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NYFF Director Kent Jones Explains How He Landed ‘The Irishman’ Premiere

It’s been a tumultuous few years at the New York Film Festival.

In 2018, after an early-2010s mandate for exclusive gala premieres swept in by increasing competition for top titles, the fest chose tentpoles that all debuted elsewhere: “The Favourite,” “Roma” and “At Eternity’s Gate.” Yet all three films ended up scoring Oscar nominations in top categories and NYFF, which five years earlier had hosted the world premiere of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” for its centerpiece gala, ironically added to its award season cachet.

This year, outgoing fest director Kent Jones arguably landed the biggest world premiere in its history: Martin Scorsese’s mafia drama “The Irishman” kicks off the fest on Sept. 27.

Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” a Netflix release like “The Irishman,” is NYFF’s Oct. 4 centerpiece selection, while Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn,” a Warner Bros. release, will be showcased in the fest’s closing-night gala on Oct. 11.

Both films have already played at Telluride and Toronto, with “Marriage” also screening in Venice. The selections speak volumes about today’s landscape, in which the number of top films fests wrangle can say more about the individual film’s quality than any one or two prominent spots, and ambitious streamer-backed offerings are increasingly part of the equation.

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All told, there are 29 films on NYFF’s main slate, including Oscar hopefuls such as Sony Classics’ “Pain and Glory.” Major fests such as NYFF rely on their galas for fundraising and to boost their profiles, one reason that well-funded distribs are almost always a given.

With “The Irishman,” a Jimmy Hoffa chronicle, it helped that festival director Kent Jones was, to use a fitting term, well- connected. “I’ve known Marty for almost 30 years,” he says of Scorsese, who exec produced “Diane,” Jones’ narrative feature debut last year.

Scorsese also has ties to NYFF’s parent org Film at Lincoln Center that go back some five decades.

The pair talked about the project, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, for “years and years, [and] I visited the set quite a few times,” says Jones, who announced he would step down from his post last week. “The shoot was about six months, all over the city.”

But Jones says the real reason NYFF landed “The Irishman,” given how many of Scorsese’s most recent films have skipped festivals entirely, “was timing. In the past, because of Marty’s and my relationship, people were always saying, ‘Of course you’ll be opening with “The Wolf of Wall Street,’’ or ‘Of course, you’ll be opening with “Silence.’’ [I said] ‘Well, if the timing works out, sure.’ But it didn’t. Those movies just were not ready.”

“The Irishman” was.

“Marty works up until the very, very last minute,” Jones says. “In this case, it’s purely based on his love for the New York Film Festival, and most of all, the fact that the film was ready. That’s how we got it.”

Originally a Paramount project, “The Irishman” was picked up by Netflix after the studio balked at its hefty price tag; the movie’s budget came in close to $160 million, in part due to the de-aging special effects Scorsese used in the film.

This is Jones’ seventh and final year chairing the fest’s selection committee, and a healthy number of its choices premiered at Cannes and picked up awards there (“Pain and Glory,” “Atlantics,” “Bacurau,” “Beanpole,” “Parasite,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”). But Jones sees this as part of a larger trend, prompted in part by poor indie box office.

“Multiplexes are being filled with stuff that’s just more of the same idea,” he says. “At this point, it’s a separate world — I hesitate to say that it’s even part of the same industry. It really isn’t. I think that what really developed last year, and what’s only become more dramatically true this year, is that filmmakers want their movies to be seen on as many big screens as possible. Therefore, they want to go to as many festivals as possible.”

Unlike last year, all three films selected for the galas are set or filmed in New York. But NYFF is a traditionally international film festival, and this year is no exception, with main slate entries that include Pedro Costa’s Portuguese drama “Vitalina Varela.”

Films backed by streamers continue to be controversial in certain quarters of Hollywood and on the fest circuit, with Cannes declining to select Netflix offerings until it meets certain theatrical windows. “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story” will both have limited runs in theaters before streaming on Netflix, but major U.S. exhibitors are steering clear of the movies.

Is Jones concerned that by highlighting films that will get a very limited run in theaters, NYFF is contributing in some way to the death of the theatrical experience?

Jones points out that “cinema has always been really mixed up with commerce and technological advances, so they quickly become commercial advances. … The ground is just shifting underneath our feet all the time. A few years back, when I was at board meetings, the board would say, ‘How do you think that Amazon is affecting the makeup of things?’

“The big question now is how is Netflix affecting it, and a year from now, everything will be quite different. Apple will have done what they’re doing, etc.”
Does he see any solution? “Go [to cinemas] more,” he says. “If the numbers were better, things would be different.”

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