By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 31, 2014 at 12:43PM
In this weekend's Sunday Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times, the paper's top film critics offer some sharp words for one of the city's venerated film institutions in the guise of constructive criticism. In an unprecedented degree of scrutiny leveled at the Film Society of Lincoln Center divided across three articles — with the alarmist headline "Prescriptions for a Cinema Refuge" — the Times analyzes the institution's future through the lens of its difficult past with a dire tone.
In an overview introducing think pieces from chief film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, Adam Kepler sets the stage for difficult times at the city's oldest haven for international cinema, home for the New York Film Festival for over 50 years and epicenter for countless retrospectives and screening series throughout the year. Under the subhead "How Should the Film Society of Lincoln Center Proceed?," Kepler points out that "While the annual festival has thrived, the fortunes of this nonprofit society have ebbed and flowed." Fair enough — that's life for any nonprofit.
Then Kepler goes one step further, singling out the "interim period" between executive directors at the Film Society, noting that it has endured its second leadership change in three years without naming names. That gap creates the impression of a Film Society devoid of vision, largely due to the cold instruction of a faceless entity ignorant of the Film Society's contemporary needs.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Recently departed executive director Rose Kuo inherited the role from Mara Manus in 2011, when the institution was largely regarded as falling into the outmoded status that the Times outlines here. Since then, Kuo has pushed the Film Society in much wider directions, launching a crossmedia "Convergence" section at the New York Film Festival, broadening digital initiatives, incorporating television and video games into its programming and exploring the possibilities of further growth — all while strengthening the Film Society's programming team with respected names from the international film community, defending the ongoing publication of its venerated magazine Film Comment and showing face around town as much as possible. If you hung out at movie events in the city, chances are strong that you probably saw Kuo there, hanging out by the bar and brainstorming with some cohort or another late into the night. You still can.
Kuo may have had her quirks — I don't think she ever sleeps, and god help anyone who picks a fight with her — but under her tenure, there was a genuine sense of old and new coming together: The New York Film Festival remained a haven for the best international cinema, while New Directors/New Films offered the promise of its label, and funkier series like Film Comment Selects and various retrospectives gave diehard cinephiles something to chew on year-round. Others flocked to the flashy Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center for a "Breaking Bad" marathon, only to discover sneak previews for new releases that would otherwise never land on their radars at all.
There was no doubt that the institution was working through the same challenges faced by every exhibitor: How do you "eventize" your space so an increasingly distracted public makes the effort to show up? If anything, Kuo's Film Society looked like it was just getting started when her contract negotiations fell apart late last year.
But without mentioning Kuo once by name — though Dargis makes some passing references to a handful of Kuo's interactive initiatives aimed at younger audiences from last year — the Times effectively writes her out of the picture, and criticizes the shortcomings of a Film Society from the past.
With the Times' straw man firmly in place, Dargis and Scott make their cases: For Dargis, the Film Society should concoct a stronger methods of attracting younger moviegoers; for Scott, its biggest problem is the limitations of its uptown location. These are far from unreasonable assertions. Both Dargis or Scott, who have written extensively about the quality of the New York Film Festival and New Directors/New Films over the years, provide smart, concise overviews the challenges involved in curating a large institution faced with the evolving demands of younger audiences. Yet they hardly acknowledge that the Film Society has already undergone great efforts to realize those goals, and their advice sounds more like the strategy sessions you might hear echoed in the Film Society's offices each day. Rather than offering "Prescriptions," they've created an echo chamber that appears, to the uninformed, like a red flag. The strange context of the whole package leads to the impression of a beatdown.
I should pause here to point out that, like many working professionals in the New York film world, I'm in the tank for the Film Society. In Kuo's first year, one of her earliest hires was Indiewire founder Eugene Hernandez to head the Film Society's digital department, kickstarting a healthy relationship between our two institutions. In 2012, with the Film Society's support, we launched the Critics Academy at the Locarno and New York film festivals to great success. Over the course of two years, we selected 32 young writers from hundreds of applicants to cover the festival's programs and engage with the Film Society's resources. At the previous New York Film Festival, the Film Society linked this program with a similar educational initiative for young filmmakers called The Artists Academy. So when Dargis suggests that the Film Society "needs to build the next generation of moviegoers or die out with the old," without mentioning its considerable stabs at doing just that, she's effectively drawing a curtain on the very diagnosis she singles out.
For Scott, the geographical restrictions of the Film Society are its biggest concern. "The Film Society is literally, physically alienated from its audience," he writes, before outlining competition across the city from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Film Forum and the Museum of the Moving Image — all of which face similar hurdles to the Film Society, by the way — and points out that they're "surrounded by the bars, boutiques and brunch spots that can extend a trip to the movies into a day or evening-long adventure." In other words, Scott writes, "filmgoers have lots of other places to go."
Decrying a crowded marketplace for watching movies (talk about a first-world problem!) is nothing new. The city has long been the epicenter for filmgoing experiences, and with the influx of product in the marketplace, everyone fights to stand out. The Film Society, however, has resources for experimentation, none of which is addressed by the Times' gloomy prognoses. When I interviewed outgoing Film Society programmer Richard Peña in 2012, he mentioned the possibility of the institution exploring video-on-demand possibilities, a logical next step now that it screens first-run features at the Film Center. While the idea of a Lincoln Center institute organizing a Brooklyn-based satellite might prove an insurmountable challenge, its growing digital presence suggests the brand can reach beyond its location in other ways.
Kepler's introductory article contains the curious inclusion of a quote from peripatetic producer-activist-visionary Ted Hope, the veteran mover and shaker behind movies directed by Todd Solondz and Ang Lee, among many others. Until recently, Hope served as executive director of the San Francisco Film Society (he left that spot after a year to become the CEO of Fandor). A great thinker and film enthusiast always ready to deliver a quote about the challenges of a business in constant evolution, Hope doesn't disappoint. Nostalgically calling up memories of seeing "Blood Simple" at the NYFF in the eighties (every longtime NYFF-goer has their story), Hope demands, "I want every program to create that excitement, and it comes from providing context, community and a sense of event — something both fleeting and permanent."
It's impossible for anyone with a sophisticated awareness of the Film Society's programming to deny its ongoing efforts to do just that. If they haven't entirely succeeded -- well, name a film institution of similar scale that has. While IFP maintains a healthy profile city-wide through various initiatives from its Brooklyn headquarters, and Rooftop Films celebrates its DIY brand, the Film Society is enmeshed in a more delicate dance. Forced to define modern standards for movie audiences while celebrating the past and looking ahead at the same time time, it has no tangible way to adhere to fixed expectations — except for the budgetary ones imposed by its hawkish board.
If nothing else, the Film Society has history on its side. Launched in the sixties under the guidance of Richard Roud and Amos Vogel, the New York Film Festival played a crucial role in introducing countless international filmmakers to American audiences, from Godard and Truffaut to Bertolucci. The programming has never stopped casting a wide net. (In anything, the festival's influence was actually diminished when the Times halted its policy of reviewing all the films in the lineup.)
When a well-heeled institution comes up short as it tries to address the internecine changes in how we process culture, it's easy to complain. But assailing the forest without looking at the trees won't get us anywhere. Certainly the organization has a long way to go, but the journey began ages ago, and shows no signs of grinding to a halt.