.
By Jake Nevins
When I walk into Jane Rosenthal’s offices on Greenwich Street, I am greeted by a wall of movie posters, from Orson Welles’ classics (Chimes at Midnight, Citizen Kane) to Martin Scorsese’s seminal Manhattan masterpieces. Even more appropriately, Jane is eating a bag of popcorn. Coffee tables are adorned with film paraphernalia. Portraits of movie stars, past and present, line the hallways. There is a quiet calm that belies impending pandemonium. The Tribeca Film Festival is just weeks away.
Ms. Rosenthal – the walking film encyclopedia, the spunky businesswoman, the big-budget movie producer, the co-founder of Tribeca Film Festival and the mother of two — offers me some Skinny Pop. Though I decline, it delights me to see that her unabashed love of film – from oldies to newbies, from conventional cinema to nonlinear to experimental and beyond — has infiltrated even her afternoon snack choices. The festival, in its 15th year, has grown meteorically since 2002, when Rosenthal and longtime friend and business-partner Robert De Niro joined forces to revive a neighborhood feeling the devastating reverberations of the 9/11 attacks. “When you start a festival because of an act of war in your backyard, you come to it with a certain sense of fierce determination about survival and a new perception of the world.” Rosenthal continues, “It was very much about how the arts can heal and how having a film festival could create a new memory for people.”
When I ask Rosenthal how she sees Tribeca in relation to other North American film festivals like Sundance, Toronto, and South by Southwest, it’s clear that the festival’s origins have been a driving force; it is a vehicle for communal assemblage, a sort of revivalist effort, more than it is a two-week succession of cinema. Another major distinguishing factor between TFF and its counterparts is that the former proudly carries the formidable weight of its host city; Manhattan’s diverse citizenry and its unremitting commitment to originality presupposes a lineup that reflects the island’s hodgepodge of religious, linguistic and ethnic cohorts. An event in NYC, especially one of Tribeca’s scope and ambition, means NYC expectations.
“Because we’re in New York, we’re held up to a higher standard than anybody else. If you’re doing a festival in the middle of a mountain or a resort town, everything looks good. There are over 232 languages spoken in New York and we can tap into communities that nobody else can tap into.” Rosenthal, a charming raconteur, goes on to tell me some of her fondest festival memories (Nelson Mandela’s 2002 appearance ranks high). “When we had an Israeli film here a number of years ago. The grand Rabbi in Williamsburg blessed the movie and I got up to introduce it and I look down at the crowd and it was all Hasidic men with the hats (Shtreimels). Another time we had a film about Liberia, called Pray the Devil Back to Hell and I got up to introduce the movie. We were in a theater on 2nd Avenue right on campus, and there was this piece of paper and I introduced the movie and I say, ‘And I’d like to welcome President of Liberia Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.’ There was a whole Liberian community that was there.”
Rosenthal recalls, as if it were yesterday, her initial discussions about the festival with De Niro and Scorsese. “When we announced the festival in November of 2001, we honestly didn’t know what we were programming. Scorsese was there with us at the beginning and I remember him saying, ‘We’re going to have panel discussions!’ And then he said, ‘and we’re going to have restored and rediscovered films!’ And I looked at him and said, ‘sounds good!’” The debris from the fallen towers still cloaked Tribeca streets. The stench in the Manhattan air was some peculiar, discouraging alloy of bodies and embers. But Rosenthal and De Niro, buoyed by the impenetrable spirit of New York, endeavored to unite a broken community.
Scorsese’s suggestions stuck and, fifteen years later, it’s his own film, the classic Taxi Driver, being honored at this year’s festival, 40 years after its release. Though Tribeca has always been a champion of new, undiscovered filmmakers, curating a lineup that reflects the diversity of the neighborhood in which it takes place, Rosenthal also sees an obligation to honor the filmic canon, to introduce the classics to a fresh, younger audience and, therein, make them new again. This is a preoccupation that shapes not only the festival, but also Rosenthal’s own activism. A fervent advocate for arts funding, a topic she speaks about with insight and alacrity, Rosenthal is quick to point out how vital an arts education is. Tribeca’s struggle to procure adequate funding from New York State is a well-documented one, but it’s only a microcosmic example of nationwide negligence towards the arts in schools and elsewhere.
“We don’t fund the arts in this country,” Rosenthal tells me. “If you look at Toronto and the Toronto Film Festival, they get an enormous amount of funding from the Canadian Government. We just don’t, as a country, fund arts unless you have big boards that are going to donate…you’re always in a fundraising mode unless you figure out the right business model for the arts.”
Rosenthal, with a sort of seasoned, improvisational candor, jumps back and forth between discussing business and the arts, two decidedly adversarial sides of the same coin. Except, oddly, the more we talk, the union of art and commerce seems less fraught than symbiotic. There exists a genuine appreciation for the craft of filmmaking, a keen understanding, too, of both the mercenary and creative forces at play. Rosenthal is both restlessly pragmatic and youthfully free-spirited, Manhattan incarnate. She tells me about Tribeca Studios’ teaching initiatives, which aim to bring the art of filmmaking to underprivileged students, and the exhaustive crystallization of skills that is the making of a movie. In case it gets lost in her laundry list of achievements, she’s produced quite a few: Marvin’s Room, Wag the Dog, Meet the Parents, About a Boy, and Rent, to sell it short.
“We have a program at Tribeca Film Institute called Tribeca Teaches and we go and teach filmmaking courses in the most underserved populations, where English is a second language, where some of the kids are homeless, where some of the kids could be easily radicalized, where every kid at a certain age questions identity. If you are a young immigrant here in the U.S and going to a strange school and speaking strange languages, you question where you belong.” She continues, “The arts are a place, and filmmaking very specifically, where everyone has to come together for it to work. You have to have teamwork, you have to have leadership. There are those that have to lead as the director and the producer and there are those who just have to do and be brilliant at what they do as an actor, as a writer, as a composer…To come together and create something, it gives you a sense of belonging, it gives you that sense that you can tell a story with a picture and that’s pretty powerful. It’s crucial to have funding for the arts. It’s a way we express our most creative selves. It makes you feel like you belong to this world of creative people and you’re not alone.”
As a woman in the world of entertainment, Rosenthal knows a thing or two about going it alone. After graduating from Gallatin, where a professor told her she had “verve and gumption,” she got a job as a production assistant at CBS Sports, what she considers her first exposure to the overwhelmingly patriarchal world of film and television. “There were very few women at the time. I didn’t realize that I was actually breaking ground by being a production assistant. There were maybe 4 other women, whether it was on-air talent or behind the scenes. But I didn’t take that necessarily as gender. I always believed that if you did a good job you would always get there no matter your gender.” Rosenthal’s moxie is symptomatic of her feminist upbringing in Providence, Rhode Island. “My mother was a feminist and said you can do and be anything you want to be. And I believed it. I believed it and just did it.”
Rosenthal explains that, early on, she felt the industry’s sexism less personally and more institutionally; though women had progressed more in television than in film, thanks to the likes of Linda Bloodworth Thomason, Marlo Thomas, Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore, the grossly disproportionate gender ratios seen in the workforce and on film sets manifested itself as a sort of axiomatic principle, one Rosenthal was determined to overcome. “I didn’t face sexism until later, when I was actually producing a movie and had some independent financing and had old school financiers that kept calling me, you know, ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’ and said, ‘well, you don’t know that much, you’re just a girl.’” She goes on, “that was a very traditional form of discrimination and, really, at that point one would have thought I had established myself enough in my career that I wouldn’t have to face that.”
In the last 88 years, just four women have been nominated in the Best Director category at the Academy Awards: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Sofia Coppola, (Lost in Translation), Jane Campion (The Piano), and Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties). Bigelow is the only woman to ever win the award. In the last two years, 40 white actors have been nominated for individual acting awards and, as you might have heard, zero actors of color. Whether or not one chooses to believe the Oscars are an adequate barometer of cinematic value (this becomes more uncertain each year), the numbers, in any case, are staggering. And in the wake of such disproportion, many misplace blame, forsake the real etiology of these imbalances, for it is less about an Academy comprised of crusty, old myopic men than it is the dearth of female directors being hired by big-budget production companies and a shortage of actors of color being cast in films that generate Oscar fodder.
One notable exception, where a throng of female directors and diverse casts can be found, is Rosenthal’s festival, where, in 2016, women directed a record-setting 33% of the films shown, works that come, rather impressively, from 42 different countries. There’s Elvis & Nixon, a film by Liza Johnson, chronicling a stranger-than-fiction historical encounter between The King and the former president. There’s Abortion: Stories Women Tell, a documentary by Tracy Droz Tragos. First-time director Jenny Gage debuted her film All This Panic, a coming-of-age story set in New York City. Kristi Jacobson directed Solitary, a subversive, deeply affecting portrait of life in solitary confinement. Children of the Mountain, directed, written and produced by Priscilla Anany, is an aesthetic marvel about a Ghanaian mother’s experience with her son’s birth deformities. Rosenthal speaks highly of two women-helmed features in particular, Rachel Tunnard’s Adult Life Skills and Ingrid Jungerman’s mordant comedy Women Who Kill. She goes on, “There’s a lot of great shorts celebrating New York, a lot of shorts celebrating gender identity and the LGBT community, both shorts and narratives. There seem to be a lot of films this year about prison systems and prison reform, which is becoming more topical, as it should.”
To put this in proper context, the University of Southern California conducted a study in 2013, called “Gender Inequality in 500 Popular Films,” which found that, in 2012, women accounted for 4.1% of all directors, 12.2% of writers and 20% of producers in that year’s 100 highest-grossing films. In another study carried out by the New York Film Academy, white actors constituted 75.8% of speaking parts in the top 500 grossing films from 2007-2012. Tribeca’s numbers, then, are nothing to scoff at. “As a producer, I try to enable and support women filmmakers. We are a festival of diversity.” Rosenthal says. “When I look at the company that we started, Bob and I were always supportive of women writers, of all women… Jenni (Konner, producer and writer of HBO’s Girls) was a story editor for us; she will admit in an interview that she didn’t really know what she was doing, but I don’t really remember that part. My company is almost 75% women. I think that’s part of my job.”
Rosenthal may not remember Konner as a flummoxed ingénue, but Jenni certainly does. In an interview with Refinery29, she reminisced on her experience working under Rosenthal: "Well, before I was writing, I worked as an assistant at Tribeca Productions. Watching Jane Rosenthal do her thing — even though I was so young and dumb and probably couldn’t absorb all she was doing — just working for a very strong woman in charge of a company that was growing every minute was so exciting."
Konner’s Girls, as well as the Shonda Rhimes’ Thursday-night triumvirate and the chronically under-appreciated catalogues of women filmmakers like Bigelow, Campion, Diablo Cody, and Ava Duvernay, is proof of the remarkable things that can happen when women are given the creative, financial autonomy that male directors are so often and arbitrarily afforded. The effects of a patriarchal Hollywood supplant the aforementioned inequities behind the camera and in the writer’s room; rather, it results in an intense narrative dissonance, a scarcity of stories that illuminate and cinematize the lives of women from their own perspectives. When we talk about the domineering primacy of the male gaze, we are really talking about something systematic, something that starts well before filming; female actors are too often asked to take their clothes off and actors of color are reduced to archetypes, made into one-dimensional caricatures that perpetuate regressive ideas about race and ethnicity. Jane, and her meticulous programming team at Tribeca, the members of which spend twelve months watching and vetting films around the globe, are leaps and bounds ahead of the competition, assembling a cinematic smorgasbord that’s as heterogeneous as it is judiciously curated. At Tribeca, there’s room for anything – virtual reality films, six-second vines, films shot on mobile phones, vlogumentaries, and animated shorts (curated, this year, by Whoopi Goldberg) – and this is what gets Rosenthal most enthused, the idea that film is not a structurally hermetic vehicle for storytelling but something that changes, evolves, and diversifies with the spasmodic currents of culture.
“If you want to tell a story, you can take your phone, you can write it, you can find actors, you can cast it, you can shoot it, you can distribute it, you can have your own channel for your own friends or you can figure out if you’re going to get it to a broader audience. You can do everything and that’s really powerful. If I want to tell a story and I think it warrants a series, I have more options and more places I can go. If you’re an artist you say, ‘Today I want to paint with oils, today I want to paint with water colors, today I want to sculpt.’ You can now choose all these different kinds of stories you want to tell and that’s really fun.” I ask Rosenthal what this means for the future of film as both a creative and pecuniary venture; do movie theaters become extinct, or do they become more specialized, a place only for spectacle?
“Does it mean people stop going to the movies? No. I think we’ll always go to the movies. The theaters themselves and the types of movies you will see in a movie theater may change. When you go to a movie theater you’re going to expect and demand a certain quality. You’re going to demand a pristine screen and proper sound and you certainly want something better than what you have in your home.” I nod in agreement and tell Rosenthal that I had to see Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, shot in 70 millimeter, in a theater. “I had to go see Star Wars in Imax, too,” she tells me. “I didn’t want to sit at home and see Star Wars. I want to see it in Imax!”
Though the looming festival has wholly consumed the past several months of her life, I am sure to ask Rosenthal if there’s anything she’s binge watching these days. “I haven’t watched any new shows recently,” she tells me, “but I’m pretty fascinated by the number of apps that are out there and what we use them for. I have been trying to just play League of Legends without getting…it actually sounds so incongruous that we’d be talking about that. But, really, the gaming world as it concerns storytelling is fascinating. I like that we did something with League of Legends last November, the story and the craft and the art behind the game. So I’m always looking at how you’re telling stories on all these different platforms, whether it’s non-linear platforms or not.” She continues, “And, really, a film festival is sort of the ultimate binge watch if you think about it.”
Originally published 05/10/16