Saturday was TFI Interactive Day at the Tribeca Film Festival, which means that it was a day when the film festival spent a lot of time spotlighting and talking about things that qualify as film only in the broadest, loosest definition.
By devoting the day to a series of panels and talks about digital channels, platforms, gaming, interactive hotlines, apps, crowd-funding, transmedia, web-based narratives and interactive data visualizations – while at the same time, a full day of screenings of regular old films was taking place around lower Manhattan – the festival tried to stake its claim as the festival that looks to the future of visual entertainment, even if that future is all about "digital storytelling" rather than film as we know it.
"Film is the appetizer," Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain said in her keynote address kicking off the day. "The discussion you have is the main course."
And while Shlain's keynote kept the notion of film central by focusing on her manifesto for cloud-based filmmaking, the interactive works on display at this year's Tribeca range far from that traditional medium.
Even one of the movie stars to show up, Ellen Page, did so on behalf of a videogame, "Beyond: Two Souls," in which her digitized image appears.
In addition to the Tribeca Interactive sessions at the IAC Building, ground zero for interactive was the festival's Bombay Sapphire House of Imagination, a multi-room installation where festivalgoers can drink vodka, eat gourmet popcorn and immerse themselves in a series of projects that make the viewer an active participant, to varying degrees.
One inescapable conclusion during a preview of the Storyscapes installation: These are projects that might be better experienced at home on your computer than in a crowded film-festival setting – where, for instance, it's hard to hear the beeps and blasts of homemade "Star Wars" scenes over the noise from the rest of the House of Imagination.
"Star Wars Uncut" (above) is the buzziest of the Storyscapes projects, and it's been around long enough to have won a 2010 Primetime Emmy for interactive media. A project begun by Casey Pugh in 2009, it broke up the first "Star Wars" film into 15-second segments, and invited fans to come to the Star Wars Uncut website claim and recreate their favorite scenes.
Tribeca is featuring footage from Pugh's work-in-progress sequel, "The Empire Strikes Back," in an installation that is fun, amusing and more than a little overwhelming.
Tiny scenes cover a huge video wall, and viewers can navigate on a tablet to choose the ones they'd like to see, or to view them by character name or type of scene. You can pick dozens of different interpretations of Yoda, from animation to costumes, or shift between a slew of different amateur light saber battles.
A trailer gives some idea of the range of contributions:
The Tribeca version doesn't really allow viewers to watch the entire movie, in sequence, but the Star Wars Uncut website has a full version of the first movie.
Moving from a galaxy far, far away to something much closer to home, "Sandy Storyline" is a participatory documentary about the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy. It combines audiotapes of Sandy stories with video and still photographs taken by those who were in the affected areas to compile an extensive ground-level history of the storm and the communities it hit.
At Tribeca, the installation cherry-picks stories and visuals and displays them on a pair of screens; on the Sandy Storyline website, though, the entire scope of the project becomes more evident.
Another of the Storyscapes projects can't be completed until Tribeca ends, because it's being created as the festival goes on. "Robots in Residence" invites visitors to take small robots – they look like little cardboard boxes on wheels, and speak in childish voices – and answer questions the robots ask, which tend to be things like "Who do you love most in the world?" and "What is the worst thing you have done to someone?" and "Tell me something you've never told a stranger before."
Judging from the teaser that was screened on a continuous loop, the little 'bots don't exactly elicit revealing replies – but if Tribeca visitors open up to the so-called Blabdroids, they could spice up the documentary that will result.
One interactive project that was made for the big screen – though how effectively it was made is a matter open to debate – is Paul Verhoeven's "Tricked," a film in which the Dutch director (right) of "Basic Instinct," "RoboCop" and "Black Box" used crowd-sourcing not to raise money for his movie, but to write the script.
So what did they come up with? The festival's creative director, Frederick Boyer, called "Tricked" "a sexy thriller" when he spoke to TheWrap before TFF began, and it certainly has elements of that genre: femme fatales, sexual dalliances, double-crossing, with bits of nudity and violence thrown in.
It also, sad to say, makes a very good argument not for the effectiveness of crowd-sourcing a screenplay, but for the virtues of a good, professional screenwriter. Clearly, the biggest drawback to "Tricked" is its screenplay, which gives it the feel of an amateur production now matter how hard Verhoeven tries to class it up.
The dialogue is clunky, the twists are telegraphed and way-too-obvious, a clue that is key to uncovering a nefarious plot is laughable … "Tricked" has its charms as a new way of approaching a movie, but that sure doesn't mean the new way is a good way. At least not yet.
"Tricked" has screened at Tribeca accompanied by a short documentary in which Verhoeven talks about the experiment and says he's "interested to see if I'll learn new things that I'll be using for my next few films." On Tuesday, he'll come to the festival to give a full Q&A after a "Tricked" screening.