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February 12, 2009 11:44 AM
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UPDATE: Under New Leadership & Facing Economic Realities, Film Society Cuts Staff; Ney Also Dropped

Mara Manus, Executive Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Image provided by the Film Society.

EDITORS NOTE: This story has been updated with additional details since being published earlier this week.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center, home to the venerable New York Film Festival and responsible for year-round art-cinema programming at the Walter Reade Theater, has cut its staff by nearly 25%, firing eight staffers on Friday, including administrative manager Sayre Maxfield, a longtime employee who also served as programming associate of the Golden Silents series and assistant development director Will McCord, who also produced the Young Friends of Film program. Others let go include rental manager Sharon Bahus, public relations assistant Caroline Von Kuhn and theater print expediter Fletcher Cossa.

indieWIRE has also learned that veteran Producer of Arts Programming Joanna Ney was cut at the Film Society. In addition to the Film Society's Dance on Camera festival, she had a longtime role as a key programmer at the organization, working on a number of high profile events and programs.

The lay-offs came in the wake of a series of departures from the Film Society since Mara Manus, formerly the top executive at New York's Public Theater, took over as executive director of the film non-profit in September.

Previously, Nancy Kelly, a longtime operations director who served as interim executive director, was let go, while development director Maria Laghi was replaced by longtime Manus associate Yasmine Falk. Public relations director Jeanne Berney, art director Claire Spiezio and development exec Blair Hartley all recently left the organization.

According to a Film Society spokesperson, the recent downsizing was due to budget cuts, commensurate with troubling economic conditions facing many non-profits these days. Despite the cutbacks, programs such as Young Friends of Film and Golden Silents are scheduled to continue operating.

"In a more volatile time, we have to operate more conservatively than ever," Mara Manus told indieWIRE.

Manus is taking over the Film Society during a pivotal time of expansion. A new $38 million complex is under construction, which will add two small theaters—of 150 and 90 seats—and an amphitheater. Readying to open the facility's doors in two years, Manus faces increasing pressures to grow the organization and meet new fiscal demands. A planned name change from the Film Society of Lincoln Center to Film at Lincoln Center is currently on hold.

But those familiar with Mara Manus's six-year tenure at the Public Theater suggest some of the staffing changes may be as much about asserting control as cost cutting.

While her economic track record at the Public has been heralded, nearly doubling the downtown theater institution's budget and increasing individual support by 270% and subscriber revenue by 134%, Manus reportedly clashed with artistic director Oskar Eustis and was disliked by some staffers for her aloof corporate style, hierarchical approach, and hiring those who shared her views and firing or alienating those that didn't.

"Her office was pretty much off-limits," said one former Public staffer. "There was never any effort to be inclusive. When she started bringing in people, she set up barriers and people felt the pressure of not being connected."

Such a style is certainly unfamiliar at an older organization like the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which has generally maintained a familial atmosphere and is rooted in many longstanding traditions.

Manus acknowledged that transitional periods are always challenging. "Change is unsettling for everyone," she said. Moving forward, she has promised her remaining staff that she will "work transparently and collaboratively."

"We're going to track our expenses and our income against our goals, and when we're not making those goals, we're going to make corrections and everyone will be privy to those, so there won't be surprises," she continued. "The hardest thing for me to have done this year was to learn about the size of the cuts that I had to make."

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