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End of an Era for NYFF, The Dawn of a New One or More of the Same?

By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire August 11, 2009 at 11:54AM

Change is coming to the New York Film Festival. While the lineup for the 47th annual festival continues the institution's tradition of showcasing international auteurs, attendees will notice changes this year as new leadership takes the reins. The shifts start on opening night and include changes in festival ticketing. The major change for insiders is that the New York Film Festival will kick-off solely at Alice Tully Hall for the first time and, in a dramatic break with a nearly twenty-five year tradition, there will not be a black tie gala opening bash at the venerable Tavern on the Green in Central Park. Meanwhile, fest attendees will experience a new level of accessibility in ticketing.
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Change is coming to the New York Film Festival. While the lineup for the 47th annual festival continues the institution's tradition of showcasing international auteurs, attendees will notice changes this year as new leadership takes the reins. The shifts start on opening night and include changes in festival ticketing. The major change for insiders is that the New York Film Festival will kick-off solely at Alice Tully Hall for the first time and, in a dramatic break with a nearly twenty-five year tradition, there will not be a black tie gala opening bash at the venerable Tavern on the Green in Central Park. Meanwhile, fest attendees will experience a new level of accessibility in ticketing.

Goodbye Tavern on the Green

The opening night shift, while only affecting the festival experience for a few thousand industry and patron attendees, is striking. The gala opening night screening tradition, dubbed "the prom" by many younger generation attendees, was a highlight on the annual film calendar and arguably Manhattan's biggest film night of the year. The coveted shiny silver gala ticket was a hot commodity and opened the door to a festive fete that filled Central Park's Tavern on the Green, stocked with buffet stations, bars, a big band, and a dance floor.

However, the party came with a big price tag, understood to be as high as $125,000 and paid for by the company that was releasing the opening night movie. This year, the festival will open and close entirely at the new Alice Tully Hall and feature an opening night party for more than 1000 people in the venue's new glass lobby.

Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton at the New York Film Festival opening night party. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

"It's a reflection of the times," Film Society of Lincoln Center executive director Mara Manus began in a conversation with indieWIRE today, "It was clear to me, when I started this job, that we couldn't go to a studio or distributor this year and ask them to write this huge check."

"I actually think it's a wonderful idea," Sony Pictures Classics Michael Barker told indieWIRE today. His company has the festival's opening night (Resnais' "Wild Grass"), closing film (Almodovar's "Broken Embraces"), as well as Michael Haneke's "White Ribbon." "[Alice Tully Hall] is a wonderful place to hang out after, to watch a movie," he continued, supportive of the change, "It's a celebration of the new theater."

In future years, the party may move to a new venue, perhaps somewhere else at Lincoln Center. It seems unlikely that it would return to Tavern on the green with a formal gala. "[There is] no more black tie," proclaimed Manus, reiterating the point. But, she added, laughing, "We are going to require people to wear clothes."

"It's a bit tough on these smaller films to be saddled with that financial burden," Barker continued, in the separate conversation. "With a film like this one -- I think the film is intimate, light, breezy -- being in ATH will be nice and conducive to the classiness of the film."

Tavern on the Green on the opening night of the New York Film Festival. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Rumors of the opening night change have been circulating in New York recently and lead to a bit of nostalgia among many insiders. The gala became a fixture at Tavern on the Green in the mid-'80s when Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" opened the festival, and over the years, from "Pulp Fiction" in 1994 to more recent openers like "Dancer in the Dark," "Good Night and Good Luck," "Mystic River" or "The Darjeeling Limited," it was a hot spot for celebs, industry, media and patrons. In the last several years, it became a new tradition for younger industry folks to typically head to downtown restaurant Village for a late night (in fact, very late) unofficial party. That won't be happening this year either. The restaurant closed earlier this month.

Aside from the opening night changes, those who worried that the arrival of Mara Manus nearly year ago would result in a programatic shift for the New York Film Festival can rest assured. The '09 fest roster features just as many international auteurs as previous years. The changes being touted by Manus, and program director Richard Pena, are based in a new ticketing system aimed at making the event more accesible to attendees.

Touting Accesibility

"I was hired to grow the organization," Mara Manus explained, noting that her goal is, "to provide greater access" to the festival and the Film Society's year round programming. Prior to heading the group, Manus said she found it nearly impossible to secure tickets to NYFF screenings, she'd instead rely on filmmaker friends. Indeed, getting advance tickets to the New York Film Festival involved mailing a blank check to the Film Society with an order form and then waiting to see which selections were filled. Not any more.

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"The New York Film Festival was something that you couldn't get into," Manus continued, "I think that's the perception." She is promising a new, more efficient ticketing system this year including what she called a more transparent process that she noted, "Creates greater efficiency in the ticketing system for everyone at every level." Details should be forthcoming after Labor Day, including a rush line process to fill seats at sold out showings that might otherwise have been left empty. "It's an experiment that like any will have kinks, but it will have a more open [system] that will make the festival more available to more people," Richard Pena told indieWIRE today in a separate conversation.

Manus also touted the move to make the new Alice Tully Hall lobby as a gathering place for attendees. The venue will offer grab and go food stands in the new, brighter lobby, and a mini Barnes and Noble bookshop.

"Alice Tully Hall is helping Lincoln Center to achieve a new face," Manus reiterated.

"The films here are more accessible than you think they are. We believe that there is a bigger audience for them." She is hoping to find ways to better engage that audience and as she said in numerous ways, accesiblity to the event is crucial.

Pena's Take

Twenty-nine films from 17 countries round out the main lineup for this year's New York Film Festival. Alain Resnais' "Wild Grass," which was picked up recently by Sony Pictures Classics opens the venerable festival, which traditionally showcases new films from veteran auteurs as well as promising up and comers. From this year's Sundance Film Festival and the Directors Fortnight in Cannes is Lee Daniels' "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" (formerly known as "Push") as this year's Centerpiece, while Pedro Almodovar returns once again to NYFF with his latest 2009 Cannes competition film, "Broken Embraces" (Los abrazos rotos), which will close the festival.

Pedro Almodovar and Richard Pena at the New York Film Festival. Photo by indieWIRE

"I think this year's lineup is less Cannes-dependent then other years," noted Pena this afternoon. "Cannes remains a primary hunting ground for us, but over the summer we found other films in addition to four films from the Berlin International Film Festival, including 'Sweet Rush' (by Andrzej Wajda), 'Eccentricities of a Blonde' (by Manoel de Olivera), 'Bluebeard' (by Catherine Breillat) and 'Sweetgrass' (by Ilisa Barish and Lucien Castaing-Taylor)."

Reflecting on the lineup as a whole, Pena added, "Last year, there was a heavy Latin American component. I was personally very happy about that because [that region] is of particular interest for me, but unfortunately there's nothing this year. But we do have work from Africa and a good selection from Eastern Europe. There is also a rather small American selection this year," he added.

Pena noted that the selection committee had hoped to see some titles that weren't ready during the selection process, while others didn't work with the committee as a whole. And of course, the comparatively small number of titles curated for NYFF, as always, forces the programming group to make tough decisions.

"Because we're small, we have to say 'no,' so it makes the festival interesting, but it also is a curse because we have to live or die with our selections."

Among the two films that many immediately noted were absent from the list, both well received in Cannes this year, were Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" and Ken Loach's "Looking for Eric."

Blogger Buzz

Rounding out our in-depth look at the lineup for the '09 New York Film Festival, indieWIRE reached out ot a number of New York film critics, bloggers and journalists. The first question, "What do you think of the lineup?" As expected, responses conflicted.

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"There are a few too many familiar titles for my taste," said Karina Longworth from Spout.com, asking why Lee Daniels' "Precious" needs another major fest showcase after Sundance and Cannes. The roster is "far less predictable than usual," countered Andrew Grant from the blog Like Anna Karina's Sweater. He highlighted work by Sabu, Dayong and Cisse, and the inclusion of three Portugueses movies.

"Not particularly thrilling," was the reaction from Joshua Rothkopf from Time Out New York, "Per usual, the fest seems slavishly devoted to the Cannes slate, even to the extent of including the mega-ridiculous 'Antichrist'." He continued, "Meanwhile, must a world premiere of 'The Road' be scooped by a foreign film fest? That's an opportunity missed. Why can't NYFF host more world premieres? (It used to.) In a more adventurous mold, New York could be leading the film discussion instead of merely echoing it from months past."

"I've heard good things about this 'The Wizard of Oz' film," Rothkopf concluded.

"I'm rather surprised by how little I'm surprised," offered Glenn Kenny, who writes the blog, Some Came Running. "Don't take that as a complaint, though -- with the Resnais opening, and Rivette and Denis prominently featured, it's almost as if Philip Lopate and Kent Jones never left the selection board. (Indeed, the inclusion of "Everyone Else" would seem to have Kent's fingerprints all over it.)" He continued, "Of course there are a couple of things that are, erm, different. I suppose the festival can't be blamed for choosing von Trier's 'Antichrist' as a vehicle by which to bring the provocation, as predictable a carrier as it might be. One wonders if the new Solondz will match in in terms of outrage."

"I'm impressed that so much of the international component of the program has not dominated recent festival coverage, so there will be some nice surprises for American audiences," noted Eric Kohn, a frequent indieWIRE contributor who writes the blog, Screen Rush. "And, obviously, 'Antichrist' will turn a lot of heads, if not with the same unanticipated rush it achieved at the Palais in May."

"I'm looking forward to seeing as many of this year's selections as possible (what self-respecting cinephile wouldn't)," said Brandon Harris, who writes the blog Cinema Echo Chamber, "But I can't say I'm tremendously excited or moved by this lineup." He continued, "As is usually the case with the unveiling of the New York Film Festival's slate, one is immediately struck by the familiar presence of long celebrated international auteurs and fascinating newcomers, but I think that the festival has grown somewhat predictable in its programming; it has in many ways succumbed to the group think mentality that permeates the festival circuit in general. Nothing here really surprises me, most of all the selections that might, at first glance, jump out as being particularly audacious (the Daniels or even the Dumont for instance). Just once I'd like to see the NYFF take a gamble on some of the more adventurous stuff at Rotterdam or SXSW."

Mike D'Angelo, who writes the blog, The Man Who Viewed Too Much, expressed self-described "elation" that, "Maren Ade's magnificent 'Everyone Else' is receiving such a prominent U.S. showcase," he said, "It's far and away the best film I've seen this year, and Ade is already a major talent whose work deserves a bigger audience than it's likely to get."

A number of people spoke of disappointment at the exclusion of Gaspar Noe's "Enter The Void" and Hong Sang Soo's "Like You Know It All," both from Cannes.

"On one hand, I'm happy that this might allay any concerns that the Film Society of Lincoln Center is selling out," Movieline's Stu Van Airsdale responded, "On the other, I don't foresee half of these films *literally* selling out. But I'm always happy to see Michael Haneke's smiling face on the dais, so no real complaints from me."

"What I love about the NYFF and also find fascinating from the perspective of the emerging trends in distribution is how unrelentingly old-school they are," said Laure Parsons, who writes the blog Infinicine and works at Zeitgeist Films, "Most of the films they show are heavily subsidized and really do stick to an auteurist sensibility, regardless of how good or bad they are. This seems like an almost anachronistic model when you see all these panels and workshops on self-financed, self-distributed movies. Maybe they'll continue to be a refuge for a while."

"I think it's obvious Melissa Anderson and Dennis Lim have made a big impact this year," praised Chris Wells, whose blog is K As In Knife and also works at IFC Center, continuing, "They're fresh, younger voices, with backgrounds in online criticism and the alternative press, and it seems their presence on the selection committee has helped shape one of the boldest line-ups of the last few years."

"It seems the committee is almost bending over backwards to make amends for recent oversights. After Rivette's 'The Duchess of Langeais' and Denis's '35 Shots of Rum' (both accessible and entertaining works by often difficult artists) failed to make the cut in 2007 and 2008, respectively, this year, we have '36 Views of Saint-Loup Peak' and 'White Material.'"

"In making such picks, and committing themselves to spotlighting future masters, NYFF '09 has struck a near-perfect balance between the new and the old, the iconoclastic and the crowd-pleasing," said Wells, "If you couldn't already tell, I'm excited; this year's NYFF actually sounds, you know, FUN. September 25 can't come soon enough."

This article is related to: Features, Festival Dispatch







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