The Tribeca Film Festival has been a major force in film culture in New York City since its founding in 2002 by Academy Award Winner Robert De Niro, real estate investor, philanthropist Craig Hatkoff and Hatkoff’s wife, film producer Jane Rosenthal.

Hatkoff sat down with uInterview exclusively at the NOVUS Summit on global sustainability at the United Nations in New York last month to explain how the festival was founded. The philanthropist said the project was launched largely to revitalize lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

“September 11th had huge impact, particularly people who were downtown and my wife was half a block from the World Trade Center when the first plane hit,” said Hatkoff. “Everyone’s reaction when you have an unthinkable tragedy or trauma, the first inclination is ‘what can I do to help?” he added before comparing the terror attacks to the bombings in Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

Hatkoff went on to explain that he and his wife had the idea in the weeks after 9/11 to shore up all of the restaurants and businesses in Little Italy, Chinatown and the Financial District in lower Manhattan by faxing out invites to so-called “Dinner Downtown” events. The investor recalled how quiet and deserted the streets of New York City felt in the months after the attacks, and revealed that he and De Niro — whom he called the “unofficial mayor of New York” met all different types of people after visiting 29 restaurants in one evening in late 2001.

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Hatkoff said finding and securing venues, funding and films were all among the biggest obstacles he, his wife and De Niro faced while propelling the festival to what it is today. He revealed that American Express became one of the festival’s first major sponsors that contacted the trio.

The lineup of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which was held in April, included movies like Christoph Waltz‘s directorial debut Georgetown and Dreamland, which was produced by and starred Margot Robbie. A documentary film by Jared Leto called A Day in the Life of America also premiered at the festival.