Film fest’s aim is true despite competition

High profile pix, world preems absent NYFF, but auds come

The New York Film Festival, which runs today through Oct. 14, has no awards, no official market and only one main program. Since its inception in 1963, the fall event has grown only slightly, from 21 features to 25. No distinction is placed on country of origin or distribution status, and programmers make a point not to compete for world premieres. Behind-the-scenes lobbying with the selection committee is notoriously useless.

It is because of these restrictions, not despite them, that many hold the fest in high regard. If Toronto, Cannes and Sundance are the blue-chip venues that key players in the industry must visit, the NYFF maintains its reputation as a gutsy institution with the most unbiased taste.

But in today’s highly competitive fest circuit, sticking by your guns has its downside. In the entertainment biz, perception is everything. And while the NYFF is a hit with local cineastes — it consistently draws 65,000-75,000 attendees every year, with all shows perennially selling out — even the event’s most ardent supporters would be hard-pressed to identify it as a mecca for high-profile acquisitions and world preems.

And while the opening-night gala at Tavern on the Green is generally regarded as Gotham’s most glamorous A-list cinema soiree, the hordes of acquisition execs, sales reps and agents that flock to the must-attend festivals and markets generally do not make their presence felt during the two-week event.

Maintaining an identity

“Before I began working here, I always admired the fact that the festival resisted the pressure to change or expand,” counters Richard Pena, who since 1988 has served as director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chairman of the fest’s programming committee. (Other members include John Anderson, Manohla Dargis, Dave Kerr and Kathleen Murphy.)

“We get a lot of pressure from big distributors, but it doesn’t really affect us,” says Pena. “If people felt we had picked a film because a certain distributor forced our hand, I don’t think anybody would pay any attention to us. We want the community to take our choices seriously.”

Pena’s tough-love approach affects both distribution execs and filmmakers alike.

“Richard’s reputation is unassailable,” says Killer Films co-president Christine Vachon. “I know this because many of my films have not been accepted.”

This year, the festival will screen the Vachon-produced “Storytelling,” the latest from controversial U.S. helmer Todd Solondz.

Despite its decidedly noncommercial persona, a slot in the festival can often play a huge role in raising the profile of the mostly foreign-language lineup. The influence is due in large part to the fact that every selection is guaranteed a review in the New York Times.

“When ‘Dancer in the Dark’ was selected as the opening-night film last year,” says Marian Koltai-Levine, executive vice president of marketing at Fine Line Features, “we knew we could use that publicity to help establish that film domestically. We did, and it worked.”

“In 1998, we screened ‘Happiness’ on a Saturday night, then opened the next day,” says Vachon. “We used the festival as a jumping-off point for the release. We used the same strategy for ‘Velvet Goldmine,’ which also played that year.”

The spotlight placed on each film is especially important for smaller distribs that do not operate as the specialty arm of a major studio.

“For those of us whose stock-in-trade is intellectually challenging art film, it’s absolutely vital for us to play a role in the festival every year,” says Noah Cowan, co-president of Cowboy Pictures (formerly Cowboy Booking Intl.). “An invitation is one of the two or three huge pieces of our marketing puzzle. Bigger distributors have more tools at their disposal.”

The even playing field is again in evidence with this year’s lineup, where Cowboy has as many selections (three) as Miramax.

World view

Since its first year, when founder Richard Roud landed then-unknown helmer Roman Polanski’s debut feature, “Knife in the Water,” the fest has been known for introducing world talent to U.S. audiences. This is especially the case with French filmmakers, who have always been well represented at the event. (This year is no exception — of the 25 feature films in the program, 10 are productions or co-productions from France, including new works by Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette.)

The worldwide reputation of the programmers and the focus on directors is not lost on the younger generation of American auteurs who have experienced the pratfalls of the international fest grind.

“New York is special in that it’s so focused,” says helmer Richard Linklater, who screened “Suburbia” in 1996 and returns this year with the animated feature “Waking Life,” one of only four U.S. selections in the program. “As an event, it feels pure. There aren’t that many films and the caliber is always so high. It’s like the World Series.”

Wes Anderson, who at 32 is already establishing himself as a festival regular with “Rushmore” in 1998, returns this year with “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

“New York is without a doubt my favorite film festival,” says Anderson. “I live here, and every year I try to go to every movie. You really get the sense that it’s designed for people who love film. I would love to have New York screen everything I make.”

The 39th New York Film Festival kicks off Sept. 28 with Rivette’s “Va Savoir” (Who Knows?) and wraps Oct. 14 with Godard’s “Eloge de l’Amour” (In Praise of Love). Other highlights include a number of award winners from Cannes and Berlin, including David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” Nanni Moretti’s “The Son’s Room,” Patrice Chereau’s “Intimacy” and Lone Scherfig’s “Italian for Beginners.

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