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Sharp focus

Gotham fest grandaddy remains selective, trend-free

What: 43rd New York Film Festival: 25 features, 13 shorts, plus special events
Where: Lincoln Center, New York
When: Friday-Oct. 9

Once upon a time a long, long time ago, back before the film festival circuit exploded in a frenzy of growth, the New York metropolitan area had the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival and nothing else.

These days, things are a bit different.

“There are as many festivals as there are mosquitoes after a rain,” says Film Society associate program director Kent Jones, pointing out that many of the newer fests take a larger, more sprawling approach to programming.

There’s Tribeca and the Hamptons, and on a smaller scale there’s Woodstock and even Brooklyn. Yet the granddaddy of them all keeps motoring along, tinkering a bit but without serious contemplation of a major overhaul.

“I don’t think the new festivals have affected us,” says Film Society program director and NYFF committee chairman Richard Pena. “You’d look at whether films we want are choosing to go elsewhere or whether we are losing audience and so far neither has happened.”

Jones thinks newer festivals have to worry more about things like attracting a younger demo, particularly ones that rely heavily on sponsors that target those audiences. And when the New York fest does lose out on a film it’s often due to timing — movies seeking summer release that choose Tribeca might not be able to wait for autumn.

Denise Kasell, exec director of the Hamptons fest, which follows on the heels of NYFF, not only agrees, she gushes over the stature of her neighbor.

“Why should you change when you’re the best at what you’re doing?” she asks. “If you have a mansion and everyone is building row houses you don’t have to build a row house.”

Selection committee member Philip Lopate, who covered the first NYFF four decades ago for the Columbia U. Daily Spectator and served on the selection committee from 1988-’92, agrees, saying its identity as “the festival of festivals, culling the best from all over” remains intact.

NYFF’s strength stems from its long history as being more a curatorial fest than a marketplace, and thus doesn’t obsess over things like world premieres, says John Sloss, an entertainment lawyer and fixture on the New York indie scene. (Sloss also is being honored by the Woodstock fest this fall.)

While he thinks the opening, closing and centerpiece films in certain years reveal an ongoing internal debate about the importance of glitz and glamour, the festival remains true to itself.

This year, Lopate points out, the opening-night movie, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” is a George Clooney picture, which might sound fairly commercial — the director-thesp will be bringing a huge amount of Hollywood glamour to the fest — but the film is “a movie that goes out on limbs and takes real chances.”

Pena agrees, saying that while he’d view it as a failure on the part of the festival if it chose films and they failed to find distribs, “that is not the festival’s raison d’etre. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, commerce, what’s that?’ but we’ve retained the air of being primarily a cultural event.”

Kasell says the Hamptons fest to some extent “defines itself in contrast to (NYFF) and is looking for more marketing opportunities,” yet she adds that as film festivals like hers become increasingly commercial, they are “looking to the New York Film Festival as a role model, to remind all of us we should take the higher ground.”

NYFF’s also taken its fair share of pot shots from critics who think the festival is adapting too much or not enough. Although it is too healthy for anything revolutionary, it is not utterly static, Pena says. “We constantly reassess what we do.”

There are far more films from far-flung places than there were decades ago because there are more movies made there and because video and DVD make it easier for the committee to receive them.

Yet, Lopate says, because there aren’t as many high-profile Bernardo Bertolucci-level foreign directors as there were in the ’60s, people complain. “Some of that seems to be a resistance to Asian names,” he adds.

Lopate and Pena both cite the growth of the festival’s sidebars as signs of the event’s health: For instance, Views From the Avant-Garde is in its ninth year. More recently Pena, after hearing that the festival wasn’t maximizing the presence of the directors in attendance, teamed with HBO to create the Director Dialogues program to provide conversation “in a more leisurely atmosphere” than a postscreening quick take.

This year, Pena has gone one step further, adding a conversation with an actor — and a little-known one in America at that — Steve Coogan, star of Michael Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.” “It’s a little form of experiment,” Pena says.

“The festival has not changed much,” Lopate jokes, “It has always been proud and always been on the defensive.”

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