NY fest launch can elevate art films

Big Apple location gives prestige to specialty pics

The New York Film Festival may be based at Lincoln Center, home of Art with a capital A, but the fest has always contained unavoidable elements of commerce.

That combo can be potent in terms of the value of a film once it’s released, and that effect has increased with the rise of specialty fare as a discrete business. While the year-round festival calendar has become overstuffed with hit-and-miss affairs, the still-lean and focused New York Fest has trained the spotlight on breakouts such as “The Queen,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

After nearly half a century as a fall fixture that overcame initial skepticism (Judith Crist famously said Gotham needed a film festival like it needed more traffic), the NYFF serves a unique constituency. Because of the nexus of cineastes, critics, media and the artistic community in the city, it enters its 46th year stronger than ever.

“There is a real prestige factor for the intelligentsia that pays close attention to this festival,” says Michael Silberman, head of distribution for Samuel Goldwyn, whose “The Squid and the Whale” earned a fest berth in 2005. (Quintessentially New York films or pics from city natives usually score bonus points.)

“In New York, where you launch a lot of these titles theatrically, it’s probably the most relevant,” says Jonathan Sehring, prexy of IFC, which has five films appearing in this year’s fest, including the much-discussed “Che.” “For our model, critical acclaim is crucial, so the fact that you have the most astute film press here is a real asset.”

The fest’s selection committee — typically all working critics — spends months viewing a wide range of titles and debating their merits or lack thereof. Program director Richard Pena, who chairs the committee, says each member is allowed one veto, but a code of silence attends the proceedings.

Pena stresses that while invariably some big stars and studio-backed titles end up on the roster, there is no explicit horse trading with studios. If anything, selections can serve as enticements rather than being negotiated by existing distributors. As such, Fox Searchlight hopes “The Wrestler” can use New York as a jumping-off point on the heels of Toronto, especially with the media attention star Mickey Rourke will draw.

“It sets up really well in September, coming after Venice and Toronto,” says Daniel Battsek, whose three-year tenure running Miramax has already seen “The Queen” and “No Country for Old Men” score in New York. “That definitely factors into a lot of people’s thinking as they put the jigsaw pieces together.”

Sony Classics, which has had a long roster of NYFF entries, is releasing opening-night film “The Class.” It’s the first Palme d’Or winner since “Dancer in the Dark” to open New York, and only the fourth to enjoy that distinction.

“They won’t let opening-night films play Telluride or Toronto,” says co-prexy Michael Barker. “That means New York has tremendous value for the film. It gives it a profile that a French-language film would not otherwise have.”

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