Five years ago, Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff launched the first Tribeca Film Festival to contribute to the revival of Lower Manhattan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The five-day festival attracted 150,000 visitors to the downtown neighbourhood.

By 2006, Tribeca had grown into an almost two-week Manhattan-wide affair gracing the pages of The New York Times and attracting 465,000 festival-goers.

It has also become an increasingly powerful industry destination. This year's event (April 25-May 6) offers world premieres of dozens of new independent films in advance of Cannes; more than 75 this year including titles from John Dahl, Michael Apted, Albert Maysles and Ed Burns as well as a host of first and second-time film-makers.

That is in addition to premiere events for studio titles such as Curtis Hanson's Lucky You and Spider-Man 3.

But has the exponential growth of the festival diluted its original message and effectiveness'

'The only thing we set out to do at the beginning was to bring people downtown,' says Rosenthal. 'It was an obsession to make people feel normal again. I didn't feel we'd necessarily be doing the festival in 2003. But the fact that we've had the opportunity and Hollywood has responded and come here in droves, is wonderful.'

'The deal-closer was that Weinstein was across the street'
Tribeca has now firmly etched its name on the industry calendar. Last year, 704 film professionals attended the festival, including a third from outside New York and 89 from overseas.

'They have done a really good job of getting more industry to attend from all over the world,' says Arianna Bocco, vice-president, acquisitions and production, at IFC Films. 'And this year,' she adds, 'there is more of a mix of films - US, international, documentaries. There's something for everyone.'

In the last few years, the festival has also seen distribution deals for films such as Transamerica (The Weinstein Company) and Academy Award-nominated documentary Jesus Camp (Magnolia Pictures). Last year, 24 films attributed their US distribution deals to Tribeca, including Driving Lessons (Sony Classics) and The Hip Hop Project (ThinkFilm).

For many, the fact the festival is located in a city where myriad independent film companies have their headquarters has been instrumental in its success. 'For us, the deal-closer was that Weinstein was across the street,' says Sebastian Dungan, producer of Transamerica.

'We had the whole row of Weinstein people at our screening, whereas in Cannes there are more distractions. We premiered worldwide in Berlin. But US buyers don't really focus on US fare in Berlin. We thought, 'Do we wait for Toronto or go to Tribeca''' says Dungan.

Notably, Tribeca fits into the calendar between two major North American festivals, Sundance and Toronto, which are nine months apart.

'It's become an industry event and for a lot of people in LA it's the reason to be in New York City. They end up saying to you, 'We'll see you in Tribeca,'' says Dungan.

Sarah Lash from sales agent Cinetic Media, whose upcoming Tribeca slate includes Michael Apted's documentary The Power Of The Game, concurs: 'The LA contingent has been growing every year. We keep a close eye on Tribeca. It's great to have an alternative to Sundance.'

'It was only in the US that you didn't have Hollywood films at festivals'
Nevertheless, and perhaps befitting an event that has drawn this amount of buzz, Tribeca has also attracted its fair share of controversy. Some argue that by screening major Hollywood movies such as Spider-Man 3, Mission: Impossible III and Poseidon, Tribeca is detracting from the films in competitive sections.

Peter Scarlet, head of programming at Tribeca, says many festivals programme tentpole Hollywood movies to generate excitement. 'My goal is to get both the public and film-makers to pay attention. Cannes and Venice have been showing big Hollywood films for 60 years. It was only in the US that you didn't have Hollywood films at festivals,' he says.

'Anyway, we don't only premiere Spider-Man 3. But we want to make sure people who aren't film buffs will get to the festival.'

Ticket prices have also proved controversial. Although Tribeca promotes several ways the public can attend the festival for free, including a family street festival, this year will see a 50% ticket-price hike to $18 per screening, compared to last year's $12. Premium screenings are now going for as much as $25.

But Rosenthal points to expenses incurred by the festival, including flying in certain guests and putting them up in one of the world's most expensive cities. The festival has also expanded to other neighbourhoods due to the lack of downtown venues.

Rosenthal says this has not diluted its original message, since 9/11 affected the whole city - and Tribeca has footed the cost of outfitting various theatres with digital equipment. 'We have zero revenue from the festival,' Rosenthal underlines. 'Tribeca is funded completely by private donors.'

Its highest-profile sponsor is American Express, which pours several million dollars into Tribeca every year. But Rosenthal maintains that the lucrative sponsorship deal does not hinder the festival's ability to focus on its core business of showing good films and the festival has never had to make any compromises, screening several politically sensitive films including last year's The Road To Guantanamo by Michael Winterbottom.

'I would like to see it become the Cannes of North America'
A further criticism levied at the festival is that the huge number of films in the programme this year - 157 features will be screened - means they can be lost in the beehive of festival activity. So, how hard is it to attract publicity for a film at the festival'

'If you have stars, it gives you cachet for columnists. The buyers are there but you won't get coverage on a par with Berlin or Cannes,' says one publicist. 'In Cannes, you have two films a day at the Palais. Tribeca has 20 films a day. It's a lot!'

Tribeca, however, argues it uses its berth in the media capital of the world to promote its films. 'We've been able to tap into marketing expertise and communities,' says Rosenthal.

When Georgia Lee's Red Doors screened in 2005, the festival convinced New York's Chinese-American community to publicly back the film, about a dysfunctional Chinese-American family living in the New York suburbs.

Meanwhile the Grand Rabbi of the Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, gave his public blessing to the Israeli film Ushpizin, about a devout, childless Jewish Orthodox couple praying for a miracle.

Still, Tribeca prides itself on being receptive to criticism and to industry needs. This year, the festival is cutting its expansive schedule by a day and has pushed back its dates from Cannes by several days.

Premieres will screen in the first four or five days of the festival, facilitating the busy schedules of Los Angeles executives. But the festival is keen to continue growing. 'I see Tribeca more akin to Toronto, which is an audience festival and a terrific platform to launch a film,' says Rosenthal.

'Tribeca is only six years old, but one day, I would like to see it become the Cannes of North America.'