Festival set to grow physically, virtually

“The Social Network” may not seem the likeliest opener for the New York Film Festival: It’s a Hollywood movie. It’s in English. And you’ve heard of it.

After taking some flak last year for a lineup that some perceived as even more esoteric than usual, the 2010 NYFF kicks off tonight with a buzz-magnet tale about that heavyweight icon of online populism, Facebook.

And it does so just as the festival, unchanged in its 48 years in existence, and its organizer, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is poised to beef up its own network via expansion in the real world and the virtual one.

A $40 million building complex, all part of theunder-renovation Lincoln Center campus, is on track to open in the spring, with facilities including two new theaters (one seating 150 and the other 90), an amphitheater, a multi-purpose room for events or video installations and a cafe.

The two new screens are a sudden chance to pump up festival programming in ways the Film Society folks are still figuring out.

“Next year is really going to be a great year of reinvention for us,” said Richard Pena, the Film Society’s program director. “All of us have 100 ideas.”

Meanwhile, the digital realm is also becoming more of a focus with the hire of Eugene Hernandez, the co-founder and longtime editor-in-chief of online screen news outlet IndieWire. Hernandez steps into the newly created post of director of digital strategy Nov. 1.

For the Film Society, the emphasis on new media will mean a reconceived Web presence, outreach to new and younger audiences and a potential Film Society digital channel. For the festival, it seems sure to lead to the kind of virtual brand expansion that has become an increasingly common element on the fest circuit.

“Eugene’s appointment signals how aggressive we plan to be in this area, and how committed we are to it,” said Rose Kuo, who became exec director of the Film Society this summer.

But all that comes in 2011. This year, the groundwork is being laid.

In preparation for the coming programming expansion, the fest has this year upped the number of sidebar events, directors’ dialogues and retrospective screenings to go along with the main slate. “This is a little bit of a dry run for next year,” Pena said.

One thing unlikely to change: The fest’s enduringly small main slate, a lineup of 25 to 28 films selected by a panel incorporating a hefty critical component. That selectiveness, of course, is no stranger to controversy.

“Sometimes we’re talked about more for what we don’t show than for what we do,” Kuo noted.

But it’s that heavy competish for a slot in a non-competitive fest that lends weight to the event’s position in the circuit. Unlike, say, Toronto, NYFF is not primarily a marketplace — the highest-profile films this year almost all have distributors — but a high-visibility launching pad for prestige pictures and specialty films in the U.S.

“If you have a film in there, it gets taken very seriously. It gives the films real legitimacy,” said Ryan Werner of IFC Films, which has three pics in the fest: Olivier Assayas’ 5 1/2-hour “Carlos,” Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy” and cannibal-family drama “We Are What We Are.”

Festival fare regularly gets the spotlight in New York press, and that’s doubly true this year for the zeitgeist-y opener “Social Network” (currently on the cover of New York Magazine). Gotham attention often then trickles westward to the rest of the country.

In 2008, Sony Pictures Classics parlayed NYFF’s selection of its film, “The Class,” as opener, into greater public awareness.

“It launched ‘The Class’ in a way that gave the film a profile that French films don’t usually get,” said SPC’s Michael Barker.

A slot in NYFF can be positioned alongside spots in other fests to turn the heads of moviegoers.

“The festival brings a huge high profile in New York, that’s for sure,” Barker said. “National attention comes in combination with the other festivals a movie’s in.”

For instance, SPC’s “Another Year,” the latest from Mike Leigh and a 2010 NYFF offering, previously played Cannes and Toronto on its way to release. Other NYFF films picked up by SPC are Cannes Grand Prix winner “Of Gods and Men” and economic crisis docu “Inside Job.”

Distributors also like showcasing films at NYFF in the newly spruced-up Alice Tully Hall, the 1,085-seat house that reopened in 2009. (The Tully and the 270-seat Walter Reade will be joined next year by the Society’s two new theaters opening in the spring.)

This go-around the opening night shindig won’t be at nearby Tavern on the Green, which shuttered late last year. In a nod to the Cambridge setting where “Social Network” filmed, tonight’s party is at the Harvard Club in midtown.

Next year, perhaps, the event will be on campus, in or around Lincoln Center’s new destination restaurant or the Film Society’s cafe.

At the very least, the film center facilities promise to give fest-goers something they’ve never really had: a central gathering place.

“Among the things that’s been lacking previously,” Pena noted, “is a place you can go and hang out.”

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