On Monday, less than 24 hours after the conclusion of the 49th edition of the New York Film Festival, Richard Peña sat in the conference room at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and considered his past and his future.
The fourth floor was vacant; after the whirlwind that had consumed the space since the festival began in late September, the office was technically closed and most of the staff took the day off. But Peña, the festival's chairman as well as the Film Society's program director since 1988, was gearing up for another deadline.
The previous evening, prior to the closing-night screening of Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," Peña made public a decision many had predicted for some time: In 2012, following the festival's 50th edition, he plans to step down. He will continue teaching film history at Columbia University and advising the Film Society on a new educational initiative, but after 25 years the man responsible for introducing American audiences to countless international auteurs will move on.
"At first, my kids were a little surprised by the idea of their father 'retiring,'" he said, putting that last word in air quotes. "It was strange to them. But when we spoke about the possibilities, they supported me."
Peña is considering opportunities to teach abroad and write; maybe even open a museum. Over the years, the dual pressures of running one of the world's most prestigious festivals and overseeing year-round programming at the Walter Reade Theater hasn't left room for much else. "Not to complain too much, but this really takes a lot of time," he said. "It will be nice to take more of that time for myself."
Peña is only the second person to oversee NYFF's content; he took the reins from Richard Roud, whose own tenure lasted 25 years. Unlike Roud, Peña also managed year-round film programming at Lincoln Center, a job that grew increasingly significant with the opening of Walter Reade in 1991. International cinema became Peña's chief mandate and over the years he's been credited with introducing New Yorkers to filmmakers like Mike Leigh in addition to a plethora of eastern directors, such as Hou Hsiao-hsien.
Peña's name has been synonymous with art house curation for so long that it's hard to imagine the Film Society without his influence, and easy to wonder why he would ever want to leave such a lofty position. "I'm not stepping down because I can't take it anymore," said Peña, who's 58. "My own confidence in the work hasn't really changed."
In fact, he's been dropping hints about his departure for years. In a 2007 interview with The Reeler's S.T. VanAirsdale, Peña explained that he "should probably leave in a few years" because "it's time for someone else to bring in new ideas, new directions." Rather than cite any specific moment when he made the decision to clear out, Peña said on Monday that he first began to seriously consider leaving the Film Society when he turned 50.
"Inevitably, you reflect on your life and wonder, 'Well, am I just going to do this forever or try something else?'" he said. He committed himself to ensuring the successful opening of the Film Society's new first-run theater, the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, earlier this year. And while he'll stick around for another 12 months, he doesn't plan on directly participating in the search for a replacement, although associate programmer Scott Foundas has been rumored as a strong contender.
However, Peña does have some recommendations for the Film Society, including the possibility that his two jobs go to separate people. "I don't think it would be a bad thing to hire two people," he said, "not because no one can replace me but because the festival and the year-round programming has increased so much. The danger is that if you have two people, there could be some kind of conflict, but there are a lot of ways they could work together."
He also argued in favor of younger replacements (Peña was in his late 30s when he came on board from the Art Institute of Chicago). "I'm not an ageist, but I do hope they get somebody who can be here for awhile," he said. "I learned on the job. I hope the next person will have that luxury as well."
In the meantime, Peña will continue combining the Film Society's resources with his work as a college instructor. He already has a few ideas for the educational initiative he'll develop in the coming months, including a year-long history of cinema series that would take audiences on a chronological tour of the medium. He describes the plan as "somewhere between academia and a public program" and hopes to tap into Columbia's graduate school community for help.
"I've always thought that the business of the Film Society is to help write film history," he said. He's mulling over a few book ideas and already has an upcoming writing assignment about Clint Eastwood for an exhibition in Brazil.
Meanwhile, he anticipates that the Film Society will continue to evolve without him. Although he admits he's "not tech-savvy," Peña recognizes that changing modes of distribution will eventually come into play, especially video-on-demand features for spreading content to viewers around the country.
"I would be really surprised if, in five years, we didn't have a VOD presence," he said, noting that many of his students now express more familiarity with television than movies. "I don't blame them for it," he said. "My students are now quite a bit younger than I am. I always find it a little bit shocking how little common knowledge I have with them."
Whenever asked about digital innovations, Peña usually throws up his hands. "Things like transmedia, first of all, I'm not really sure what they mean," he said. "Second of all, it's not really my issue." Nevertheless, he concedes, "we've always thought that the internet could be yet another screen for us."
Beyond getting younger viewers into the theater, Peña sees a bigger challenge in getting them interested in the types of movies he considers essential. "People in my generation were very turned on by the new possibilities of international cinema," he said. "I find younger people are a little less interested in finding out about those new cinemas."
But getting audiences to accept cinema from remote parts of the world has always been Peña's battle. "There were certainly people who couldn't really see what was interesting about a lot of Chinese cinema," he said about his early days at the Film Society. "They didn't get it, but for me, filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-hsien became the new establishment, the Antonionis of our time."
Whatever happens after he leaves, Peña's legacy is secure. To take a recent example: When the renowned Hungarian director Béla Tarr briefly showed up at NYFF last week to screen his purported last feature, "The Turin Horse," he told an audience he only made the trip as a favor to Peña. "We're good friends," the programmer says. "I've been to his house, he's been to my house. The next person who comes along will have his or her own contacts with the next Béla Tarr."
Peña's replacement will also face enormous pressure from countless filmmakers, distributors and sales agents jockeying for spots in the exclusive NYFF lineup, a frenzy Peña helped create. In 1988, the selection committee considered 800 submissions; this past year, they had around 2,800. That meant a lot of rejection letters and the usual mix of anger and disappointment they cause.
"Inevitably, we set ourselves up as the bad guys," Peña said. "But that's why I think people respect us. They're very happy when they get in."
That's not to say he loves ticking people off: "It's inconvenient and at times emotionally upsetting," he confessed. "But I wouldn't have been in this job or even accepted it if I wasn't willing to take that. I knew it came with the turf. I didn't realize how much it came with the turf, and how brutal it could sometimes be, but that's not a reason for me to leave."
Nor, he insisted, was he fazed by internal Film Society strife. This included the revolving door of the executive director's office, which was filled in 2010 by former AFI Fest artistic director Rose Kuo after the disastrous one-year stint of Mara Manus, whose aggressive managerial style resulted in numerous firings and a lot of bad vibes.
"I don't want to get into that," Peña said, "but the issues with Mara Manus weren't programmatic. There were other problems." He added that some changes might be positive, no matter how he personally feels about them. "Someone could lead the Film Society in a different direction," he said. "Whether I approve or disapprove doesn't really matter."
Still, he maintained his convictions about the function of the institution. "As a nonprofit that receives tax money, it is the duty of the Film Society to really help expand the boundaries of our understanding of cinema," he said. "I would hope we never get to the point where decisions are only made for commercial reasons."
He returned to the need for strategic transformation. "It's not my place to say how they should do it, but I think it's time to rethink everything," he said. "I don't think anything should be considered sacred."
But then Peña contradicted himself with a sacred assertion that has guided him over the years. "When I started going to the 'serious' movies in my teens," he said -- again with the air quotes, this time over "serious" -- "I was going to see movies that I didn't understand: 'Last Year at Marienbad,' some Bergmans, things like that. For me, the great joy was not understanding them. That challenged me."
The frozen smile on Peña's face then betrayed him. He looked calm, distant, in the throes of sudden nostalgia as he breathed a heavy sigh. "I wanted to get to a point where I could understand them, challenge them, criticize them, think about them," he said at last. "Simply not understanding wasn't enough. Hopefully, some of my work has been about that."