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New York Film Fest: Less Risk, More Reward for Studios

As Toronto fought Telluride for premieres, and fest competition for prestige pics reached a fever pitch this year, the New York Film Festival quietly delivered some key victories: world premieres of two highly anticipated lit adaptations for its opening night (David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” Fox) and centerpiece (Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” Warner Bros.).

At first glance, each seems like an obvious studio strategy — Fincher’s “The Social Network” (Sony) opened the 2010 fest, while last year’s closing film, WB’s “Her,” starred Joaquin Phoenix, who also toplines “Vice,” and both nabbed screenplay Oscars. But in an equally noteworthy move, the closing night gala was given to Alejandro González Inarritu’s “Birdman” (Searchlight), fresh from Venice and Telluride, ending a policy from former Film Society of Lincoln Center exec director Rose Kuo (succeeded this year by Lesli Klainberg) to have all three galas show world premieres.

“Last year, I decided I wanted to have the option of having world premieres in just two slots,” says NYFF director Kent Jones, “just because I didn’t want to miss the chance to have something that would be perfect for the festival.” He cites “Birdman’s” Broadway theme, adding that the decision had nothing to do with competition or any difficulty landing a third premiere. But the coups and policy change indicate the 52nd NYFF is at a crossroads, trying to maintain its reputation as a cineaste event that’s above such turf wars, while keeping its edge in a climate where fewer high-profile films for adults, not to mention sponsors, donors and crucial Oscar buzz moments, are available.

“One of the most important things we’re trying to do is to grow our audience, as many other arts organizations are doing,” says Klainberg. “There is a lot of competition, and obviously there are sponsors that overlap, but there’s plenty (of films and funding) to go around.”

And while the NYFF views itself as outside the mainstream, studio support is crucial. “We’ve kept a lot of the commercial aspects of the industry out of the Film Society and we want to keep that going, because we don’t desire to make it into a market,” says Kleinberg, who’s announcing an industry membership program at the fest to engage entertainment outfits more closely for funding, programming and promotion. “But we’re a not-for-profit and need to reach a wider audience.”

One key to NYFF’s future success is playing to its longtime strengths, such as giving auteurs time to tinker. NYFF’s late September/October berth allowed Anderson to up the “Vice” post-production schedule from 30 to 52 weeks, with its final print set to be finished on the fest’s Sept. 26 opening day.

Of course, the three gala slots represent a small fraction of the 30 films in NYFF’s Main Slate, including five North American and 14 U.S. Premieres. Four won top awards at Cannes: “The Wonders” (Grand Prix), “Foxcatcher” (best director Bennett Miller), “Maps to the Stars” (best actress Julianne Moore) and “Mr. Turner” (best actor Timothy Spall).

And the extensive 2011 renovation of Lincoln Center — which brought three more screens at the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center — “literally broadened the fest, and our ability to think outside the main slate movies and revivals we’ve done in the past,” Klainberg notes.

It’s allowed her and Jones’ shared passion — documentaries — to be featured in one of several impressive sidebars, and likely fueled a late-edition coup: the world premiere of Laura Poitras’ Edward Snowden doc “Citizenfour.”

From a distributor’s perspective, NYFF can sometimes be a smart choice since there are no awards, and coming later in the season, less chance for negative buzz to build on potentially divisive end-of-year releases. “It’s a safer but well-respected festival,” says one distribution exec. “It’s a good litmus test for a film, without the risk of everything blowing up in your face. If it plays well, you can put more into (marketing) it.”

What the NYFF may lose in prominence by not mandating a third world premiere gala, FSLC may gain if that slot draws in another studio and bolsters Klainberg’s new mandate for industry partnerships.

But Jones stresses that while he’s not opposed to the occasional sale, there will be “no marketplace,” and “business and curation won’t get mixed up.”

And if the fest wars continue to heat up, a less competitive NYFF just might end up as a more attractive option for filmmakers looking to stay out of the fray.

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