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New York Film Festival Swings in Artier Direction

Since 1992, virtually all New York Film Festival opening night films have been North American or, since 2012, world premieres. But this year’s choice, “The Favourite,” crossed an unofficial line in the sand by getting a North American premiere at Telluride before opening the 56th NYFF on Sept. 28.

The only exception — 2009’s French comedy “Wild Grass” — played Toronto on the heels of the Great Recession, the collapse of indie-film financing and the shuttering of many specialty divisions. Similarly, NYFF’s new selection reflects a dearth of studio prestige fare, fest booking wars for the fewer films that remain, more power in the hands of distribs, an acquiescence to streaming services and an earlier Oscar season.

“We could have had a world premiere, easily,” says NYFF director Kent Jones. “But we didn’t like any of those films enough to invite them.”

So how did “The Favourite,” Fox Searchlight’s dark comedy about power moves, maneuver its way into Telluride and yet still land the coveted NYFF slot? “The films we liked had prior commitments, and I suppose the line in the sand [you mentioned] was less important to us than getting the movie that we wanted,” Jones says.

Given the current climate for prestige films, with fewer available for key fest debuts, “it didn’t feel like we were giving anything up,” he adds. “Not to sound disingenuous — it’s just the truth.”

Did he want to step away from heightened fest competition for top titles? “That’s definitely true,” he says. “I think fewer films are being made in that range. Whenever you pick films for any reason other than, ‘We think it’s a great movie,’ you can always feel it. I just think that’s a factor we don’t have to deal with.”

“We were pleasantly surprised, as you can imagine,” says Ceci Dempsey, who with fellow producer Ed Guiney discussed the fest rollout with Fox Searchlight, but wasn’t involved in NYFF negotiations for Yorgos Lanthimos’ period film. Telluride offered a career tribute to Emma Stone, the film’s 29-year-old star, “so that had another aspect to it,” she says. “Maybe times are changing, and people see that these different localities don’t knock each other out. Telluride is a completely different kind of festival.”

Rachel Weisz, who stars with Stone and Olivia Colman in the story of royal subterfuge, will be at NYFF after missing earlier fests due to the recent birth of her daughter.

The landscape was different five years ago when Jones started as NYFF’s director of programming with world premiere gala entries from three majors: Columbia’s “Captain Phillips,” Fox’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Warner Bros.’ “Her”; collectively, those films made more than $450 million worldwide. This year, “The Favourite” is joined by two other hard-to-sell period pieces in key slots: Netflix’s centerpiece black-and-white Spanish-language drama “Roma,” shown at Toronto, Telluride and Venice, where it won the Golden Lion; and CBS Films’ closing night Vincent Van Gogh biopic “At Eternity’s Gate,” which has its North American premiere here after a Venice bow.

They’re the kind of arty films upon which NYFF made its reputation. Barring a few surprise entries just before or during the fest, this is the artiest NYFF in a long time. The lineup also includes Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” and Claire Denis’ “High Life,” plus documentaries including “American Dharma” and “Watergate.”

“To me and my colleagues, it’s not a question of arthouse or auteurist films versus commercial films,” Jones says. He adds the fest previously screened commercial movies such as “Bridge of Spies” and “About Time” “because we liked them. This year, there wasn’t anything like either of those films.”

Other fests have unearthed a few, like “A Star Is Born” (which wasn’t submitted to NYFF), but Jones raises an important point. “Why are there so many fewer ‘medium range’ films of real artistic merit?” he asks. “The specialty divisions are long gone, and so is the idea that big hits mean more money falling off the table into the waiting arms of artists. Exhibitors also seem more disinclined to book stuff that isn’t a safe commercial bet.”

The Coen brothers’ latest, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” will make its North American debut at the Gotham fest.

That’s one reason prestige projects are showing up at Netflix, and why NYFF has a record six titles from the streaming service, including Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” from the Coen brothers. “Somebody over there has excellent taste,” Jones says. But their commercial success will likely remain a mystery: Netflix hasn’t released box office figures on its few Oscar-qualifying runs since 2015’s “Beasts of No Nation” made just $90,777 in theaters.

ComScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian says, aside from “The Favourite,” it’s “the docs that could have the greatest resonance, in terms of their ability to grab an audience and build box office over time.”

CBS Films president Terry Press sees her closing-night gala for “At Eternity’s Gate” as both an endorsement and a challenge for the film’s limited Nov. 16 release.

“To be chosen carries a certain amount of weight, because they are very selective,” she says. “New Yorkers tend to be sophisticated and enjoy riskier forays, so it’s a sort of a testing ground. If they don’t like this kind of movie, you have a hill to climb that is huge.”

NYFF Highlights:

The Favourite: opening-night selection, Sept. 28
American Dharma: U.S. premiere, Sept. 29
The Other Side of the Wind: Sept. 29
Watergate: Sept. 29
High Life: Oct. 9, U.S. premiere, Oct. 2
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: North American premiere, Oct. 4
Roma: Centerpiece screening, Oct. 5
Happy as Lazzaro: North American premiere, Oct. 6
If Beale Street Could Talk: U.S. premiere, Oct. 9
At Eternity’s Gate: closing night selection and North American premiere, Oct. 12

Tipsheet:

What: 56th New York Film Festival
When: Sept. 28-Oct. 14
Where: Lincoln Center, NYC
Web: filmlinc.org/nyff2018/

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