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."