NEW YORK — Can a group of Angelenos guide New York’s most venerable film institution through a major crossroads?
That’s one of several questions facing the Film Society of Lincoln Center and its flagship New York Film Festival as longtime program director Richard Pena prepares to step down at the end of the year in a long-planned retirement.
The festival opens its milestone 50th edition Friday with a black-tie world premiere of Ang Lee’s awards hopeful “Life of Pi” and continues over the following two weeks with several dozen of the fall’s highest-profile titles, including world premieres for Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” and David Chase’s “Not Fade Away.” The event will mark Pena’s 25th festival, and organizers will walk a line between honoring him (Pena has been given one of two newly created tribute slots, along with Nicole Kidman) and preparing for life without him.
“We want to preserve the important legacy that Richard created, but we also want to expand our audiences into areas that have been underserved until now,” said Rose Kuo, the Film Society’s executive director who arrived from Los Angeles’ AFI Festival two years ago. Kuo said she’d like to continue the discovery element that Pena championed, but also added that her time at L.A.’s AFI Fest — in which the festival took the unusual step of making all screenings free — led her to believe in a “democracy” of film she’s begun to import to the Film Society. In her tenure thus far, she has ushered in programs for young filmmakers and critics, live-streamed events and opened two first-run theaters.
Kuo and the board of directors have hired two people to take Pena’s place, essentially splitting the job. Kent Jones, who worked under Pena for a decade before leaving in a personnel shakeup in 2009, will head programming for the New York Film Festival. Robert Koehler, also an AFI Fest veteran (and former L.A. Times film critic), will relocate to New York and run the Film Society’s year-round initiatives and screening series.
Both are respected figures in the cinema world, though they have yet to build anything close to the reputation that Pena did in a quarter-century as one of the film festival world’s most prominent figures.
The new regime must decide how to steer a movie organization that under Pena has become one of the world’s most prestigious — even if it is, to some minds, on the overly twee side. Pena, for instance, will often promote obscure work he feels is worthy even if it appeals only to a niche audienc. , like Iranian and Chinese cinema. And they must do so at a time when art-house film has struggled commercially, arguably more than it did at any point during Pena’s tenure.
For his part, Koehler said that when he moves to New York next month he will bring an Angeleno cinematic sensibility that he hopes will energize the organization. “I would describe it as bits of Hollywood, bits of the independent world, bits of experimental film and bits of Laemmle culture,” he said, referring to the Southern California art-house chain. (The festival also has Los Angeles personalities such as critic Scott Foundas on staff.)
It would be hard to overstate Pena’s influence since he took the job in 1988.
A longtime film professor at Columbia University, Pena, 58, has become more associated with a North American film festival than any personality besides Sundance’s Robert Redford.
He has epitomized a rare breed in this country: an academic who wields enormous power in the commercial art-house world. Through programming savvy, frequent public appearances (he takes the stage dozens of times at the festival and throughout the year to interview directors) and sometimes sheer force of will, Pena has shone a light on new films, filmmakers and film cultures.
It is on the opening night of Pena’s festival that awards powerhouses such as “The Queen” and “The Social Network” were first seen. And numerous American filmmakers say they owe their careers to the spotlight Pena put on them when they were unknowns; at a post-screening session for his new movie “Frances Ha” last week, Noah Baumbach stopped Pena’s questions midway to thank him for choosing the director’s debut, “Kicking and Screaming,” for the New York festival nearly 20 years ago and sending it and its director to art-house success.
“It started everything for me,” Baumbach said.
Sitting in a lounge at Lincoln Center’s Upper West Side campus, Pena said he leaves without second thoughts. “I had 25 years, and I had a pretty good bite at it,” he said. “I’m happy to move on and try other things. I don’t feel I have to be in the driver’s seat.” (He will concentrate on teaching and writing, and will consult with the Film Society on an educational initiative.)
As with any large nonprofit, there have been bumps in the road.
Opening night films have sometimes flopped — the Coen brothers’ “Miller’s Crossing” in 1990 and the Palme d’Or winner “The Class” in 2008 both were awkward, walkout-heavy affairs.
The Film Society weathered major renovations that saw the film festival scattered to the Time Warner Center half a mile south for several years in the 2000s.
And perhaps most famously, the organization went through a massive shakeup in 2009 when Kuo’s predecessor, Mara Manus, polarized staff and watched as a number of veterans departed, including Jones. Pena said he stayed above the fray as Manus was alienating staffers but regrets it now. “It’s something I look back on with a certain degree of shame. I think I should have been much more vocal,” he said.
There will be plenty of new voices as the festival opens its next chapter. Those behind them say that change, even at a traditionalist institution like Lincoln Center, is inevitable.
“I think this organization is absolutely at a crossroads,” Koehler said. “Restructuring things with Kent and me is the first marker of that change, and I think will be an indicator of changes to come.”