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New York Film Festival

NYFF: In interview, Richard Pena recounts pride, fatigue, a little remorse

October 02, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Richard Pena
Richard Pena (Carolyn Cole )

NEW YORK--In a quarter-century at the helm of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the New York Film Festival, Richard Pena has become more associated with a U.S. movie gathering than anyone not named Robert Redford.

Pena’s work has been extensive behind the scenes as he’s led a group that chooses what to screen at one of the country’s most prestigious film institutions.  But it also has played out publicly, with Pena, who also teaches at Columbia University, taking the Lincoln Center stage countless times over the last 25 years to interview the world’s biggest directors with a kind of erudite flair-cum-wonkishness.

In this period, he's overseen the opening of several dedicated Film Society movie theaters--including the Walter Reade and the Elinor Bunim Monroe--as well as shepherded an organization through several boom-and-bust cycles, both economic and cinematic.

Pena, 58, is set to leave his post shortly after this year’s festival, part of a long-planned retirement. (His new job will be taken by two people.)  

Movies Now caught up with the cinema-world fixture at the New York Film Festival to talk about why he’s leaving,  the ever-changing difficulties of art film and his greatest pride and shame.

Movies Now: It feels to me like you're leaving in a period as difficult as any the art-house world has ever known. Does it feel that way to you?

Richard Pena: This festival was founded in 1963, at a certain point of public interest in alternative forms of filmmaking. When you think back to the '60's you had "Last Year at Marienbad” and “L'Avventura.” And these movies were getting commercial releases, not one but several movie theaters. Where does that happen today? That easy sense that these films will simply pass into the art-house circuit isn't true.

MN: How deep does the challenge go?

RP: I think it goes pretty deep. There’s a graying of the audience. People in their 20s and 30s don’t really have an interest in alternative cinema. Alternative cinema to them is an American independent.  When I was in college we were all wildly interested in cinema. I have a friend who lives in Durham, N.C., and he comes up the first week of the New York Film Festival every year. This is a financial guy who has nothing to do with cinema. But he’s always here.

MN: Did you feel a responsibility as a film-festival head to try to change that?

RP: On the one hand there’s a duty to the medium to put out the best at the festival. And on the other we don’t want to feel like we’re irrelevant, that we’re the latest poetry reading. It’s nice when one of our films go on and has a life and it’s nominated for an Oscar.  The distributors have a really hard job, and I do feel a certain duty to them. I won’t take everything but I’ll work with them. I want our art to be relevant, and if a film only shows here or at other festivals and never shows in the outside world part of me feels like I failed.

MN: The festival world has exploded in the 25 years since you arrived, whether it’s Tribeca here in New York or the ascendancy of gatherings like SXSW and Toronto, or even genre-movie gatherings. Has it started to feel like there’s just too much competition?

RP: I grew up at a time when people said the festival they meant the N.Y. Film Festival. And now that's not so true. We live in a time when festivals have proliferated to an almost unbelievable rate. There must be a good 70 festivals in New York alone of  various stripes. It no longer has that specialness and that aura. That has been a challenge to what we can do. I think we’ve dealt with it by staying true to who we are. I don't think we change with the times; I don't think we should open up an iPhone section. I think we basically said this is what we do it and we do it very well.

MN: Some festivals have responded by going more celebrity. You’ve done that a little—you have some star-driven gala screenings--but it’s been measured.

RP: I’d rather people discover us than have us go out and try to discover them. The moment you change yourself you’re sort of lost. I don’t put anyone down; I know how hard this world is. But you can have specialized boutiques and big department stores. I don’t think one negates the other.

MN: Every film festival these days talks about digital distribution as a way of expanding its reach, or at least staying relevant in a Netflix era. Is that a pipe dream?

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