Pete Hammond

The Tribeca Film Festival, which opens tonight with Universal’s The Five-Year Engagement in New York City,  has never had the reputation of being a launching pad for films with much awards or Oscar potential, and with good reason.  Coming in mid-April a few weeks after the Oscars and a month before Cannes, it is sort of a no-man’s land in terms of positioning movies with Oscar dreams. Yes, there have been a couple of exceptions but mostly in the documentary area. Taxi To The Dark Side premiered at Tribeca and eventually went on to win the 2007 Best Documentary Feature Oscar. Last year’s fest debuted two docs, Bully and Jiro Dreams Of Sushi that are both enjoying some current boxoffice success and have Oscar potential in the doc category. Transamerica which garnered a Best Actress nod for Felicity Huffman debuted at the fest in 2005.

But Tribeca isn’t likely the first place producers of narrative films go when looking for a high-profile awards launchpad. That hasn’t stopped Goldcrest Films and producer Paul Mezey who will debut their new indie drama, The Girl which stars Abbie Cornish, on Friday night. With Strategy PR firm (led by Oscar maven Cynthia Swartz) behind them, they are hoping to make a big impact with a small film, secure a good distributor and set up a late Fall release that would also include an Oscar campaign for Cornish who delivers her most challenging performance to date and is the real selling point of the film written and directed by David Riker (La Ciudad). The story revolves around the plight of a South Texas single mother who has lost her son to Social Services and winds up trying to make some easy money smuggling Mexican immigrants across the border. The plan goes awry and she finds herself stuck with a young girl separated from her mother in the disastrous crossing.

Producer Mezey’s Beasts Of The Southern Wild, opening in June from Fox Searchlight, won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance. He has also produced other small films that resulted in key lead acting Oscar nominations including Half-Nelson for Ryan Gosling and Maria Full Of Grace for Catalina Sandino Moreno. Mezey has high hopes for The Girl  based on Cornish’s performance. He is hoping audiences at Tribeca give the film the boost it needs in order to secure distribution and acclaim that will translate into success during an awards season release. “With a film like this you need a lot of lead time to organically try to connect with audiences and build strong word of mouth and have a jump start on that before things get insane in the Fall. We don’t have a distributor yet so hopefully this screening will be something that can parlay into distributors seeing this film has a certain viability and word of mouth also is critical. Having that momentum in place can build into awards season. I don’t think we are necessarily counting on that per se. But when you have a film that is pretty much riding on the shoulders of one key performance I think discussion of that, and certainly recognition of what Abbie has accomplished here is going to help bring audiences to the film which at the end of the day is the most important thing,”  he said noting that the film has the vibe of a small movie like The Visitor which also went on to get a lead Oscar nod for its star Richard Jenkins.

Mezey emphasizes the challenge the role entailed for the Australian-born Cornish who is playing a bi-lingual role but knew no Spanish at all before taking it on. She also not only had to play an American, but one with a specific regional South Texas accent and then speak Spanish using it. She worked on prepping for the film six months before cameras rolled and told me it’s the toughest role she’s tackled yet. “There was so much work to do in prepping this film in terms of research and spending time in Mexico. Bit by bit  this character found itself and I found her. It was an amazing process, ” she said, and looks forward to seeing it with an audience Friday for the first time since the film was just finished under the wire to meet its Tribeca date (I saw it in a rough-cut form).

“To me  this is more of a personal piece than any other film. I can’t be objective about this film. I just can’t disconnect from it. I don’t think I’ve done a film that is this intimate,”  she said.

Mezey says the reason they chose to debut it now in Tribeca is basically because of former Sundancer Geoff Gilmore, the Chief Creative Office of Tribeca Enterprises. Gilmore tells Deadline: “The Girl appears to be exploring familiar territory, but its storytelling and ultimately its direction are fresh and unanticipated. Abbie Cornish’s portrait of a struggling mother is the core of David Riker’s very impressive tale of relationships and borders.”

Mezey thinks things have shifted for Tribeca with Gilmore being there, even though he isn’t solely programming like he did at Sundance. He thinks it’s important that there are fewer films at this fest than say the marquis Fall launching pad of Toronto or the mothership of all fests, Cannes in May which he says is a crapshoot. “I think for us the most essential thing is building our audience here in the U.S. and landing a distributor. If those are our ultimate goals then I think Tribeca makes a lot of sense for us. Because it has gotten so difficult for films like this, the second you present your film for the public the clock starts ticking. You are starting the conversation. You have to manage the time frame as well. Tribeca is well-positioned for us in that way. We have a good eight months afterwards, particularly if we get a good distributor and open in the late Fall,”  he said.

Here is an exclusive clip from The Girl:

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.