To drum up interest in the first Tribeca Film Festival in 2002, co-founder Jane Rosenthal handed out free tickets in New York schools, firehouses and police stations.
“We’d go anywhere to spread the word,” she recalled. “Most people didn’t know we existed.”
As Rosenthal gears up for the festival’s 10th edition, which opens tonight with a free performance by Elton John following a documentary on his musical collaboration with Leon Russell, recognition is no longer a problem.
The festival -- started by Rosenthal, her husband Craig Hatkoff and actor Robert De Niro to help revive Lower Manhattan following 9/11 -- is now an internationally known event that has drawn more than 3 million visitors and generated an estimated $600 million for the local economy.
“We’ve come a long way in a short time,” Rosenthal said in a telephone interview.
This year’s festival will showcase 93 feature-length films from 40 countries. The lineup includes documentaries on Ozzy Osbourne and Yves Saint Laurent, the directing debut of actress Vera Farmiga (“Higher Ground”), and “The Good Doctor,” a psychological thriller starring Orlando Bloom.
But the 12-day movie celebration is now just a spoke in the giant wheel of Tribeca Enterprises, which includes a film institute, a distribution company, an online festival, a multimedia school and an international film festival in Qatar.
“We’re trying to extend our reach beyond the traditional boundaries,” said Geoffrey Gilmore, who became chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises in 2009 after directing the Sundance Film Festival for 19 years. “We want to build an ongoing dialogue between filmmakers and film lovers.”
A few years ago, the Tribeca Film Festival got so big that it was criticized for being sprawling and unfocused. So the organizers cut the number of feature films -- the current lineup is about half the size it was in 2006 -- and returned to the festival’s roots of timely documentaries, indie dramas and international fare.
They also added popular features like the online festival and an annual series of sports films sponsored by ESPN, which this year includes documentaries on infamous Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman and Renee Richards, a tennis player who underwent a sex-change operation from male to female in 1975.
“We offer films that appeal to a variety of audiences,” said programming director David Kwok. “If you’re into sports or music or politics, we have films for you.”
The Tribeca Film Institute offers financial and creative support for aspiring screenwriters and directors. It also operates a film-education program for New York public-school students.
“Kids are the largest media consumers, and we want them to be educated, active consumers,” said Beth Janson, the institute’s executive director.
Tribeca Film was created a year ago to distribute indie films via theaters, video-on-demand, DVDs and other platforms. Recent acquisitions include “Last Night,” starring Keira Knightley, and “The Bang Bang Club,” featuring Ryan Phillippe.
The Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy is a two-year school in Chicago that teaches students how to make movies, video games, special effects and other multimedia projects.
Another part of the empire that Rosenthal and De Niro have built is the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, which was launched in 2009 to increase exposure for Arab cinema and provide Mideast moviegoers with more options.
“We’ve always been willing to take risks and try new things,” Rosenthal said. “That’s what Tribeca is all about.”
Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg News, is a sponsor of the Tribeca festival.