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Tribeca Film Festival Looking to Expand Audience

When the British director Mat Whitecross was growing up in Oxford, only so many films would make it to his local cinema. Most of the intriguing movies he read about playing at film festivals or in cities were not shown there.

Whitecross estimates that 90 percent of the films that were influential to him - movies like "Taxi Driver" and "La Dolce Vita" - he watched "on very dodgy, knocked-off VHS tapes" or "on TV with adverts at 3 in the morning."

"Better to have seen them that way than not at all," he says.

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That is the guiding ethos behind the ninth annual Tribeca Film Festival, which kicks off Wednesday amid concern that the volcanic ash disrupting air travel in Europe might ground some of the many European filmmakers who were planning to attend.

This year, Tribeca, which began as a very location-specific event to help rejuvenate the Tribeca neighborhood after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks won't just be screening in Manhattan.

A new distribution company, Tribeca Film, founded by the festival's parent company Tribeca Enterprises, will make a dozen films - including Whitecross' directorial debut "sex & drugs & rock & roll" - available on TV via video-on-demand in some 40 million homes.

A "virtual festival" will also stream eight movies and 18 shorts online for 5,000 customers willing to shell out $45. Among the offerings are Edward Burns' "Nice Guy Johnny," thehermaphrodite comedy "Spork" and "The Sentimental Engine Driver," the debut by Omar Rodriguez Lopez, known best from his band Mars Volta.

The Sundance Film Festival and the South By Southwest Film Festival have both tried similar initiatives, though Tribeca's foray is the boldest yet. The very nature of the film festival is changing, festival organizers say.

"The old days, you'd bring a film to a festival, you'd try to get a buzz going that would help a buyer get interested and you'd hopefully take the film out several months later," says Geoff Gilmore, the chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises and the former director of Sundance. "It doesn't work that way anymore."

Many of the 85 feature films at Tribeca will still arrive with that mission: looking for distribution. But some films are increasingly viewing that possibility as quixotic in an industry where independent film and documentary distributors are rapidly disappearing.

"I found that whatever the festival, you come out of it with this amazing wave of enthusiasm and publicity and the rest of it, and then it disappears," says Whitecross, who first came to Tribeca as co-director of 2006's "The Road to Guantanamo."

Seven of the 10 movies released by Tribeca Film will be screened day-and-date, which means that at the same time moviegoers are flocking to a New York theater, TV viewers across the country will be able to watch on VOD. Deals with Comcast, Verizon FiOS and Cablevision helped make that possible.

Even movies that find distribution at film festivals typically aren't released for months, even years. By shrinking that window, Tribeca Film hopes to capitalize on buzz from the festival and support of festival sponsors.

"It's certainly a way of creating a new opportunity," said Jane Rosenthal, who co-founded Tribeca with Robert De Niro and her husband, entrepreneur Craig Hatkoff. "Where it goes, how it goes - I don't have a crystal ball."

It's a strategy that puts a lot of hope in VOD and the Internet as new avenues for finding audiences. But both methods have a checkered track record in independent film.

In January, the Sundance festival offered five movies (including the eventual Oscar documentary winner "The Cove") for rent on YouTube. The experiment, at $3.99 per rental, earned a disappointing $10,709.16, a meager sum that suggested new media might not be as promising for indie film as some predicted. Was it a failure?

"In a business sense, it probably was," says John Cooper, director of Sundance. "But in the sense of getting it launched and getting it out there and finding some filmmakers that were interested in doing it, it was a success. We learned a lot from it."

Despite its digital expansion this year, Tribeca isn't skimping on live spectacle. The festival begins Wednesday with the premiere, in 3-D, of "Shrek Forever After" and will feature its usual "drive-ins" - free outdoor screenings - including the dance documentary "The Spirit of Salsa" and the BMX biking documentary and Tribeca Film release) "The Birth of Big Air."

Among the films that will also attract attention at the festival will be a rough cut of Alex Gibney's unfinished Eliot Spitzer doc and "Freakonomics," a documentary based on the best-selling book.