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Film Society of Lincoln Center Celebrates 50 Years of Cinematic Passion

As with many veterans of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which is being renamed Film at Lincoln Center to mark its 50th Anniversary this week, longtime former executive director Joanne Koch has some stories to tell.

“We tried to get Katharine Hepburn at the Chaplin Gala, and she wrote me and said she’d rather go to the South Pole,” Koch laughs. “But when we honored George Cukor in 1978, she was very nervous, but she came — and the audience went crazy.”

So did the Lincoln Center board chairman George Weissman in 1989, but for another reason. “The New York Film Festival was showing ‘Roger and Me,’ which attacked General Motors, a substantial donor to Lincoln Center. I remember [George] saying, ‘Are you really going to show this film?’ I said yes, and we did.”

Longtime former program director and NYFF selection committee chairman Richard Peña has a slightly different memory of the screening. “At the Q&A, this guy comes running up the aisle and all of us were frozen. He was just going up to say, ‘This is an important film…,’ but for a few moments, everybody thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s gonna kill Michael Moore.’”

On April 29, the nonprofit holds its 50th Anniversary Gala at Alice Tully Hall with a wide array of talent — including Moore, Jake Gyllenhaal, Martin Scorsese, Tilda Swinton and Darren Aronofsky — recounting many more of FSLC’s memorable and culture-shifting moments. But to get a full sense of the magnitude of this milestone, one has to recall what a red-headed stepchild cinema was before the organization was established in 1969.

“William Schuman, who was the president of Lincoln Center when the New York Film Festival was founded in 1963, really had to go up against some resistance to even include film as part of its array of the arts,” recalls FSLC board secretary Wendy Keys. “In fact, [chairman] John D. Rockefeller III said, ‘What’s next, baseball?’”

The fest had a major cultural impact under director Amos Vogel and program director Richard Roud. “This is an extraordinary time in film history where European filmmakers are being introduced to the United States, and the Film Society is a big part of that,” says FSLC executive director Lesli Klainberg.

But even with its critical kudos, “Lincoln Center no longer wanted to fund the festival,” recalls Koch. “It was to reduce the deficit, which was around $50,000 — today, that would be peanuts. So it was decided to form a separate organization with separate funding sources. William Schuman contacted Martin Segal, who became [FSLC’s] president.” With William May as founding chairman and Schuyler G. Chapin as its first executive director, they assembled a board in 1969.

The move did far more than ensure the fest’s long-term survival. It paved the way for even more internationally recognized events and institutions, including the New Directors/New Films festival, produced with the Museum of Modern Art; the annual Chaplin Award Gala Tribute; the Walter Reade Theater; Rendezvous With French Cinema; and Film Comment magazine. And in the past decade, the organization continues to grow with its state-of-the-art Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center for first-run films and revivals, the Art of the Real series with nonfiction works programmed by FSLC director of programming Dennis Lim and programmer-at-large Rachael Rakes, the Convergence immersive media and VR initiative curated by Matt Bolish, free year-round filmmaker talks and more.

New Directors/New Films launched in 1972 from a desire for springtime programming, and anyone who’s had to endure a long, tedious work may find it ironic that it was created from funds for — literally — captive audiences.

“My predecessor Gerald Freund got a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for $15,000 to show films in prisons,” Koch says. “But the city wasn’t that interested, and it never took off, so the foundation agreed to let us use it for [New Directors/New Films]. We couldn’t afford to do it in Lincoln Center’s halls, so I contacted Willard Van Dyke at MoMA, where I had worked, about collaborating.”

The Chaplin Gala, as one might suspect, began by honoring the self-exiled auteur Charlie Chaplin that same year. “Chaplin evidently wanted to come back to the States, so Martin Segal met with Chaplin and decided to do a big gala,” Koch says. “It was so successful that we then made it an annual program. The second one was Fred Astaire, followed by Hitchcock.”

Keys, who directed the Chaplin Gala for 30 years, says the memories that pop out “are usually either the surprisingly good ones — Audrey Hepburn throwing her shoulders back to meet her audience — or the surprisingly bad, like when Billy Wilder went on a long tear about Hollywood not paying any attention to him anymore.”

But one memory that stands out for her is from the education program she ran in the ’70s and ’80s. “We would have a filmmaker go out with projectionists and a 16mm projector into the schools, and Martin Scorsese — when he was a NYU student — was one of them.”

Since 2014, when Klainberg was appointed as executive director and Eugene Hernandez was named deputy director, they’ve rebooted the program with education director Christine L. Mendoza, partnering with neighboring schools incorporating a visual literacy curriculum for students. In addition, the organization has bolstered three Academies that support early career professional critics, artists and industry members with a focus on women and people of color.”

NYFF director Kent Jones, who is also an acclaimed filmmaker in his own right (“Diane,” “Hitchcock/Truffaut” and one of Variety’s 2019 Directors to Watch), remembers wild moments that impassioned — and sometimes distressed — cineastes created in the audience. “I was there at the notorious ‘Pulp Fiction’ opening night screening in 1994,” he says. “When Uma Thurman OD’ed and John Travolta stuck a needle through her heart, somebody screamed to the top of their lungs, ‘Oh my God!’ The lights went up and somebody had a seizure. Of course, many people thought that Harvey Weinstein had planted somebody. That was wild.”

It didn’t take medical distress to rile up audiences. “Seeing [Robert] Bresson’s last film ‘L’Argent’ [in 1983], the hooting and hollering from the audience was astonishing. I mean, they were just savaging that film. And it was a similar reaction the same year to ‘Class Relations’ by Jean-Marie Straub. People were screaming at the movie screen. That doesn’t happen anymore, but it used to.”

While outrage culture may have moved to Twitter, the Film Society of Lincoln Center has done its best over the past half century to ensure that film is still considered art worth arguing about, and art that matters.

“When I was on the selection committee, I would ask Richard [Peña], ‘Don’t you think we should get bigger?’ and he’d say, ‘No, I think it’s fine the way it is,’” Jones says. “At the time I disagreed with him, but in retrospect I think he was right. He thought it was important to allow the festival to grow organically as our theaters were built. And over the years there’ve been ideas about having audience awards, but I think it’s a good thing to have a festival as venerable as ours just devoted to showing a work, as opposed to rating it. It’s meaningful to filmmakers.”

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