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Eugene Hernandez: The Social Network

Eugene Hernandez: The Social Network

July 12, 2010: New York, NY — The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s programs and venues have served as a vital component of a broad social network for me (and for indieWIRE). Anchored as we are in New York City, the Film Society has been a key catalyst for us. In fact, the idea for indieWIRE’s predecessor — an online network dubbed iLINE — was hatched inside the Walter Reade Theater fifteen years ago and we launched a daily publication one year later (on July 15, 1996).

So, it should come as no surprise that I have the Film Society on my mind as I resurrect this weekly column during the same week that indieWIRE prepares to celebrate its fourteenth birthday.

Surprising Shake-up

In the wake of a recent trip to Los Angeles for studio meetings, Mara Manus, head of the venerable Film Society of Lincoln Center, swiftly announced on Thursday that the 2010 edition of the New York Film Festival would open with the world premiere of David Fincher’s latest, “The Social Network.”

I found the news particularly noteworthy because last year the New York festival drew criticism from some corners for opening with French master Alain Resnais’ “Wild Grass,” a very cool but rather challenging critical hit from the ’09 Cannes Film Festival. Some insiders groused about a lack of opening night star power and bemoaned the surprising decision to cancel opening night’s popular Tavern on the Green after party.

Mara Manus talking with Willem Dafoe at the 2009 New York Film Festival. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

This year, executive director Manus, program director Richard Pena and the slightly re-constituted selection committee (Todd McCarthy replaced the departing J Hoberman), opted for a world premiere title that could draw more flashbulbs to the red carpet. Fincher’s “The Social Network” stars Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake and is produced by Scott Rudin. (I wondered at the time if a big studio movie opening the fest signaled some sort of shift.)

The apparent move to make NYFF’s opening night a glitzier affair was surprisingly the final public pronouncement from Mara Manus. Just twenty four hours after unveiling the news of the opening night film for its 48th New York Film Festival, the organization announced that Manus would be leaving almost immediately, replaced by former AFI Fest artistic director Rose Kuo (a woman who had come very close to getting the job back in 2008).

The news, abruptly sent by email to Film Society staffers late on a summer Friday after the office had already technically closed for the weekend, caught many in the film community by surprise.

Observers in the industry were stunned by word of Manus’ quick departure with plans for the upcoming New York Film Festival already underway and the organization targeting an expansion into a new venue with two more theaters early next year.

This morning (Monday) the full Film Society staff is scheduled to meet with new head Rose Kuo for the very first time.

Details of the Film Society’s sudden shift compelled us to try and gain some clarity in recent days, but we have yet to gather much official information. Rose Kuo, Mara Manus and reps for the Film Society declined repeated attempts for a conversation about the situation on Friday and over the weekend, instead referring indieWIRE to Friday’s short statement that offered no specifics on the reason for the sudden leadership shift.

“At a time when both audiences and media are changing radically, our goal is to expand into multiple platforms so that audiences can be a part of our film community anytime, anywhere,” FSLC board president Daniel Stern said on Friday, in the statement, “Rose has the particular experience and ability to lead that effort.”

Even as they applauded the appointment of Rose Kuo, a beloved film festival fixture with deep relationships in the indie community, many insiders wondered why the Film Society had changed its leadership so swiftly.

A New York Times article on Friday noted that a problem may have stemmed from the fact that the organization has not yet finished financing its new building.

“Perhaps most important, fund-raising for the expansion seems to have stalled since Ms. Manus took over, which was just as the financial crisis hit,” the Times said on Friday. “The society has so far raised $31 million of more than $40 million needed for the expansion.”

Two Years in Focus

Manus departure this month caps a period of considerable change for the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Two years ago this week, at the end of an exhaustive public search for a new executive director, the Film Society named Manus its new leader. She joined the organization a few months later and lead the group through months of high profile changes within the organization.

Well known industry insider Jeanne Berney left shortly after Manus arrived and a number of development and operations staffers soon followed ahead of a round of unpopular layoffs just five months after Manus joined the Film Society. Nearly 25% of the staff was cut.

“In a more volatile time, we have to operate more conservatively than ever,” Mara Manus told indieWIRE at the time, even as some current and former staffers complained about their work environment under Manus. Criticism intensified when programmer and Film Comment editor Kent Jones resigned a few weeks later (and was later replaced by Scott Foundas).

“Change is really hard for everyone, and the thing about change is that you don’t do everything right,” Manus told the New York Times last spring. “Communications is one of the areas where we could be doing better,” Manus added.

During her tenure, amidst a striking national financial crisis that hit the arts hard, Manus weathered considerable criticism from both inside and outside her aging organization. She’d spent six previous years running Manhattan’s acclaimed Public Theater and seemed to be trying to popularize and reorganize the Film Society, an organization that seemed slightly at odds with itself at times.

The departure of familiar Film Society faces caused a lot of concern and even ticketing procedures were shaken at the New York Film Festival, angering some longtime members. Manus slightly redecorated the organization’s Lincoln Center offices, giving them a slightly brighter appearance while across the street she focused on meeting a looming deadline to complete the funding and construction of an anticipated venue that she now won’t see to its opening day.

What’s Next?

Just as we’re focused on designing our own future here at indieWIRE, constantly adapting to a changing media and entertainment environment, we’re also aimed at tracking the moves of leading institutions that have survived the recent economic crisis. So, it should be no surprise that we’ll continue to closely monitor developments at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

As I mentioned before, I consider it a core part of the social fabric of both the local and international film community. Not only because it played a crucial role in the early days of indieWIRE (FSLC staffers were among the first to embrace and support our ideas for our young organization), but we continue to be inspired, entertained, and educated by the programs presented by our friends at Lincoln Center.

The upcoming New York Film Festival always ushers in New York City’s autumn perfectly (for the record I didn’t find last year’s fest to be elitist). Whether or not anything like it ever returns, the annual Tavern on the Green bash — an event many friends referred to as “film prom” — gave the NYC film community an important annual gathering place in our own city. And last year, as the NYFF expanded into a revamped Alice Tully Hall, the festival took on a new vibe with folks meeting up in the large bright lobby.

Here’s hoping for more of those gathering spaces, and the anticipated opening of the two new venues is something to really look forward to. As is the recent word that the organization will soon bolster the exceptional (and essential) Film Comment magazine with additional leadership to work alongside editor Gavin Smith and develop it into an even bigger name brand that engages and connects cinephiles worldwide.

Film Society insiders and reps have said that they expect to be able to speak about the future of the organization in the coming days. At indieWIRE, we look forward to hearing more and following its future.

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of indieWIRE and can be followed on Twitter: @eug or through his indieWIRE blog.

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