After working as a producer, director, editor, camera assistant, location scout, film sales agent, journalist, press liaison, festival programmer and consultant, Rose Kuo is about to experience another milestone in her 25-plus year career: her first anniversary as Film Society of Lincoln Center exec director.
It’s arguably been the most important week of her career, as she unveils the $41 million Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in a series of events for the public, industry and donors. The amphitheater, cafe and two-theater complex will exhibit first-run indie films and serve as a commercial outlet for features that can’t find distribution, both firsts in the film society’s 42-year history.
Under Kuo’s watch, the organization has quickly moved beyond catering to cineastes to become more industry- and filmmaker-friendly than ever. She forged a partnership with IFP to house Independent Film Week and mentor emerging talent year round, revamped the film society’s website with new director of digital strategy Eugene Hernandez to stream Q&As and expanded filmmaker content, and is working with Emerging Pictures to offer live FSLC events in theaters around the country.
One key factor in the departure of her predecessor, Mara Manus, was the difficulty raising funds for the Film Center, an understandable trial during one of the biggest economic downturns in history. (Manus, who led New York’s Public Theater out of debt, had a rocky two-year stint after replacing 37-year vet Joanne Koch.) Kuo has managed to grow funding from $31 million to $38 million, added four new board members this year and expects to raise the campaign’s remaining $3 million soon.
The funding helped Kuo continue the egalitarian streak she began with free screenings during her last gig as AFI Fest’s artistic director. She’s offered New York Film Festival and Film Center ticket giveaways, Saturday morning family programming, latenight cafe hours and new educational programs so far. “I’m a big believer in civic duties for organizations like this,” she says.
One new initiative trains and showcases work from teens in the Bronx-based Ghetto Film School. It’s hard to think of a film org less “ghetto” than the tony FSLC, and moves like this highlight Kuo’s sensitive balancing act: preserving traditions at one of the world’s most august — some would say stodgy — film institutions, while opening it up to wider and younger audiences (and donors).
Kuo’s gift for listening and diplomacy, a constant in her many careers, may help smooth out any resistance to change among the org’s old guard. “It’s really important to go to festivals, to always remain accessible to filmmakers, distributors and the film industry at large, because you get a lot of information being out there talking to people,” she says.
As for the film society’s stodgy reputation, she points to the wide range of opening weekend Film Center events — ranging from the ad-centric “Merv Bloch’s Trailer Show” to “Paul Schrader’s Film Class” (analyzing Bertolucci’s “The Conformist”) — as an indication of the new direction.
“You try not to dilute what is good about an organization like this while gently tweaking it,” says Kuo, citing the New York Film Festival, Film Comment magazine and New Directors/New Films as the org’s most significant programs. “The tweaks are quite modest, but turning our focus a little bit to emerging filmmakers or adding an educational component can have a huge impact across the film industry.”