NEW YORK – To understand how the Tribeca Film Festival (search) has evolved since its creation just three years ago, start by looking at the opening-night film: "The Interpreter," (search) a thriller set at the United Nations and the first to be shot inside its shrouded halls.
Previous years have kicked off with "About a Boy" (2002), "Down With Love" (2003) and "Raising Helen" (2004).
But those were comedies. And after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — the impetus for the Tribeca Film Festival — setting an uplifting tone was intentional.
"My feeling was in the first couple of years we did the film festival, we needed a comedy and we needed to laugh down here, and we very specifically looked for pictures that were going to let us laugh," said Jane Rosenthal (search), who co-founded the festival with her Tribeca Films partner, Robert De Niro (search), to help boost the downtown economy.
"We were trying to strike the right tone, blocks from ground zero," Rosenthal said. "It was so much about trying to give our community a new memory. Now the neighborhood is up on its feet more and I think you can have a picture like `The Interpreter' to open the festival."
Starting Tuesday and running through May 1, about 250 features and shorts will screen at locations throughout Tribeca, the trendy, loft-filled slice of lower Manhattan that stands for the Triangle Below Canal.
Half the films are from the United States, with the other half coming from 44 different countries. Many are world premieres or North American premieres. And it's an eclectic a mix as ever, including "2046," the latest lush offering from Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, and a drive-in-style showing along the Hudson River of "Mad Hot Ballroom," a documentary about New York school kids learning how to dance.
Other highlights: "Through the Fire," a documentary about Sebastian Telfair, who jumped from Coney Island's housing projects to the National Basketball Association; a midnight screening of "House of Wax," a remake of the 1953 3-D horror flick that co-stars Paris Hilton; "Rize," director/fashion photographer David LaChapelle's look at dance in South-Central Los Angeles; and "The Power of Nightmares," an acclaimed BBC documentary about Islamic fundamentalism.
"I think it's a stronger film program than ever, and part of the reason is when you mature a little bit, you get better," Rosenthal said. "Also, I believe the filmmakers are planning for us now. We're on the calendar."
But she added that bringing dollars to lower Manhattan — the festival's primary purpose — is still just as important as offering quality films. Festival organizers say the first three years drew a million visitors and more than $150 million.
"They do go hand in hand. You can't separate it," she said. "First and foremost, our mission clearly was about economic development for downtown. That said, our mission also was to create innovative programming and help promote global awareness that this was about the films."
It's also been a matter of establishing an identity among longer-running, better-known festivals.
"Are you Sundance? Are you Cannes?" Rosenthal said she's often asked. "And it's like, no, we're not. We're in New York City.
"Part of it for me has always been, my day job is as a producer. I'm a filmmaker, and I try to make films for all kinds of audiences," said Rosenthal, whose Tribeca Films productions have included "Meet the Parents," "Meet the Fockers," "Analyze This" and "Analyze That," all starring De Niro. "And I want certain kids to see my movies. I want all different strata to see the movies I make. Bob, too — I speak for both of us. The festival tries to speak to all those audiences."
This year also features talks with Sydney Pollack (who directed "The Interpreter" starring Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman), producer Irwin Winkler ("Rocky") and composer Jon Brion ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"). And as always, there will be a family festival, including movies for kids and a street fair.
As executive director Peter Scarlet puts it, Tribeca is "a retail festival, not a wholesale festival."
Scarlet, who programmed the San Francisco International Film Festival for 19 years before coming to run Tribeca in 2003, prides himself on including relevant international films. Among the offerings he pointed to this year: "Ushpizin," the first film made by ultra-Orthodox Jews for a wider audience; "Favela Rising," a documentary about the slums of Rio de Janeiro; and the documentary "Coca — The Dove From Chechnya," about the decade-long Chechen war.
"Part of what drew me here in the first place is, it's not your father's film festival, to steal the Oldsmobile line," he said.
"Most festivals are in big cities anyway but they're primarily for film buffs," he said. "Film buffs are as welcome here as anybody and many of the programs are films that will appeal immediately to film buffs, but there are other films — mainstream Hollywood films and films for families — and that mix seems to me to be a very positive one, a very healthy one."