N.Y. Film Festival Fusty and Feisty at Crossroads

On Saturday, August 10, the selection committee for the 2002 New York Film Festival-composed of Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Peña, associate program director Kent Jones, New York Times film columnist and City Search critic Dave Kehr, Newsday film critic John Anderson and Los Angeles Times film critic Manohla Dargis-finished deliberating over the more than 1,500 entries for the festival’s 40th-anniversary program. They produced a list of 25 features, which will be shown over the course of the 17-day festival beginning on Sept. 27.

The committee has already announced its gala opening-night pick, Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt , starring Jack Nicholson, and its closing film, Pedro Almodóvar’s newest, Talk to Her. And though the entire slate is scheduled to be announced by Monday, Aug. 19, sources close to the situation said that Magnolia director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love , starring Adam Sandler, will be the festival’s centerpiece film. Other selections include Paul Schrader’s film about the secret sordid life of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane, Auto Focus ; Trouble Every Day director Claire Denis’ Vendredi Soir ; Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Son ; Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, which was shot in one 90-minute take in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum; Aki Kaurismäki’s Man Without a Past ; Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness ; Blind Spot , a documentary about Hitler’s secretary; and Divine Intervention , a film by Palestinian director Elia Suleiman.

With the possible exception of Mr. Anderson’s picture, these aren’t exactly films that will one day blow the doors off the Loews multiplex in Paramus, N.J. But the larger question is, how many of these pictures will resonate beyond the wood-paneled doors of the Walter Reade Theater once they unspool for festival audiences there? The New York Film Festival’s principals have long enjoyed a reputation for being aloof and insular, but increasingly there is a notion among film-industry denizens that the committee’s stubborn resistance to the changing film industry and popular tastes has snuffed out much of the cultural heat that the festival once radiated.

These observers recall that the festival premiered Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice in 1969, Last Tango in Paris in 1972 and The Big Chill in 1983. And they say they won’t soon forget the giddy revelations that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction served up in 1994. The screening of Mr. Tarantino’s film wasn’t even a world premiere (it had debuted months before at Cannes), but it was the last time that many New York film lovers-and there are no shortage of them-recall equating the film festival with a heightened level of excitement. In comparison, last year’s tepid reception for Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaum s left an already demoralized film community even more deflated.

But according to those familiar with the festival process, the selection committee is not the only reason that the New York event has lost its heat. A proliferation of competing festivals and even the reviewing habits of The New York Times have contributed to the malaise, prompting both major studios and independent distributors to avoid New York in favor of friendlier venues.

Too Cannes

“The impact of the New York Film Festival [on the film business] is negligible,” said Jeff Lipsky, head of independent distributor Lot 47 Films. Mr. Lipsky doesn’t have any entries in the New York Film Festival this year, but has shepherded films-including My Dinner with André, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and Ruby in Paradise -in past years.

According to Mr. Lipsky, a lack of true premieres has contributed to the festival’s loss of luster. “I love Jack Nicholson,” Mr. Lipsky said of the star of About Schmidt , “but you’re telling me the New York Film Festival can’t do better than to offer something that was already regaled months ago at Cannes?”

Cannes is hardly the only competition. Venice, Toronto, and San Sebastián-all of which take place in September-and the brand-new Tribeca Film Festival, which debuted last May, have made it increasingly hard to land the big premiere. Indeed, all of the aforementioned films will have premiered elsewhere by the time they’re shown at Lincoln Center. Mr. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love bowed-to good reviews-at Cannes. And Mr. Schrader’s Auto Focus will premiere in Toronto. New York won’t even get to showcase what is the first film to deal directly with events of Sept. 11. For that, look again to Toronto, where the industry will gather on Sept. 11 to remember being there last year and watch the world premiere of Jim Simpson’s feature The Guys , which is about a fire captain and the writer who helps him to eulogize the men he lost on Sept. 11.

But during a phone interview, Mr. Peña shrugged off complaints about his lineup’s resemblance to other schedules. When asked whether the fall’s lineup would include any world or American premieres, he said he didn’t “really know.”

“Happily, after 40 years, the real concentration is on film as art,” said Mr. Peña. “If people want to buy or sell a film during the festival, we’ll be happy. But that’s not our concern when we select our films.”

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Peña was unruffled by the suggestion that his committee’s sophisticated taste in films might be elitist.

“Guilty as charged,” he said. “Are there certain audiences who would not appreciate the films that we do? Sure. But there are certain audiences that eat at McDonalds every day.”

Even so, some familiar with the festival’s history said that the festival’s organizers weren’t always such die-hard snobs. “In the days when Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice could be [shown on] opening night, there was not the kind of antipathy toward the commercial prospects that there is now,” said former New York Times film critic Janet Maslin. “If a movie looked like it was going to be popular, that didn’t sink it for the festival. I think that for good reasons they would like to avoid that kind of thing now, but it does cost them oomph.”

No Moore

“The perception is that [the New York Film Festival] has much more of an academic and scholarly slant now,” said Ms. Maslin, who added that she was perplexed by persistent speculation that Michael Moore’s documentary about gun violence, Bowling for Columbine , will not appear in the New York lineup. The film caused a sensation at Cannes, and several sources said that Mr. Moore had wanted it shown at the New York festival. But according to sources familiar with the situation, the festival’s selection committee was split on the film and decided not to accept it. Mr. Peña would not confirm that the film was not selected.

“This is a conversation piece, and an ambitious attempt to say something about American life,” Ms. Maslin of Bowling for Columbine . “I think American audiences would want to see it in a festival as much as the French …. I understand that they [the NYFF] don’t think of themselves as in the business of repeating what other people liked; they like to discover films and filmmakers who other people don’t know about. But then why are opening, closing and middle nights taken right from Cannes? It makes no sense.”

Another film that was named as a potential New York festival entry was Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Gangs of New York . A sweeping New York epic directed by Mr. Scorsese and produced by Miramax, Gangs would have seemed an obvious choice to open, or close, the festival with a bang.

Mr. Peña said that though the committee spoke to Mr. Scorsese about the film early on, a change of release dates-to December 2002-meant that the timing wouldn’t be right for a festival debut. Other sources said that the famously meticulous Mr. Scorsese, who is still at work on the picture, could never take the risk of getting reviewed by The New York Times months before he was completely ready for his debut.

“It could get torn to bits early,” said Ms. Maslin of Gangs. “It could get torn to bits later, too-but then there would be more stuff out there, and there wouldn’t be as much attention on it …. The New York Film Festival needed Gangs of New York more that Gangs of New York needed the New York Film Festival.”

Hard to Control

Mr. Peña is only the second man to run the NYFF since its 1963 inception. He was appointed programmer in 1987 after the ugly ousting of longtime head Richard Roud. Mr. Roud clashed with the Film Society administration over the direction of the festival, and his departure prompted the resignations of Time critic Richard Corliss and then-independent critic David Denby from the board.

The view from the outside is similar, albeit more charitable.

“My view of the New York Film Festival is that it has unimpeachable integrity and is one of those festivals where I don’t believe I can talk them into something,” said Michael Barker, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which this year has four films in the festival, including Auto Focus and Talk to Her.

“Our festival is a very hard institution to control,” said Mr. Peña. “Films get shown to a New York audience that isn’t necessarily friendly. The studios don’t like to lose that kind of control over how a film opens.”

Mr. Peña laughed. “Look, [the studios] understand us and we understand them.”

One of the things that studios and independents all understand is the power of The New York Times , an institution that is not formally linked to the festival but is nevertheless inextricably entwined with it, in large part because of its exhaustive critical coverage of the films that play there. While Cannes and Sundance generate buzz, the New York Film Festival produces meaty New York Times reviews by the gross-reviews that carry a lot more weight than those that run, for instance, in Le Parisien or the Toronto Sun . With few exceptions, the day after a film screens in the festival, The Times runs a review. The only films that dodge this bullet are those that open commercially within a few days of their festival premieres, since they’d be getting reviewed anyway.

For films with later release dates, a bad or lukewarm review will spread like poison, potentially killing the film’s chances at the box office. And even if the Times news is good, the news is still frequently bad, since a film opening within 90 days of its festival premiere is not guaranteed a reprinted review or prime Arts-section placement when it opens commercially.

Selection-committee member Dave Kehr, who is also a freelance Times film columnist, recalled his first year with the festival, in 1985. Among the films shown that year were Raoul Ruiz’s City of Pirates ; Manoel de Oliveira’s debut feature, The Satin Slipper; Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A Time to Live and a Time to Die ; and Jackie Chan’s Police Story .

“They all got massacred by The Times, ” said Mr. Kehr. “Which effectively meant that they were not shown again in this country for many years. So while these directors became big in Europe, nobody ever heard about them here.” Mr. Kehr paused. “That’s the kind of thing that’s in the back of your mind when you’re picking the films and you’re looking at a really great little Argentinean movie: ‘Am I doing it more harm than good?’”

Mr. Peña preferred to look at the bright side of the Times factor. “It’s just like opening on Broadway instead of having an out-of-town run,” he said.

But Mr. Lipsky saw it differently “You’re playing Russian roulette,” he said. “Because if you don’t get a money review-not a good review, a money review, because that’s what it takes to wrench New Yorkers out of their chairs and send them hurtling into multiplexes-then you’ve dug a grave for yourself.”

“It’s a problem,” said Mr. Kehr, who acknowledged that filmmakers who play in the New York festival must face the risk of seeing “your movie flame out in front of the whole East Coast media elite.”

Not that that will hurt your chances of being invited back to the New York Film Festival. Those 1985 films that crashed and burned?

Mr. de Oliveira and Mr. Hsiao-Hsien have each gone on to have six of their subsequent films screened at the NYFF. Mr. Ruiz, who’d already been in the festival for two previous films, has been back three times. On the other hand, Jackie Chan has never had another NYFF showing.

On the whole, the New York festival is notoriously loyal to its favored, frequently foreign, filmmakers. Though Mr. Peña would not reveal his full list of films, he said that only “four or five” of the 25 were American movies.

“They have their favorites, like de Oliveira and Hsiao-Hsien and a handful of others,” said Mr. Vanco of Cowboy Pictures. “And they’re going to be in [the NYFF] every time they make a movie.”

If Mr. Chan were so inclined, he might want to enter his next film-which will probably star Chris Tucker or one of the Wilson brothers-in the upstart Tribeca Film Festival, which has shown that it’s willing embrace the shiny marble face of Hollywood commercialism. In May, the Tribeca festival premiered such big, blowzy movies such as Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and About a Boy . It filled downtown’s streets with celebrities and money. Its fairs and tea parties and Star Wars screenings felt fresh and fun. At the time, sources wondered if that rebel festival’s founders-Jane Rosenthal and her Tribeca Films partner, Robert De Niro-were attempting to unseat the incumbent by making it look like a crusty dowager. (Ms. Rosenthal was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.)

Asked to comment on the Tribeca festival, Mr. Peña told The Transom that the New York Film Festival was never supposed to be about face paint and Imperial Storm Troopers, and said that he thought there was plenty of room for both events.

“I don’t know what their intentions are, because they’ve never shared them with me,” Mr. Peña said. “But I think it a little unlikely that the films and filmmakers we go after would suddenly switch. They [Tribeca] have an opportunity to carve out their own identity.”

A ‘Total Anachronism’

One of the most distinctive aspects of the New York festival’s identity is its size: 25 films over 17 days make it look Lilliputian in comparison to Cannes’ 83-movies-in-12-days schedule, and even the fledgling Tribeca festival, which reportedly screened 80 movies in May.

“We’re a total anachronism now,” said Mr. Kehr. “But that kind of big festival wouldn’t make sense in New York. What we are now is a local showcase. I hope we’re a prestigious one that still means something to people.”

For some, it does. “Talking about show business has become a national pastime, which has created more festivals, which has turned them into markets, which has really hurt the integrity of so many of them,” said Rachael Horovitz, an executive producer of About Schmidt and an executive at Revolution Studios, which produced Punch-Drunk Love. “At [the New York Film Festival,] you don’t have to fear badges and tote-bag people. [The Walter Reade Theater] is one of the best screens in New York. It’s like our own Palais.”

“The opening-night gala is easily the premiere film-industry event of the year in New York City,” said John Vanco, president of Cowboy Pictures.

And whatever critics may be saying today about the status of the New York Film Festival, it takes several years, Mr. Peña maintained, to form a true perspective about the success or failure of any particular slate of the festival’s films.

“One of the most difficult nights at the festival was in 1990,” he said. The festival opened with Joel and Ethan Coen’s Miller’s Crossing. The film got mauled by The Times and by the festival audience. It has since been reclaimed by Coen Brothers aficionados.

“Whatever we suffered that night was worth it,” said Mr. Peña, “because the future proved that our choice was a good one.”

Gotta Serve Somebody

Considering Bob Dylan’s long-standing reluctance to lend his name to a cause, it’s worth pondering just what convinced him to headline this year’s All for the Sea Benefit Concert, the annual lawn concert to benefit tiny Southampton College’s marine and environmental-science program.

The Aug. 19 event will be Mr. Dylan’s first benefit performance in several years, not to mention his only scheduled appearance in the New York metropolitan region this summer. So what’s a college of 1,500 students located in one of the Eastern Seaboard’s toniest hamlets got that puts it on a short list with Ruben (Hurricane) Carter and Bangladesh?

The answer is SFX Entertainment executive chairman Robert Sillerman.

Within the music business, Mr. Sillerman is well-known as the man who made rock promoters rich by paying a premium for such regional operations as California’s Bill Graham Presents, New England’s Don Law Company and New York’s Delsener/Slater Enterprises Inc., and cobbling them together to form SFX, the national concert behemoth he then unloaded to Clear Channel Communications for $3.3. billion in 2000.

But out at Southampton, Mr. Sillerman is just an alumnus who hasn’t forgotten his roots: He’s now the school’s chancellor, a university trustee and Southampton’s biggest benefactor, having donated in excess of $20 million.

And getting Mr. Dylan was just another way for Mr. Sillerman to be true to his school. “We did the Paul Simon and Bob Dylan tour,” Mr. Sillerman said of SFX. “We got to know Bob and Bob’s management. I spoke to his people, and he agreed to do it.”

The Marine and Environmental Sciences Program is justly proud of producing 32 Fulbright scholars in the last 25 years. Still, it’s hard to imagine that mattering much to Mr. Dylan-or to Crosby, Stills and Nash, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Tina Turner, James Taylor, Rod Stewart and the Allman Brothers, all of whom have taken turns helping out Sillerman’s favorite charity. To date, All for the Sea-a.k.a. the Concert Superstars Have to Play-has raised over $6 million for the program.

Though Mr. Sillerman said that Mr. Dylan “may get a bad rap” when it comes to charity appearances, he also told The Transom that “we’re never so presumptuous as to ask people to play for free.” Indeed, in 12 years the only performer to donate his services to All for the Sea has been Jimmy Buffett, who did it twice. The rest of the time, performers are paid out of the concert receipts-the top tickets are $1,000, the cheap seats $50-or by corporate underwriters.

Still, Mr. Sillerman offered that Mr. Dylan “made some concessions to us,” although he declined to be specific. It’s not likely Mr. Dylan would have done that if Mr. Sillerman hadn’t promoted his 30-date tour with Mr. Simon three summers ago. That tour grossed over $30.6 million, according to the concert-industry trade journal Pollstar . Mr. Simon showed his gratitude last summer when he headlined the Southampton show.

-Fred Goodman