Festival opens with 'Carnage'

The New York Film Festival’s opening tonight with Roman Polanski’s starry “Carnage” marks the launch of a new phase for the event.

This year’s 17-day 49th edition is the first since the completion of the $40 million Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, which adds two more screens and an amphitheater, allowing programmers to expand and deepen the lineup of films that complement the small main slate. This year the newly broadened selection includes 36 pics in a retrospective of Japanese production company Nikkatsu and a robust array of docs, avant-garde shorts, restored oldies and additional fare.

With the new film center and the 50th anniversary coming up, organizers at the Film Society of Lincoln Center aim to reassert the festival’s place as a destination both for the industry and for film fans.

“We want to recapture the national attention in New York around film,” said Film Society exec director Rose Kuo. “We’ve been reaching out aggressively to the film world, and I think we’ll see an uptick in attendees from around the country.”

Even with all the expansion of the facilities and programming, one element that’s not going to grow is the ultra-exclusive main slate of 25-28 films.

“One of the things that is distinctive about the New York Film Festival is that its main selection is very small,” said Film Society program director Richard Pena.

The festival has always been upfront about its exacting creative standards and its ambitions — or highfalutin pretensions, populists sometimes argue — to curate a condensed but comprehensive picture of the year in serious moviemaking.

NYFF has never been known as a marketplace, since by the time a movie screens at the fest it has likely been seen in other festivals and picked up for distribution. But its reputation for exclusivity makes it a valuable stop in the promotional launch of a film.

Just ask Michael Barker, the co-topper of Sony Pictures Classics, which has a whopping five films in the fest this year, including “Carnage.”

According to Barker, the international launch of “Carnage” began with its world preem at Venice, but the kickoff in the U.S. is signaled by the media attention that will come out of its stint at NYFF. Barker expects the film to be a major contender this Christmas season. “We are confident the word of mouth starts here,” he said. “And because the festival is famous for its standards, it also speaks to awards givers.”

A slot in the festival doesn’t only help the movies with renowned directors and big-name casts such as “Carnage” — or like Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In” and David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” two more SPC films to be screened during the fest. (“My Week With Marilyn” and “The Descendants” are two more high-profile pics among the 27 films on the slate.)

The fest also gives a promotional leg up to the tougher sells — the foreign films from little-known creatives that can use all the attention they can get. SPC has a couple of those, too: Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian film “A Separation” and Joseph Cedar’s Israeli offering “Footnote.”

This year documentaries have more of a place of prominence, both in the main slate and in the complementary programming. It wasn’t by design, fest organizers said, but they’re happy the balance worked out.

HBO Documentary Films has three docs in the fest, with “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” on the main slate and “Vito” and “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” among the complementary films on tap.

“I don’t think HBO subscribers necessarily say, ‘Oh my God, I’m getting a film from the New York Film Festival!'” admitted Sheila Nevins, prexy of HBO Documentary Films. “But in the hierarchy of the documentary community, when you make a film for television and it ends up at a film festival, it brings a new kind of recognition.”

Most agree the festival is more about art than business. Still, there’s an advantage to being in the same cluster of theaters with the kind of people who attend such events, especially for filmmakers with brewing projects.

Execs at the Film Society envision NYFF as a hotspot not just for the industry but for moviegoers of all kinds. This year’s lineup, for instance, courts auds of all ages with family-friendly screenings of Hayao Miyazaki pics and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush.”

The center’s new screens mean additional showtimes for hot tickets could be added to accommodate high demand. Overall this year, the number of screenings has shot up by 100 to about 320.

Plus, it’s hoped the new facilities help create a greater air of accessibility in general for the festival. “I think the cafe and the amphitheater say, ‘Come and hang out here,'” Kuo said. “It’s what makes us a destination.”

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