Kent Jones to Exit New York Film Festival (EXCLUSIVE)

In a surprise move, New York Film Festival’s director and selection committee chair of seven years Kent Jones will step down following this year’s 57th edition, which runs Sept. 27-Oct. 13.

The departure comes as Jones’ feature filmmaking career is taking off. Issues of potential conflicts of interest have arisen as his work has moved from mostly cineaste-oriented documentaries such as the 2015 doc “Hitchcock/Truffaut” to narrative features including his 2019 drama “Diane.” That film’s exec producer and Jones’ friend of nearly three decades, Martin Scorsese, is the director of NYFF’s opening-night film, “The Irishman.”

Jones tells Variety that this move has been in the discussion phase with the Film at Lincoln Center board for many months. “It developed kind of organically from the whole experience and reception of ‘Diane,’” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2018 and was released by IFC films in March 2019. He will continue to work with FLC in a to-be-determined advisory position.

Film at Lincoln Center’s executive director Lesli Klainberg will oversee the transition of leadership for NYFF. Jones said no new person has been found at this point to take over for him, and “the nature of how it’s going to work is [still] all in discussion.” The announcement of his replacement, or replacements, is expected to happen in the near future.

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His reason for stepping down “is very simple: [I’m a] filmmaker,” Jones said. “The kinds of films that I made before were about cinema, so they were pretty much in harmony with things like writing criticism and programming other people’s movies. Making ‘Diane’ changed things … I’ve always written scripts, and I’ve always shared them with friends, among them Marty [Scorsese], Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas — people I’m really close to, [and] it changes your perspective. Watching films by other people — and particularly rejecting films by other people — becomes different. After making my film, I guess that changed my perspective.”

It’s far from the most important current change in Jones’ life. On Sept. 19, Jones’ wife, Carisa Kelly (costume designer for “Diane”), is expecting to deliver their baby.

Jones has written another drama with a female protagonist (“I certainly wouldn’t call it a comedy,” he said, as Kelly laughed knowingly) — a New York-based project still awaiting financing — that he hopes to direct soon, as well as a couple documentaries that are in the works.

“Beginning as a year-round programmer, Kent has shared his knowledge and passion for the movies with our Film at Lincoln Center audiences for almost 20 years,” Klainberg said. “On behalf of the board and staff, I’m delighted to support him as he continues into the next phase of his career, making more of his own cinematic dreams come true, and we can’t wait to enjoy the results.”

Jones acknowledged the potential conflict that was at work even when he began production on “Diane,” but not one that was ever brought up to him by the FLC board. In one example, the film’s producers and indie heavyweights Oren Moverman and Caroline Kaplan “really made ‘Diane’ possible.”

But, he noted, the filmmaker/fest director combo has “not been unheard of in the past. [‘Battle of Algiers’ director] Gillo Pontecorvo ran the Venice Film Festival for a while [in 1992-96], though it was at a point in his life when he was not as active a filmmaker as he had been. But I’m able to separate things — it’s not like if I’m working with someone, they’re in.”  When Jones co-wrote Arnaud Desplechin’s 2013 drama “Jimmy P.,” which was chosen for the NYFF’s main slate, he recused himself from the selection process.

“It’s a small world, this world of cinema, and it’s getting smaller,” he said.

Jones joined Film at Lincoln Center in 1998 as associate director of programming, and from 2002 to 2009 he served on the NYFF selection committee. He organized many notable FLC retrospectives during this time, including surveys of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Alain Resnais, Michael Powell, Ermanno Olmi, Jacques Tourneur, a program of Central Asian cinema with Alla Verlotsky, and a near-complete Jean-Luc Godard retrospective with Jake Perlin. During the same period, Jones was a frequent contributor to Film Comment, where he was given the title Editor-at-Large. In November 2012, he was appointed director of the New York Film Festival. He has also served on juries at film festivals around the world, including Rotterdam, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Venice and Cannes. In addition, he served as the executive director of the World Cinema Project Project from 2009 to 2012.

He was the co-writer of Scorsese’s documentary on the history of Italian cinema “My Voyage to Italy,” the writer and director of the 2007 film “Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows,” and the co-writer and co-director with Scorsese of the Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award–winning 2010 film “A Letter to Elia.” “Diane” won awards at Tribeca for best feature film, cinematography and screenplay. He is the author of several books of criticism, including a 2007 collection, “Physical Evidence,” published by Wesleyan University Press. In 2012, he was selected as a Guggenheim Fellow.

“It’s been so great working with Dennis [Lim, director of programming] and Florence [Almozini, associate director of programming] and all the programmers in the festival,” Kent said.

In his time as director of NYFF, he has expanded the festival with a series of sidebars and new sections that showcase the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center space while maintaining the artistic integrity of the festival with a tightly curated program. His tenure saw the advent of the Spotlight on Documentary and Convergence sections; the first-ever selection of a documentary to open the festival with Ava DuVernay’s “13th;” and, in 2018, the best-attended NYFF to date.

“At some point when I was pretty young and already deep into movies, the New York Film Festival became a beacon for me,” Jones said. “Throughout its history, it has been a true home for the art of cinema — that was how it began with Richard Roud and Amos Vogel, that was how it remained with my predecessor Richard Peña, and that was how I’ve done my best to maintain it. I thank my colleagues, I thank the board for sticking to the original mission, I thank our audiences, I thank our colleagues in the industry, but most of all I thank the filmmakers. It’s been a joy and an honor to present their work.”

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