A head for numbers and art

By Aileen Torres

Actor, producer and numbers guy, he draws on it all

Sometimes, during a presentation to one of his corporate clients, producer Peter J. Downing, surprises his audience by bursting into song.

His unexpected performance may shock the suits, but for Downing, 45, singing is just one of the many talents he draws on to do his job.

This year marks Downing’s third as the creative director of the Tribeca Family Film Festival, which runs this weekend, May 1-2 and continues next weekend, May 8-9.

There will be screenings of 10 feature films, including “New York Minute” starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. There will also be approximately 20 short films.

The main event will be the Family Outdoor Street Fair on Saturday, May 8, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Local restaurants, merchants, schools, performers, and artisans will stretch out along Greenwich Street, from Beach to Duane.

Downing was recommended to the producers of the Tribeca Film Festival by his former co-workers at ABC. He had been working as a producer and director for The Walt Disney Company at Walt Disney World in Florida, where he produced a festival, his first one ever, for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He received a call in March asking him if he would like to help produce the Tribeca Film Festival. The group had only ten weeks to pull the event together.

“Something like this, it’s a logistical Mt. Everest,” said Downing of the Family Festival. “How do you pull all these elements together? What are the elements? How will they work together, and how should they be sequenced and planned so they don’t look like they’re all thrown up and out onto the street? There’s a method to the madness of all of this.”

It’s also not easy on a limited budget, which for the family festival is roughly $500,000.

“I’m constantly challenged to put as much as I can on the street for as little as possible,” said Downing.

Fortunately, he has a head for both numbers and art.

“Something like this takes everything that I have. The only way to get this many performers on a limited budget is to negotiate with them, and I have to do that all the time on this event, to try to get as many people to participate for as little as they’re willing to because we are not a profit-making organization.”

In addition to possessing a healthy left-brain, Downing, who lives in New Jersey , has always had a theatrical side. When he was in grade school, his classmates would always elect him to read aloud to the class.

But it was in sixth grade, that he attended his brother‘s rehearsal for a high school play.

“I saw people up there playing parts and singing, and I remember thinking, That’s really cool. I’d really like to do that,” said Downing.

Downing participated in theater in high school and double-majored in theater and economics at Fordham. He then moved to California for a few months, then returned to New York to try to make it as an actor.

“I spent more time waiting tables than acting,” he said.

While he was in his struggling actor phase, he got the opportunity to produce a musical at his old high school.

“It was an eye-opening experience for me because it turned out to be my destiny,” he said. Downing, who was in his early 20’s at the time, acted as the producer, director and choreographer.

“Suddenly, instead of just thinking about performing, I thought, ‘There are all these different aspects of making a show that I hadn’t really considered before, and I realized, I like being in charge.”

Downing went on to get a master’s degree in acting and directing from Penn State University.

Since then, he has veered professionally between producing and directing.

He had a career as a stage manager in New York for about three years after grad school.

“I got to work with some great directors. I worked in the city, I worked on the road, I worked on Broadway for two years.”

“And I still get the same feeling of excitement about the work that I get to do as I did way back then, a million years ago.”

He then moved to Florida to work for the Walt Disney Company at Walt Disney World.

“Disney was a wonderful experience,” he said. “I got to do things there that I never would have gotten to do anywhere else.”

He produced huge events out on the water; dealt with pyrotechnics; coordinated many grand-celebrity press events, and handled several parades and shows.

“That was a real period of growth for me,” said Downing. After a 13-year stint at the Walt Disney Company, he returned to New York in 2000 and is now an independent producer.

“I’ve been working in the business for twenty years, and I love it,” said Downing. “It’s a very fulfilling career. Always different. Always new challenges. And fun. I just really love what I do. And I’m very lucky ‘cause not everybody can say that about the work that they do.”

There is, of course, another, more practical advantage to being a successful producer: “It keeps the bill collectors away from my door,” said Downing with a chuckle.

He has a right to be merry. He does what he loves, and he gets paid to do it.

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