The economic impact of the Tribeca Film Festival

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April 19, 2012  By Steven Greer, MD

Entering its 11th year, The Tribeca Film Festival will go through April 29th. In 2002, less than six months after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centers and The Pentagon, CBS television producer Jane Rosenthal co-founded the festival with actor Robert De Niro to help revitalize Downtown New York. The two had previously worked together on a television series called TriBeCa that aired on the Fox network.

With millions of funding from the LMDC, corporate sponsors like American Express (headquartered in Battery Park), Apple, Bloomberg, and plenty of community support from Battery Park and TriBeCa residents, the event has grown into an East Coast film spectacle to rival Robert Redford’s winter Sundance Film Festival out West.

Has the festival added more to Downtown than it has taken in? These days, one has reason to be skeptical.

It is a sad fact that many seemingly do-gooding charities or philanthropic events can simply be cover operations for individuals making six and seven-figure salaries working for “non-profits”. The CEO of the controversial Komen for the Cure breast cancer philanthropy earns at least $400,000 (as first reported by this author, then in The Washington Post). Another recent example is the nearby 9/11 memorial, which is hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, and yet numerous staff are making six-figure incomes.

With those bad examples of charities in mind, we investigated the books of the companies behind the Tribeca Film Festival. Tribeca Enterprises, LLC is a for-profit private company with no publicly available finances. The smaller Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) is a non-profit with form 990’s available. We obtained financial estimates for Tribeca Enterprises from press releases and a conversation with a media spokesperson.

The co-founders, Mr. De Niro and Ms. Rosenthal, do not take a salary from the non-profit TFI, according to the spokesman. In the 2010 form 990, the TFI reported $3.25 million of incoming grants and revenue, and issued $2.27 million in the form of educational grants for filmmakers. The spokesperson said that “The majority of every dollar goes toward (philanthropic efforts)”. In the form 990, salaries totaled $1.29 million in 2010, or 40% of the grants and donations taken in. Only one person received more than $100,000 in salary, and that was the artistic director at $117,000.

The larger entity responsible for the Tribeca Film Festival is the for-profit Tribeca Enterprises. It takes in the majority of its revenue from corporate sponsors, such as American Express, with a much smaller portion of revenue coming from ticket sales of the films screened during the festival. The enterprise states in numerous press releases that the total economic activity generated for New York City since the festival began is approximately $725 million. That number cannot be verified, but as a back of the envelope check, that equates to approximately $200 contributed to the city from each of the 3.7 million people who have attended, which seems quite reasonable.

How does this compare to the government grants given to the Tribeca Film Festival from entities such as the LMDC? A quick check on the LMDC site indicates that approximately $4 million in grants have been issued. This compares to the $70 million in “economic activity” generated by the festival each year.

Mr. De Niro is the first person to acknowledge that lower Manhattan would have rebounded just fine after September 11, 2001, without the festival. Billions were pumped into the economy from the LMDC, and real estate tax breaks caused thousands to move to the area. In addition, the global housing bubble helped generate office building conversions into apartment building on Wall Street, and new residential towers went up all over Tribeca and Battery Park.

However, the festival founders’ efforts are not to be diminished by any means. Lower Manhattan has gained a bit of culture that it never had in the previous fifty years. A dollar value is difficult to assign to that goodwill. Moreover, the Tribeca Film festival is commendable for being a clean financial operation (upon our cursory inspection with a skeptical eye accustomed to finding financial trickery almost everywhere).

With disgraceful graft and corruption occurring atop the hallowed ground of “Ground Zero”, the Tribeca Film Festival might be the most honorable memorial to September 11 that we have. Let the curtains open once again.

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