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New York: Richard Pena and the New York Film Festival

For the last 25 years as the program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center Richard Pena has shaped the New York Film Festival upholding the standards of cutting edge cinema and opening new perspectives for film directors and the audience. By introducing new film making countries  to the critical film community  in New York and other major festivals he has shifted the festival’s  Eurocentric orientation to a global perspective presenting productions from, to name but a few, Iran, Korea , Taiwan, Turkey, Romania, and Israel. He was instrumental in expanding the festival by introducing new side bars such as the avant-garde cinema and this year’s series on reflexive cinema and masterworks from the cinema’s past. Pena firmly translated his personal philosophy of an innovative and challenging cinema culture into the New York Film Festival programs. The festival has remained outstanding among major film festivals and in an American cultural landscape characterized by fast food entertainment and media. His act will be difficult to follow.


Claus Mueller:         You suggested in our 2005 interview  that the primary objective of the New York Film Festival is to celebrate the art of film,  and bring film to a level where it could be compared to the other great arts at Lincoln center like ballet, opera and music.

Richard Pena:         Actually this was really not my battle, since it commenced with the people before me in the sixties and seventies. By the eighties with the rise of academic film studies there were not that many people who truly doubted the value of film as art at Lincoln center. 

CM:     Does that mean that it is as easy to raise money for film and film projects as it is for ballet, theatre and opera?

RP:     Not nearly. There is just not the tradition of giving to film organizations in the same way.   For many people with a philanthropic kind of a posture film still smells of money. There is the association with studios, the notion there must be a lot of money out there, as opposed to ballet and opera which would disappear without funding support.

CM:     Since you assumed direction of the festival 25 years ago, what are the most important new trends/tendencies you detected?

RP:     There have been many. First of all the notion of a very atomized audience; the audience has really fractured and one must come up with a very different marketing strategy or plan for almost every project you do. There is no single audience, if there ever was one. So that is part of it. I also think that the audience has probably grown more conservative. People are less willing to accept films that are experimental in any way with respect to storytelling or other elements.

CM:     Can you tune into this fragmented audience better since the film society of Lincoln center has a phantastic data collection covering its audience?

RP:     You can, but it is also that much more work.  You always have to start from ground zero and revving up the data, not to speak of the costs. 

CM:     What are your personal criteria of success for the New York Film Festival?  Have they changed over the last 25 years?

RP:     There are several criteria. The important thing for me  is to present  what is seen as a very solid slate of film that offers a good picture or snapshot of where film at that given moment. The other thing of course is, if I can do so, to build bridges between our films and the rest of America and the rest of the world. We hope that films that do not have distribution will be picked up as a result of being in the film festival program.

CM:     Do you try to reach a larger audience beyond Manhattan?

RP:     Not so much through the film festival but through the Film Society of Lincoln Center. We are thinking of having satellite programs for example in Brooklyn and may be in other places. With the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center now up and running we could implement it. 

CM:     In your comments about success of the festival you did not refer to the audience. Does audience appeal figure in your success criteria? I noticed that most of the programs you offer this year have already been sold out.

RP:     Here in New York you really have great audiences that are open and looking for something new and are ready to be challenged. I tend not to worry too much about the audience. This year we have the side bar programs, some of them are doing very well, others less so. May be we did not apply enough of a marketing effort to those that did less well. But the program got quite big and our staff has not grown that much bigger so there is a limit as to how much we can do.

CM      Well I love your side bar program. I heard the comment that your best festival films are in the side bar. Actually this would be similar to the berlinale where the best productions seem to be programmed in the Forum and Panorama sections. What were the biggest problems you have faced directing the New York Film Festival?

RP      There were not that many. I really had executive directors who pretty much allowed us to do the side bars and retrospectives we wanted.  The big problem was maintaining the level of excellence and being able to remain strong in face of a lot of people suggesting that we have to become more commercial, that we have to make the festival bigger, etc

CM      Most articles convey that you have maintained the level of excellence. From my perspective you have this year some extraordinary productions such as Barbara by Christian Petzold, Amour by Michael Haneke and Dheeraj Akolkar’s Liv and Ingmar compared to less notable ones like Brian De Palma’s Passion.

RP      I doubt that there is any individual who would think that our program has only outstanding films. The program is made by five people and that is one of the elements that gives the program strength. There are a few films in the program I feel less excited about and others I am enormously excited about. Almost everybody will look at the program and find films they do not like. 

CM:     Looking at the festival under your direction, what are the most important achievements you introduced?

RP:      Certainly, people have pointed out that the festival is now much more international than in was in its early phases and that is me, it reflects my taste. Also I had much more access to films than my predecessors, thus the combination of the two accounts for the shift.

CM:     Well you are the auteur film festival director.  Recall when we discussed independent productions in the 2005 interview, you were rather critical. You pointed out that the tremendous growth in indie productions due to the rapidly increasing number of film makers and affordable production technologies had not resulted in a significant increase of superb indie productions.  What is your assessment of US independent productions today? 

RP      Every now and then some [indie] production slips through that is truly wonderful and surprising such as the Beasts of the Southern Wild, full of energy and ideas, but by and large that is the exception to the rule. American independent cinema has been somewhat disappointing to me. It has not really lived up to expectations.

CM:  There seems to be a paradox. As you noted the audience has become more conservative and there are few outstanding independent productions. But more and more film programs are added in colleges each year and there is a rapidly growing number of film makers out there. Since you are a college professor teaching film how do you account for this apparent discrepancy?

RP: Well there are exceptions and some outstanding film students. But most film students are shaped by the commercial media culture with which they have grown up and arrive with that burden on their shoulders.

CM      As noted during one of the Film Festival Academy’s panels there has been an explosion of film festivals. It has been suggested by Bruno Chatelin that more 6000 film festivals exist and that many were started over the last years. What do you think accounts for this enormous growth?  Some observers say that if you are unemployable in the film world set up your film festival.

RP      There are several factors. First, film festivals are in many ways a form of socializing. If you are part of an ethnic group, or have specific interest or persuasions film festivals are a great place to meet people sharing your interests.  Secondly there are so many films out there so it has become easy to mount a film festival. Once upon a time just the shipping of prints required real financial investments. Nowadays with DVDs, portable projectors and other digital tools it is easy to stage a film festival.

CM      Thus we have the instant film director and instant film festival director?

RP      Correct,  as a I noted in my introduction  [to the film festival academy program] not only have digital technologies  made it possible for everyone to become a film maker but it also made it possible for everyone to become a festival director.

CM      Do you observe any trends in the film festival scene in the United States and worldwide?

RP:     There was a trend a few years ago to more and more specialized niche film festivals, organized around a theme, ethnic affiliation, specific film makers or so. But [this expansion] it is getting harder and harder. Convince somebody that you actually need a Staten Island International Film Festival.

CM:     Well you can add to the growing festival circuit, those set up by any college with a film program.

RP:     All power to them; let them have a great time.

CM:     More seriously how has the explosion of film festivals impacted your work?

RP:     Not so much those festivals.  But there are a couple of cases where film directors have to make a choice, Tribeca or New Directors and they make their choice.

 CM:    Do you think that apart from the fragmentation of the audiences the continued expansion of film festivals also reflects a growing cinematic interest by the audience?

RP:     I don’t really think so. A lot of people go to festivals for social reasons. I guess I really do not see a growing cinematic interest. It is certainly not expressed by support for art cinema. Art cinema is hanging on by its finger nails.

CM:  Really?  At one point it was suggested that the gentrification of metropolitan urban areas has led on one hand to greater class discrepancies but on the other for the upscale groups to a growing hunger for culture.

RP:    Not in film.  If you just look at the figures what makes money and how much is being made. But you have to define your terms, if you go to Lincoln Plaza Cinema now quite a few films are offered as American independent films.  While they are art films in their own way, they are not quite what we used to consider [as art films].

CM:  How do you assess the impact of the decline in traditional film print journalism and the increase in websites and blogs reviewing films and film festivals? Once upon a time we would check the New York Times and the Village Voice.

RP: The decline of film criticism went hand in hand with the decline of the place of news papers in our culture. Plus, as you pointed out the rise of a zillion bloggers is overwhelming. If you look at newspapers now, every film comes with terrific banner quotes, the studios use every body’s words no matter who they are. How many people actually read the source of the quote?

CM:     Would this also hold for websites such as, for which I am writing, or which enjoy a very large number of hits, thus can claim a fairly large audience?   Do they have an influence?

RP:     Well people read them. The two you mention are considered more serious and more serious people read them.  Yes they have some influence but it is hard to know exactly how much of a push they have.  I think in New York the only publication that has a big impact on art and specialized films is the New York Times. I do not think the [Village] Voice has any, may be the New Yorker a little bit.

CM:     The movement towards digital film production and projection seems to be accelerating. Will the film society retain traditional projection or can you see a future point the film festival using only the digital format?

RP:     Well we retain the equipment but cellular film projection will become a museum activity.  The truth also is that films are becoming less and less accessible; studios are often very reluctant to let films out of their vaults. They much rather send you DVD copies.

CM:     What are the changes you are exploring with the film society's board and new film festival management?

RP:     We spoke a little bit about the desire of the film society to start an educational initiative. I could work on that given my background. But I am not sure which direction the film society will be taking.

CM:   Thank you for your insights.


Claus Mueller 


Claus Mueller




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