tribeca-o8The reaction from independent film distribution vets to Tribeca Enterprises’ plan to distribute its festival films on Video On Demand (VOD) is most politely described as skeptical. The biggest hurdle facing Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Geoff Gilmore? Erasing the lingering perception that when a movie bypasses theatrical distribution for VOD, it’s DOA. Tribeca has secured VOD distribution on such cable providers as Comcast, Cablevision, and Verizon FIOS, but naysayers feel these cable giants often treat VOD as an after-thought, and don’t provide the promotional care and feeding that traditional distributors feel is vital to specialty film releases.

Tribeca’s chief creative officer Geoff Gilmore told me that he and the Tribeca team have carefully considered the pitfalls and have smoothed out a distribution road that has been as bumpy as the cobblestone streets that surround Tribeca’s downtown headquarters. Gilmore believes the festival’s growing momentum creates a high awareness level among specialty film lovers for a dedicated Tribeca VOD channel. That effort will be helped by promotional clout provided by longtime festival sponsor American Express, which signed on to become Founding Partner of Tribeca’s VOD distribution program, as well as a separate online venture that will show short films and broadcast filmmaker panels during the fest’s run from April 21-May 2.

While it’s not exactly clear yet how much promotional might Amex will bring, one thing is for sure: promotional spends won’t be deducted from the film’s revenues the way traditional P&A costs are. Because of this, Gilmore feels that filmmakers might actually make some money beyond the minimum guarantees Tribeca Film is paying for titles. Tribeca Film has acquired 10 features that will start their VOD runs during the festival. 7 bow on VOD the same time they make festival premieres. Each film gets a minimum 60 day VOD run before expanding to DVD, airline and hotel distribution. The occasional breakout title could get a limited theatrical release, though it’s not immediately clear who’ll book the theaters.

Initial films include the Participant Media documentary Climate of Change; Birth of Big Air, the ESPN documentary on extreme sports athlete Mat Hoffman that’s produced by Jackass collaborators Spike Jonze and Johnny Knoxville; sex & drugs & rock & roll, a drama about punk rock pioneer Ian Dury that stars Andy Serkis and makes its North American debut at Tribeca; Road, Movie, which makes its U.S. debut at the festival; and Timer, which played at last year’s fest.

Those titles are a far cry from Shrek Forever After, which opens the festival before a massive global rollout. The Tribeca program is an attempt to solve the problem that haunts festivals. Films debut, thrill sophisticated fest audiences, and walk away without distribution because specialty executives are unconvinced the star-less titles won’t even recoup small P&A outlays. Gilmore believes the VOD program will grow into a viable option for those films.

“We don’t have the resources to buy titles that would go down a major route,” Gilmore told me. “What we’re trying to do is elevate the potential of films that might not otherwise have the opportunity to be discovered by a larger audience. We believe in transactional VOD, and that without those advertising costs that have to be recouped before filmmakers see any money, this can generate real revenue for them. We’ve got a handcrafted deal with MSOs, with a Tribeca button you’ll push on VOD. The ballgame is changing in independent distribution, and we’ve got a package of marketing strategies that begin with the sponsorship of American Express to give visibility to these titles. Do I think we’ve got all of this figured out? I’m not that arrogant, but I do think we’ve made a good start.”