Event looks to draw indie-loving locals over wealthy auds

“In a way, the New York Film Festival was a victim of its own success,” says fest programmer Richard Pena.

And, indeed, the Film Society of Lincoln Center had counted on ticket sales and word-of-mouth about its arty slate to keep the good ship NYFF afloat.

In recent years, though, Pena says, “people got the impression that it was impossible to get a ticket to see the films — there was this idea that you had to be a donor or somehow involved with the movie to get a ticket.”

The results of that misperception have not been pretty: Empty seats abounded in recent editions, as people bought bargain subscriptions to the whole fest to avoid missing a much-anticipated pic, leaving few tickets available at the sales window for individual screenings, then didn’t fill those seats. It also fostered the feeling that the fest as a whole was largely for rich people.

Of course, there’s also the impact of the global financial crisis, which took huge chunks out of nonprofit funding across the city as donor orgs curtailed their philanthropy. The fest shut down its annual soiree at Central Park nightspot Tavern on the Green and has had its share of layoffs.

Now, to combat both the snob image and unexpected corporate poverty, the New York Film Festival, headed by new exec director (and former studio exec) Mara Manus, is getting back to its core aud: artfilm-loving New Yorkers.

Plus, the fest finally has the facilities to attract studio premieres, though it’s something of a bittersweet victory.

Yes, the Film Society finally opened the doors to the remodeled 1,100-seat Alice Tully Hall after a 22-month, $159 million upgrade. But the Society itself is looking for more revenue to supplement the corporate funding that has shrunk in recent months.

“Funding for programming is amorphous,” Pena says. “People say, ‘I’d like to know what my money is going to be used for,’ or ‘I’d like to allocate my money for this and that,’ and of course we walk away from those deals.”

The Society is hoping that increased ticket sales will be part of the solution, as fans of artfilms and broader audiences find their way to films they can’t access elsewhere.

“When we announced our slate in mid-August, of the 26 new films we’re showing, only seven had U.S. distribution,” says Pena.

A few others have been snapped up by small distributors, but even in New York not all of these movies will play to the public anywhere but at the fest. Many will play at one of Gotham’s small arthouse theaters — venues with the obscure programming their devotees love, but without the brand-new multimillion-dollar facilities that Lincoln Center is offering for NYFF.

To home in on their aud and pull in more ticket revenues, the fest is upping ticket prices (now $20 each — $40 for opening, closing and centerpiece), starting a rush ticket policy, selling obstructed-view seats at a discount, and canceling its bargain subscription model.

Pena and the Film Society are hoping a little controversy might stir things up as well: Outside the fest, its organizers have held screenings with Michael Moore (interviewed by Tina Brown) and Oliver Stone, who took questions after a screening of his doc “South of the Border” seated next to firebrand Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and equally contentious Bolivian leader Evo Morales. The fest itself boasts talkbacks with Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke and screenings of Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist.”

“We’re not really an industry festival,” Pena admits. “We welcome industry people, but in the end, this is really for the public of New York.”

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