The 2012 New York Film Festival begins Friday, Sept. 28 and marks the 50th anniversary of this influential film series produced by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It’s also the last lineup Program Director Richard Peña will shape. The life-long movie buff has headed the festival’s selection committee for the past 25 years, watching it grow, evolve and adapt to the digital age. He’ll continue teaching Film Studies at Columbia University and host Reel13 on THIRTEEN, but his next summer will most likely be spent in Brazil instead of the Upper West Side. Here he talks with NYC-ARTS about what’s in store for the big 5-0, how the American audience has changed, and how this shift in movie culture creates the biggest challenge films have ever faced.
Q: You have represented NYFF for half of its existence. Were you able to meet all of your expectations?
A: Here we are 25 years after I got here and the lights are still on – that’s what I’m most proud of. I’m not only glad the festival has survived, but also that it has evolved with the times. At its core I like to think it’s remained the same festival – committed to trying to present what we consider the cutting edge in the world.
Q: What areas would you like to see the new director transform that you weren’t able to?
A: There’s this whole growing area of what one might call “media arts” where artists use movie imagery but often within installations. We haven’t really been able to address this and it would be interesting for the Film Society to figure out how to. As time goes on, the festival should think of new platforms because we now live in an age where people watch movies on their phones. I don’t necessarily think we should move in that direction, but it’s a reality that we need to consider, whether we decide to interface with it or not.
Q: When you became director, did you push for more representation of international films since that’s your expertise?
A: The reality of working for a film festival before 1988 was that it was very difficult to get access to those films. I came into the festival just as we were coming into the video age, when we began to get VHS submissions from different parts of the world. So people began to say the festival became broader and more international after I came on, but I had much greater access to a wider variety of films than my predecessors did. They would have to go see films at film festivals or travel to various countries to see them. People didn’t send heavy, precious 35mm copies halfway around the world.
Q: Even with technological advances, is there still an area in film being under-represented today?
A: It’s less by area than by levels of production. We’re not seeing enough lower-level, lower-budget work. Take Chinese films for example. When we began showing them in the ‘90s, they were excellent but reasonably budgeted, and usually period films done with a certain amount of commercial wherewithal. It was only by the beginning of the new millennium that we began seeing Chinese underground films that were simply made and more about everyday life. In fact, “Memories Look at Me” is a good example of that kind of cinema in the festival this year. Over time we became aware of other kinds of Chinese cinema, but that’s what we’re still missing in many other parts of the world. We see the better-known films but haven’t burrowed deep enough to see less-acclaimed work.
Q: What do you have special planned for the 50th?
A: One series I’m very proud to present is based on two French television shows. One is called “Cinéaste: Filmmakers of Our Time” and the other “Cinema of Our Time.” They were basically the same series but on different channels. Since 1964, this series has made incredible shows in which a recognized filmmaker makes a film about another filmmaker. There would be a meeting of minds and often great revelations about their work. We managed to put together 34 of these programs, many of which have never been shown in the U.S., and I think people will be delighted. These shows offer an exciting way for film to talk about film.
Q: You’ve been attending NYFF since you were a young boy.
A: Yeah, I started attending the festival in 1965. I often say that I went to the “University of the New York Film Festival” because going each year taught me so much about cinema. I’m old enough that I went to university during a time when film studies were at a really infant stage, so I didn’t get much academic training in film. It made up for a lot of what I didn’t get in the classroom.
Q: How has the general movie-going audience evolved?
A: One of the things I’ve noticed is how America has become more conservative in its taste, whereas in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when I grew up, there was a very wonderful interest in foreign films; it was considered a general part of culture. I can’t tell you how often I have students in my class tell me it’s their first time seeing a subtitled film. It’s astounding. It’s sad to me that we’ve lost that bit of our culture. In the past 30 years, Americans have closed in on themselves and become less interested in what’s going on in the rest of the world. I also often complain that my students are less patient than they should be. They expect movies to deliver right away.
Q: Are these trends in consumption affecting the art form?
A: Television is a huge competition, even though it’s been around for a long time, because people like me who were snobs used to look down on it. We considered it pure entertainment or pastime. That’s just not true anymore – probably was never totally true – but certainly anyone who sees “The Sopranos” or “The Wire” or “Mad Men” knows that these are shows that are extremely well done with some of the best writing and acting in America. We never saw this coming 20 years ago.
Q: Is there a NYFF pick that you feel hasn’t gotten the praise it deserves, but will be more appreciated as time goes on?
A: Certainly “Roger and Me.” The impact of the film has gotten even greater since 1989 and launched this era of documentaries that we’re in now. For the first time in history, documentaries are a viable theatrical genre. Many filmmakers did it before him perhaps, but Michael Moore really put it all together in such a way that it had a big impact. Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” has become the symbol of the kind of movie where lots of stories are going on at the same time. Again, he didn’t invent that form, but the excellence of his film helped identify that approach. “Pulp Fiction” is another that we screened in 1994, which started the term “Tarentino-like,” an adjective people would use to describe other films. These are films that I think were greater on the cinematic level. They established a style that many filmmakers subsequently adopted.
Q: What’s the most exciting development in cinema today?
A: We’re still trying to figure out the overall impact of digital technology. Obviously it’s affected not only production, but also distribution and exhibition. What are the real opportunities of digital distribution? What does that mean for the future of the theatrical spectacle? Cinema was born as a theatrical medium. Up until 1990, that was the experience that most of us defined as watching a movie. That’s no longer necessarily how we watch movies. It’s not that we watch fewer movies, in fact we probably watch more, but we watch them at home on our iPads and phones or airplanes. So how does this affect the nature of how films are made and what kind of films are made? The advent of digital technology is the single greatest event for cinema in the last 20 years.
This interview has been edited and condensed. The New York Film Festival runs Sept. 28 — Oct. 14, and includes 17 days of world premieres, prizewinners from Cannes and Berlin, special retrospective screenings, live performances, panel discussions and more.