Let’s face it: The New York Film Festival has always been run by older white men, from its founder, the late great Richard Roud, through departing director Kent Jones, who now turns his focus to full-time filmmaking. New NYFF director Eugene Hernandez brings an exciting and welcome perspective to the 57-year-old festival, which is just five years older than he is. He’s an erudite cinema connoisseur, having scarfed up movies for decades at the major film festivals and beyond as a journalist (mostly at IndieWire) and, for the last decade, rising in the ranks at Film at Lincoln Center.
But he’s more than a passionate film lover. Hernandez will bring a change in focus to the NYFF in terms of long-term strategy, ongoing opportunism, and industry and filmmaker outreach. Dennis Lim will enlarge his role, as both programming director for the October festival, which is the focal point of the Film at Lincoln Center’s year, as well as continuing to book year-round repertory cinema at the Walter Reade Theatre and new films at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, and curating Rendezvous with French Cinema and Spring’s New Directors, New Films, in concert with the Museum of Modern Art.
The New York Film Festival has always been a fall gateway for emerging art films, but does so without a competition jury or awards. With more cinema venues, the festival has broadened its scope to VR and documentary showcases as well as more year-round events and retrospectives.
And going forward, given everything he has done so far, Hernandez will push for more inclusivity across the board. He knows the main film players in Hollywood and all over the world. He’s a charming, enthusiastic, embracing, bigger-than-life personality who brings the best out of everyone he meets, including me — he brought me into IndieWire just over 11 years ago, before he made his transition to run digital media at the Film Society under Rose Kuo.
Back then, Film Comment was locked into a strictly print focus, and the hidebound Film Society needed help bringing its programming and the festival into a larger conversation. Hernandez accomplished that and then some. When Lesli Klainberg joined the festival as managing director in 2011, she worked alongside Hernandez and when she ascended to executive director in 2014, she made him her deputy.
“Eugene was trying to do innovative things,” said Klainberg. “I saw what he had to offer. He has the deepest connections in the industry of anyone in the organization. He’s connecting us to the people who make the movies, have the green light, and promote and market movies. People actually like Eugene. He’s beloved and he brings with him a lot of goodwill. People trust him.”
Together, Klainberg and Hernandez have built education programs with local schools as well as nurturing writers via their Critics Academy, and nurtured a strong staff who, judging from one gathering I attended with Hernandez at last fall’s NYFF, adore the festival’s new director. He has helped bring in wider audiences to Film at Lincoln Center, along with director of special events Maria Ruiz, via studio and streamer premieres like the final episode of “Breaking Bad,” or hosting the MetOpera’s memorable 2015 summer outdoor showing of “West Side Story” to the biggest crowd ever on the Lincoln Center Plaza.
The New York Film Festival lands in the sweet spot for the award season, not only in terms of opening night movies like “The Social Network” and “The Irishman,” but also by enhancing support for films like eventual Oscar-winner “Parasite.” “We offer an opportunity for the New York audience and community to come see films for the first time,” said Klainberg. Not only did NYFF play the Palme d’Or winner “Parasite,” but they booked the film at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, which played to full houses for months before director Bong and Dennis Lim hatched up over a dinner napkin a full-on retrospective of his films — and played them within three weeks.
When Jones was ready to leave the festival, Klainberg recognized an opportunity to assess where the festival was, she said, “and where it wanted to be. We began to consider how to set ourselves apart for the future. Our most important event has grown in the last few years. With the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, we had reasons to be more strategic and thoughtful about what we’re doing with the festival, who it’s going to be accessible to, and what role we want it to play in the bigger ‘film industrial complex.’ Our core mission is supporting the art of film. And we have to be more open to the ways the industry and the world and the culture is changing, and in doing that, look farther and wider and with different eyes and voices.”
This winter, at the same time that Hernandez was under consideration for the Sundance Film Festival’s director post (with Klainberg’s knowledge and blessing), he chose to throw his lot in with Film at Lincoln Center. And Klainberg finalized who she really wanted to lead the festival into the future. As the director of NYFF, Hernandez will be the public face, the big boss, and a loud voice on the selection committee.
“He’s a positive robust personality, a people person, capable of representing us around the world at different festivals and events,” said Klainberg. “He wants to listen to what people have to say. He thinks about where we are going and will help us to move ahead and figure where we fit into this world, which is changing so quickly.”
While embracing the strong curatorial focus of the NYFF, a smaller and more focused festival than others in the fall corridor, Hernandez is excited about changing things up, too. And he has the advantage of a passionate and growing New York area cinephile community who sell out NYFF screenings.
“What we have to do is take a step back and figure out how we can showcase the best filmmakers around the world, but also invite the best new filmmakers,” he told IndieWire. “What’s great about the fall ecosystem is that [the fall festivals] all have different approaches. We exist in a very collaborative, collegial space, more than people might realize. We’re constantly trading information … Each festival is different. Our mandate is different. We can focus on a specific group of films and celebrate them deeply.”