This article was updated at 7:53 p.m.
The presentation of Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” at the New York Film Festival on Saturday captured the fest’s two faces: the autumn hype aimed at the Gotham media that can catapult an arthouse release, and the incestuous lovefest between a cinephile crowd and its icons.
Penelope Cruz made an appearance in a red carpet-ready gown, while distrib Sony Pictures Classics managed an event that was the first big commercial test of its screwball melodrama.
Meanwhile, adoring crowds welcomed Almodovar like a rock star for his seventh festival appearance. And outside, charmingly scrawled signs offering to buy or sell tickets were held up by Gothamites who value the fest as a rite of fall, not the usual scalpers.
There are few festivals that have the media influence of New York. A new spot that runs before screenings scrolls through the names of directors whose films have made appearances at the fest — Almodovar, David Lynch, Werner Herzog and dozens of others.
“You just look at how many people have come through there,” said one New York film exec, “and I wonder if there’s a single American festival that has that much directorial firepower.”
But the New York Film Festival is also an anomaly.
In a time when fests abound even in midsize cities and traditional industry gatherings like Sundance and Toronto have swelled in attendance and number of films, New York has remained assiduously small. It screens only 25 new movies over more than a two-week period. Toronto, by comparison, screens a total of 350 films in about 10 days.
What’s more, the fest tiptoes a precarious line between mainly unreleased foreign fare and the domestic arthouse.
Nearly half its roster has distribution, and many pics have some kind of Oscar argument. And given the media attendance, the response to a pic’s Gotham screening is usually a good test of how it will perform in its platform release.
Last year, the fest was an important springboard for “Good Night, and Good Luck,” the Warner Independent Pictures tale about the responsibilities of media that attracted a crowd thick with press at its opening-night presentation.
The opening-night film this year, Miramax’s “The Queen,” helped seed talk around town of Helen Mirren as an Oscar candidate. Distrib passed up a possible chance at Toronto so it could lock down the coveted spot.
Fest has also become a way to establish talent, with everyone from Almodovar to Noah Baumbach showing films there before most people had heard of them. Identifying a future star director has become a parlor game of sorts for some festgoers.
But the fest studiously tries to avoid glitz; it doesn’t want to fall into the red-carpet traps that can overwhelm other events.
“If the festival becomes part of the marketing strategy, then that’s fine,” said programming director Richard Pena. “We just try to remove any of those concerns from our judgment.”
It also fills the weekday slots with diverse foreign fare that this year includes Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Syndromes and a Century,” Inuit pic “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen,” Johnnie To’s “Triad Election” and Barbara Albert’s “Falling.”
In a sense, the fest has an advantage that helps keep it above the horsetrading common to the selection process at other events. After all, it is a product of Lincoln Center, an arts institution first and foremost.
“It’s the one festival you can’t talk your way into,” said Sony Pictures Classic’s Michael Barker. “And I think Richard Pena is the best festival director in the world, hands down.”
Pena, a 19-year vet of the fest, programs with the help of a rotating five-person committee. He doesn’t have a simple job.
Familiar to festgoers as the omnipresent, multilingual and sometimes ever-patient moderator for many of the post-screening Q&A sessions, Pena must cater to the constituencies of the elite cinephile crowd of Lincoln Center while making sure the films don’t get too abstruse.
Pena says that remaining agnostic — even to a bigger release — is what makes the fest unique. “Just because a movie has a big budget or is from a well-known country, why should we penalize it?” he said. “We don’t have any prejudice against either distributed or undistributed films.”
That attitude, some say, is different at New York’s downtown, late-spring counterpart, the Tribeca Film Festival, which has come on like gangbusters over the last five years by more aggressively courting studios and showcasing movies like “Poseidon” and “Mission: Impossible 3.”
Pena must continue to ensure that the New York Film Festival differs from Tribeca, as well as from Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films, the spring fest he programs that showcases newer filmmakers — and is sometimes a training ground for New York fest candidates.
On the filmmaker side, Pena has an even trickier task: balancing the new and unknown on the one hand and the known and returning on the other, the latter an increasingly large group in what is now the fest’s 44th year.
Finding new directors audiences haven’t heard of — especially American ones — isn’t easy, though once the fest does, it’s impressive how often those helmers turn into household names.