This year's festival launches in time of transition

Take a look at the main slate of the 2012 New York Film Festival — which opens Friday night with the world premiere of Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” — and it may be hard to tell it’s a time of transition both for the fest and for the org that runs it, Film Society of Lincoln Center.

This year’s lineup pulls together the same mix of prestige studio fare (including David Chase’s “Not Fade Away” and Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight,” both from Paramount), wide-ranging global offerings (“Amour,” “No,” “Memories Look at Me”) and experimentally inclined art films (“Holy Motors,” “The Last Time I Saw Macao”) that have characterized the fest in recent years.

As longtime programming topper Richard Pena wraps up his 25-year tenure with the film society this year, there’s little sense yet of how two new leaders — Kent Jones and Robert Koehler, heads of programming for NYFF and Film Society of Lincoln Center, respectively — will shake things up.

But a closer look at some of the ancillary programming and initiatives reveals emerging areas of interest and activity likely to factor into the fest’s future. With exec director Rose Kuo (who joined FSLC in 2010) also piloting the ship and a film center that opened last year now in the mix, new media, filmmaker development and a growing digital presence are all poised to play bigger roles.

The New York Film Festival hits its 50th birthday having established a rep for a small, rigorously curated slate of around 30 films from around the world. The fest has had a hand in boosting the cred of filmmakers including Truffaut, Fassbinder, Godard, Pedro Almodovar, Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson.

“New York isn’t a city that lacks access to world cinema,” said Amy Taubin, the longtime film critic who is on the NYFF selection committee for the first time this year. “So what the film festival does is put a critical imprimatur on certain films.”

NYFF’s position at the start of the fall awards season can make a slot in the festival especially appealing to studios launching prestige titles. Elizabeth Gabler, prexy of Fox 2000, is gearing up for the wide release of “Life of Pi” on Nov. 21. “New York is a cultural center, and it has an elevated profile,” Gabler said, naming “The Queen” and “The Social Network” as pics to benefit in recent years as NYFF opening night selections. “General theatergoers will read about ‘Life of Pi’ opening the festival, and I think they’ll recognize the cachet of that.”

Continuing a trend that began last year, the film society is making use of its $40 million Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center — with two screens, an amphitheater and a cafe among the elements now available to the fest — to expand its screenings and initiatives beyond the main slate.

Midnight movies (including Barry Levinson’s eco-horror outing “The Bay,” unspooling Saturday), anniversary screenings (such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”and “Lawrence of Arabia,” both this weekend), public talks with filmmakers and themed sidebars (such as movie-centric lineup “Cinema Reflected” and arts-focused “On the Arts”) are all expanded or new to the festival this year. In addition, two professional and creative development programs, the Artists Academy and the Critics Academy, gather selected up-and-comers for case studies, talks and other workshops throughout the fest, and filmmakers will participate in another program concurrent with NYFF, Emerging Visions.

Like FSLC in general, this year’s fest branches out to showcase new-media projects. The first weekend of NYFF will host two days of symposium programming for Convergence, the film society’s recently launched initiative dedicated to transmedia work. “It’s important for us to be in the space because filmmakers are starting to work in gaming and new media,” Kuo said. “Kickstarter and video cameras are no longer just for first-time filmmakers, and master filmmakers don’t only work in film.”

A handful of festivals, including NYFF’s Gotham neighbor Tribeca, have also embraced new media in recent years. According to Eugene Hernandez, FSLC’s director of digital strategy, the NYFF program distinguishes itself by focusing more on creative elements than on tech. “What feels organic to the festival and to the film society is to focus on the creativity and the storytelling,” he said.

Hernandez is also charged with upping the fest’s digital profile. This year, with an eye toward accessibility, NYFF will make public talks and some festival press conferences available online via iTunes or YouTube, with many events streamed live.

Such programs mirror similar efforts at national and global branding for other high-profile U.S. fests such as Sundance and Tribeca.

“We want to be in a place where audiences from around the world can access the film festival and the film society,” Kuo said. “There are so many festivals out there now, and most have become regional events. We’ve always had a really strong commitment to global cinema, and we’re one of the handful of festivals trying to be a global event.”

How the programming vision will shift under Jones and Koehler remains to be seen, as do the ways in which the film society may continue to boost accessibility to broader auds. During Kuo’s tenure at AFI, the org’s L.A. fest made all tickets to all screenings free, raising the question of whether something similar can be attempted in Gotham.

Whatever changes lie ahead, though, this year’s festival is still positioned as a look back as much as a look ahead. Of the fest’s two gala tributes (another new addition to festival programming), one will honor Pena and his festival legacy.

Even “Life of Pi” fits squarely into NYFF tradition. It’s the second time a film by Lee has opened the festival, following “The Ice Storm” in 1997, and in 2000 his “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was the closing pic.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more