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How the New York Film Festival Became an Oscar Season Launch Pad

In five years the event has shown its value as a starting point for awards hopefuls.

The New York Film Festival has always been one of the classiest, most finely curated stops on the global festival circuit. But it wasn’t until five years ago that the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which puts on the annual showcase, really capitalized on its position in the film awards season.

That year, David Fincher brought “The Social Network” as a world premiere to open the 48th annual event. The splash was considerable, and soon after, the fest adopted an understanding that two of its three major galas — opened night, centerpiece and closing night — had to be world premieres. Suddenly, a new launching pad was born for movies looking to springboard into the Oscar conversation.

In 2011, Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” kicked things off, while Simon Curtis’ “My Week with Marilyn” served as the centerpiece. Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” wrapped things up after bowing in Telluride and screening in Toronto as well. But that year also brought the work-in-progress premiere of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” as a “secret screening.” The next year, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” pulled the same trick. Talk about making some noise.

Maybe too much noise, though. In due time, the concept of a flashy secret screening wore off. In 2013, it was a 50-year-old Jean-Luc Godard film, “Vivre sa vie,” while in 2014, it was Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young,” which had already premiered in Toronto.

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Back to the festival’s 50th anniversary in 2012, things kicked off with Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi.” David Chase’s “Not Fade Away” was the centerpiece and Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” closed things out. Along with “Lincoln,” they were all world premieres and major gets.

Captain Phillips,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “Her” were the trio in 2013, which also marked an interesting year for films playing Cannes and Telluride but skipping Toronto on the way to the Big Apple. “All is Lost,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Nebraska” all opted for that route as the Canadian fest began to lose a little of its awards season luster. Also, a presentation of “12 Years a Slave” was sprung on the fest that year (dubbed a “U.S. premiere” despite the fact that it had already screened in Telluride).

Last year, Fincher was back to kick things off again with “Gone Girl.” Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” was the centerpiece (producer Scott Rudin has taken a number of films to the fest), interesting for being a bit exclusive to the event with precious few press screenings after its bow there. The closer was another film that opted out of Toronto, eventual best picture winner “Birdman.”

And now, the 53rd annual. Zemeckis will be back Saturday night with the delayed (thanks to the Pope) opening night world premiere of “The Walk.” Rudin will be back with Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs” after skipping out on Toronto following a Telluride bow. And Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead,” looking more and more like a 2016 release for Sony Classics, will close things out. Interestingly enough, Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” is a part of the lineup as a world premiere, but it didn’t land one of the three high profile slots.

So that’s a quick sprint through the New York Film Festival’s recent history with the awards race. Along the way, films like “Inside Job,” “The Artist,” “A Separation,” “Amour,” “Foxcatcher,” “Mr. Turner” and “Whiplash” have screened there en route to the Oscars. The event, already unique in the space, has shown its value as a starting point for contenders either not interested in or not ready for the early Venice-Telluride-Toronto corridor.

Which players will emerge from the Lincoln Center with a healthy stride? We’ll find out over the next two weeks!

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