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Tribeca Film Festival slowly warms up to new media

At the 6th annual edition of the Lower Manhattan movie event, Sun Microsystems debuts its new IPTV server--weird?

The Sun Streaming System -- film festival diva? Stephen Shankland/CNET

Can you make a server sexy?

Short answer: No.

But you can still throw it a glitzy launch party.

Over the past week or so, I've been poking my head into various events at the Tribeca Film Festival in lower Manhattan, which runs through tomorrow. I've always thought of film festivals as sort of low-tech affairs, and in a lot of ways, it's true--at a screening of Edward Burns' new flick, Purple Violets, the producers apologized for the first reel being "too light," and at the premiere of Spider-Man 3 co-star James Franco's latest project, Good Time Max, Franco acknowledged that the sound on the film was still a bit iffy.

But despite that, there are more than a few high-tech companies among the festival's list of sponsors. Some are no-brainers--Apple, for example, seems quite at home among the stars and red-carpet premieres (and festival kickoff guest-of-honor Al Gore). But Verizon? Yahoo? Sun Microsystems? Last week, Sun debuted its Sun Streaming System, a new product geared toward speeding up the delivery of Internet protocol television (IPTV), in conjunction with the festival. Guests were invited to the luxe Tribeca Grand Hotel for an evening of wine and hors d'oeuvres, followed by a private screening of Burns' Purple Violets. The Sun Streaming System, meanwhile, was standing awkwardly out in the hallway, humming away. A few people opted to pose for photographs next to it. But let's just say it wasn't exactly the life of the party.

Yes, the Sun Streaming System is a step forward in IPTV's short history, but an indie film premiere still seemed a little bit of a disjointed promotion for a server, to say the least. I was in attendance that evening, and my goal was to figure out exactly what both Sun and Tribeca Enterprises had at stake in such a partnership. The answer, according to Adam Sloan, the festival's executive vice president of sponsorship sales and marketing, is content delivery. Whether it's Verizon's for mobile video, or Yahoo's video portal, or Sun's IPTV-oriented offering, the festival is attempting to broaden its reach through broadband video content. "Everything they're doing is ultimately lowering the cost and increasing the capability to do more video on demand and IPTV," Sloan explained to me, "and being able to give a bigger and broader platform for films that otherwise might not be seen."

So are film festivals inking these new-media content delivery deals because they're afraid they'll be losing market share to Ask a Ninja if they don't expand? Sloan assured me that isn't the case. But the truth is that films nowadays have started to rely heavily on viral buzz, and the Internet is (for obvious reasons) the place to build that buzz. I asked Sloan about whether or not the festival was doing anything with that perpetual buzzword--user-generated content. After all, it's one of the major reasons that IPTV and broadband video are gaining the momentum that they are. "In many ways, everyone's becoming a filmmaker, and that's what makes it really fun," he said, but then added that the Tribeca Film Festival currently does not have any categories that the average person would associate with the YouTube revolution. There's a Cadillac-sponsored award that viewers vote on, and Sloan hinted at adding some more interactive features to the festival's Web site. Aside from that, it's still a hand-picked selection. Not very 2.0--but the idea I got was that it's gradually evolving to that point.

As is everything these days, right?