Last year, Richard Peña had an idea. After 25 years of serving as program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chairman of the New York Film Festival, Peña announced his decision to step down and focus on other pursuits. But he also had a plan for what should come next.
"I don't think it would be a bad idea to hire two people," he told me in a conversation the day after his official announcement, "not because no one can replace me but because the festival and year-round programming has increased so much."
Having carried the weight of a major film institution on his back for a quarter of a century and played a key role in bringing a wide variety of world cinema to New York, Peña sometimes comes across like a solitary figure leading American audiences toward new, adventurous encounters with a multitude of cinematic experiences. But he wasn't alone on this one.
Nearly a year later, on the verge of completing his final year on the Film Society staff and on the brink of the NYFF's 50th anniversary, Peña has been able to see one more of his strategies come to fruition. Earlier this month, the Film Society announced that Peña's duties would be split among a pair of established cinephiles: Kent Jones, once the associate programmer for the Film Society before he left to run Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation in 2009, will oversee the New York Film Festival year-round, while responsibility for the Film Society's year-round programming will fall to former AFI Fest programmer and longtime Variety critic Bob Koehler.
Even with his characteristically reserved manner, Peña sounds immensely satisfied with the decision. "It correlates with what I had in mind," he said in a phone conversation this week. "When I first spoke about it with the board of directors of the Film Society, the idea wasn't greeted with that much enthusiasm, but as it turns out, this was their final decision."
Plenty of speculation swirled around the possible hires over the last 12 months. Many expected current associate programmer Scott Foundas to inherit Peña's position. Other veteran programmers allegedly up for the gig became the subjects of murmured party talk and speculative tweets. If nothing else, the sheer magnitude of interest in the position, both within New York's insular film community and around the country, points to the prestige the institution has amassed over the course of half a century. A gateway for New Yorkers to world cinema, and therefore a major waystation for international auteurs to show their work to American audiences, the Film Society has played an essential role in the history of the medium itself. Anyone at its helm should (sputters the prototypical die-hard New York filmgoer) see the daunting task in those terms.
For that reason, Jones' arrival at the Film Society has struck many as a no-brainer. A respected film critic whose credits include several documentaries about film history, book-length film analyses and restoration work, Jones also worked at the Film Society for nearly a decade before departing in the midst of former Film Society executive director Mara Manus' brief time at the institution, during which she was largely derided for her icy management style. Current executive director Rose Kuo, who took over the position from Manus in 2010, has more or less put the pieces back together and added a few new ones along the way — including Koehler, with whom she worked during her previous job at AFI Fest.
But Kuo gives less credit to Peña for conceiving of his dual replacements than she does to Jones himself. "It was really Kent who thought about it," she explained. "He arrived at the same place Richard did independently and thought it should be a two-person team."
In essence, the creation of two jobs reflects a tendency among festivals that also have to manage year-round programming to divide and conquer. As Koehler points out, the Toronto International Film Festival has different programming teams oversee its annual lineup and the various screening programs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theater throughout the year. "I suppose that's one of the closest equivalents to what we now have at the Film Society, but the scale is fortunately not as behemoth," Koehler said. "I would never, ever want it to get to that size."
Nevertheless, Koehler still has his work cut out for him. Since it opened the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in 2009 to supplement the programming at the Walter Reade Theater with first-run theatrical bookings, the Film Society has faced a greater amount of exposure than ever before. Like many cinephiles not based in the city, Koehler has only monitored this development from afar. A longtime Los Angeles resident traveling to New York this week to take notes during the festival (and find an apartment), Koehler is a perennial character on the festival circuit, but he has yet to permeate New York's distinct film-community bubble. That's where Jones comes in.
"He has the benefit of institutional memory," Kuo said. "What we've done and what we've tried that hasn't worked in the past. He know why. And he knows how to tweak things so they can be successful."
Jones, however, remains mum on specific tactics at this early stage in the game. The most detail he'll provide is a series of examples singling out the kind of filmmakers the Film Society should champion. These include Olivier Assayas, whose "Cold Water" played at the festival in 1994 and won over the critic, now a good friend of the director. He also cited the Dardenne brothers' "La Promesse," Wes Anderson's "Rushmore," and Peña's early efforts to introduce New Yorkers to the work of Pedro Almodovar as the types of movies that solidified their global appeal by arriving at the Film Society.
For Jones, the biggest reward for bringing such talent to New York involves the least obvious audiences. "Cinephiles are going to come already and will have opinions about what should or shouldn't be in," he said. "It's the people who want to explore something different who ask some really beautiful questions."
That assessment is candy for Kuo, whose outreach efforts can be seen in the Film Society's revamped educational initiatives, the introduction of cross-media programming and other decisions that have expanded the Film Society's capacity to address a larger world of interests. At every turn, the Film Society faces a unique conundrum of paying homage to its existing heritage and pushing to expand it. "I think we will maintain a commitment to our legacy of programming," Kuo said. "The difference is that we'll go deeper into some of the new areas we've already begun looking at."
Peña, whose last day on the job is December 31, has a few more suggestions along those lines. Asked to provide some tips for his successors, he singled out three areas the Film Society should explore. "I think in the next few years the Film Society should at least study the possibility of VOD," he said. "Our work could have some impact nationally if we had a platform that allowed us to get to audiences that aren't within easy commute to New York City." Along similar lines, he also recommended that the Film Society consider building a satellite theater, possibly in Brooklyn, and expand its publishing efforts to include books and monographs. "There's still a lot of room for growth," he said.
The New York Film Festival's current profile is indicative of the Film Society's domineering presence. With three studio premieres occupying the program's opening, closing and centerpiece slots — that would be Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," David Chase's "Not Fade Away" and Robert Zemeckis' "Flight," respectively — the festival has attracted a level of attention that may provide a model for the next steps Kuo hopes her new hires will take. Jones, who was not involved in selecting this year's program, said he has no problem with showing Hollywood fare at the festival. "If they're good movies, they should be in," he said.
Of course, the rest of the program contains acclaimed selections from this year's festival circuit that reflect a very different type of programming mentality. That's a world Koehler lives and breathes. His vision for the Film Society has been largely filtered through the envy he has felt from across the country for decades. Upon the announcement of his hire, he said he flashed back to his childhood in a suburb of Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley, when he spent time in the public library gazing longingly at advertisements for the festival in the New York Times.
"I remember a huge two-page spread for Ingmar Bergman's 'Cries and Whispers,' and another for François Truffaut's 'Day for Night,' these superstar auteurs," he said. "From 3,000 miles away, it was immensely interesting to me. I had a closer connection to the festival than I did to any local events. Thinking back, I realize that this is a place I always wanted to work."
With that level of excitement, Koehler may still need to come down to earth before he begins any real programming efforts, and he realizes as much. "I see the first year as taking time to patiently study not only the schedule but also to look around the city to see more closely what's being done," he said. If his writing is any indication, it's likely that Koehler will want to push some of his more adventurous sensibilities on audiences, from the audacious efforts of emerging European directors to a plethora of experimental work. But that all remains to be seen. "It's important that changes we do happen in a judicious way," he said.
Jones shrugs off the pressure. "Look, the Film Society has a very specific mission that has been broadening," he said. "I don't think there's any point in getting self-conscious about it."
Nevertheless, Peña has grown used to fretting as part of the job. In three months, he'll finally get the opportunity to attend a Film Society screening without thinking about the practicalities behind it. But that's not to say he won't experience some familiar anxieties. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll still worry about the projection."