Behind the Screens: Film Society of Lincoln Center Programmer Florence Almozini

Florence Almozini.
Film Society of Lincoln Center Senior Programmer Florence Almozini. Photo via Getty

Welcome to “Behind the Screens” a new feature where we interview the people who make the decisions about what the most influential arthouse and indie theaters in New York and beyond put on their screens. Along the way, we’ll uncover some of the challenges, thrills, and secrets of the trade and, hopefully, get a sense of what gives the American cinematic landscape its unique identity.

Film festivals tend to preach to the already converted. Even if festival-goers aren’t entirely familiar with the given focus, organizers don’t generally have to convince the audience that seeing a bunch of movies in the same place in a short period of time is a worthwhile way to spend a weekend. “My First Film Festival,” running from Thursday to Sunday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is a notable exception. With a focus on accessibility and diversity, Senior Programmer Florence Almozini has assembled an impressive lineup, ranging from a sneak preview of the big-budget CG animated Trolls to repertory screenings of classics like My Neighbor Totoro, The Dark Crystal, and Modern Times to new international films like Lamb, the Ethiopian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and Miss Impossible, a French coming-of-age comedy. We spoke with Ms. Almozini to get an idea of her process, motivations, and ambitions for the festival.

Observer: The first thing that struck me about “My First Film Festival” was the title. The fact that it isn’t “Children’s Film Festival” or “Film Fest for Kids” seems very purposeful. Can you talk a little about what that title means to you?

Florence Almozini: We wanted to bring in a new audience, more like family or children. But we don’t want to eliminate the teens or people who might be older who’ve never really experienced a film festival. And you have to find a balance that makes it more fun for parents because it’s like, “Oh God, another thing on a Sunday morning?” That balance allows us to mix the kind of programs we can show. We can do a short film program, we can do stuff for really small kids, we can bring back old classics that parents have seen in the ‘80s. It’s just like a little bit of everything, and I think it’s better packaged like this.

Observer: Is the inclusion of movies like The Dark Crystal and Totoro, as well as the sneak preview of Trolls, a way to get the big headlines and lure people in so that they can see some of these new films that no one has seen before?

FA: Absolutely. We’re in a really good position here because we have a lot of contact with studios. We’re well established, so it’s relatively easy to get sneak previews for a bigger film, and we’re really excited to show Trolls, which you know is going to get you some attention. But the people who usually come to the Film Society are not going to be as excited to see Trolls. They might be more interested in something like Where the Wild Things Are (the 2009 Spike Jonze-helmed adaptation of the classic Maurice Sendak book), so they are not going to be eliminated from the experience. When you program, you really have to think about how you’re getting an audience. It’d be nice to just program what is in your head, but you have to think about marketing and press because there’s nothing sadder than watching Nausicaa (the 1984 Hayao Miyazaki-directed anime classic) by yourself. I mean, I watch things alone all the time, but on the big screen, for Nausicaa, you just want people with you.

Observer: How did the idea for the festival came about? Was it a matter of looking at your audience in a general sense and deciding you needed to bring in younger people?

FA: A little bit. Here, we started recently, not just thanks to me, to work directly with the schools. What’s interesting is to make the leap from just working with schools to getting those kids to come [on their own], so yes, if you think of the future, you do want to get a new generation of people who will want to see movies all the time, not just at a film festival. And I was thinking that the best approach would be to launch a small festival because you get more attention. It’s more fun. It’s like, “Oh! I get a little badge! I get a little bag with 3D glasses!” And we’re going to do more things like this. We’ve started already, but it’s a little difficult to change what people think the Film Society is.

Observer: Right. That it’s the place where you see Godard and nothing else.  

FA: (laughs) Yes, exactly. And we do a lot of things, but sometimes people just believe this is a very serious place where I’m going to see Godard and to change this, you can change the programming very easily, but to change the mentality, that takes a little bit longer. And I want kids to see good movies. I grew up in Europe and I think there are a lot more initiatives for kids and teenagers in school and outside of school with the cinema. I know my French nephew is very young, and he’s already seen some of [Spanish auteur} Manoel de Oliveira’s films. It’s like, “You’ve seen Aniki-Bóbó?” (de Oliviera’s 1942 debut)Yeah, I saw it at the local arthouse and all the kids were going.” It’s crazy. I mean, yes, it’s a great movie for kids. But, like, here, if I show Aniki-Bobo in the context of Manoel de Oliveira, no children would come.

Observer: It also sounds to me that you’re combating the idea that you can just look at your iPad and watch a thousand movies at a time, rather than go to the theater. How do you convince kids that coming to Film Society is a more worthwhile experience?

FA: It’s just more fun to see it with your friends or with your family. It’s not just the popcorn. I’m actually very anti-popcorn. But it’s more like the excitement of going, sitting down, watching a preview and you get excited about all the stuff coming up. It’s a collective experience. So, if you start when you’re young, it stays in you. You’re always going to feel that a movie is something special. I think children are very smart and they get it. They just need to be brought to a certain environment.

Observer: When you’re starting to put together the film festival, do you start out with a list of movies already that you’re hoping to get or do you just send a call out to distributors and say, “What have you got for me?” 

FA: Oh, I should have thought of that. (laughs) No, because I program here all year round and I watch so many movies for everything from New Directors/New Films, Rendezvous with French Cinema, New York Film Festival, I always have tons of ideas in my mind. When I see a movie, I think what it’s right for, but, for many films, I like it a lot, but I don’t really know how to make it work, how to find the right audience for it. So I have a backlog of movies and I was thinking, “This could totally work!” I did a lot of that. And then you have to get the film.

Observer: So you choose the film first and then investigate the possibility of screening it. 

FA: Yeah, and then you find out if you can get the director, if the timing’s working. Then, once I’ve got a few films already lined up and I know we’re going to get some big movies, then I try to find a balance because I don’t want just want obscure French films and I don’t just want the new Pixar. It’s also hard because, at a certain age, boys don’t want to see girls stuff. It’s extremely annoying. I think girls are more open-minded in general, but there’s a specific age where it’s really, really hard to get boys to relate to girls’ stories, but once they see [the movie], they don’t think about it. But, like Kiki’s Delivery Service. If there’s a girl’s name in the title, it’s like, “Oh no!”

Observer: Are you also counting on the idea that kids have seen movies like Dark Crystal or Totoro before, but are going to be excited to see it in the cinema for the first time or is the idea to get them to see the movie for the first time? 

FA: I think it’s a mix. Kids love what they already know, so they might want to come back and see Totoro or Dark Crystal. But when they’re here, we can say, “Hey, now we’re playing Modern Times. Have you seen a Charlie Chaplin movie before?” And it’s easier. Plus, all kids love Buster Keaton.

Observer: I also see you’re going to do introductions for each movie. Obviously, there’ll be a different approach to them than the ones at New York Film Festival, but what is that approach?

FA: Right, it’s slightly different from introducing Manchester By The Sea (the critically acclaimed Kenneth Lonnergan drama that recently screened at NYFF)Depending on if we have a director and we already have some guests lined up, I think it’s important to present the film for the audience so kids understand that, yeah, it’s black and white or it’s silent or this was made earlier, and maybe you haven’t seen Nausicaa, but maybe you saw Totoro when you were younger.

Observer: In terms of sponsorships, we always hear “Thank you for the support from these places,” but how does that actually work? Is the sponsorship purely financial or do they provide practical considerations? 

FA: That’s all year around. I don’t think there’s a specific sponsor for this festival that provides, you know, cupcakes, but maybe that’s not a bad idea. Something like Magnolia Cupcakes. So, it’s usually financial or lodging or airlines, but nothing specific.

Observer: So you basically reach out and say…

FA: Well, we have a whole team for sponsorships and they’ll reach out.

Observer: So you’ll talk to that team and tell them you want these people and ask if they can make that happen. 

FA: Exactly. And they handle the budget and all of that.

Observer: I know that you try to generally try to make most movies at most festival premieres or at least somewhat exclusive to you, but at the same time, you have pretty much every art house in the city playing Totoro on a given weekend, which is not a bad thing by any means, but it is a factor.

FA: No, no, it’s not a bad thing. It’s even cute. Also, when you have kids, you don’t really travel like you do when you’re by yourself, so you go to the Totoro that’s playing closest to you.

Observer: We talked about Trolls before. Is that the sort of thing where you looked at the slate of what was coming up and you reached out to the studio or did the studio just want to get involved with the festival? 

FA: It worked both ways because that’s a Fox film and we work with Fox a lot. And then I looked at the timing of our festival and when we had space in our calendar because we’ve got a lot of things coming up and we couldn’t get too close to the New York Film Festival.

Observer: Because everyone’s tired?

FA: (laughs) Yes, exactly. So if you’re thinking October, November, if you want a sneak preview, they usually like to do it just before it comes out, not six months before. So we have to figure out when the movie will be ready and if it works for the marketing. I watched a lot of trailers, I reached out to the studios, I went to screenings. And I thought [Trolls] is what worked best for this.

Observer: We’ve talked a lot about some of the bigger movies in the festival, but then there are smaller movies like Miss Impossible or Lamb. Are those the movies you’re most excited to show off to people? 

FA: Of course. I was thinking, as I said, I want to reach out to different groups of ages and have a lot of diversity. Lamb is a beautiful film and I think it’s a movie that kids can relate to. It shows a completely different side of life, a completely different environment. And when you grow up in New York and see something like this and you can talk to the director about, like, “Where was this shot?” To be able to experience things like that really opens up your mind. It’s not for young, young kids, I’m thinking 10 and up would be fine. With their parents, maybe. We’re also showing a really, really great, fresh French film called Girls in the Middle Ages and it’s a bunch of kids acting as if they were living in the Middle Ages and they don’t understand that women don’t get anything. But then the grandfather comes and explains, “No, it wasn’t truly like this in the Middle Ages, but Joan of Arc did this,” and it shows the role of women through the ages, but it’s acted by kids and it’s so cute.

Observer: It sounds like something out of the New Wave.

FA: Yes, and Michael Honore is in it, a great French actor, and I was really surprised. I thought it was very experimental. It could work for New Directors/New Films, yeah, but I want the same age of the kids playing in the film to see this because it’s really amazing.

Observer: Is there also a fear that if you put it in something like New Directors/New Films, which is known for being so edgy and cool, that people might look down on it and think, “Ugh, a kids movie?”

FA: No, I think people would see it. But I really want younger people to relate to something like this. Because it starts with boys playing and excluding the girls. It’s really good because girls are going to embrace it and boys are going to see a different story. And it’s in French, but it’s not too heavy on the language. You have to think about that, too. Like, when movies are not dubbed. Who can read fast enough? I also want people to think about this, like, all animation films are always dubbed. Even Miyazaki, you can see dubbed or subtitled. Obviously, like, the little ones are not going to read it, but if you don’t get used to this when you’re younger…

Observer: It’s a skill, like anything else. 

FA: It’s, like, “I don’t want to see foreign films because I don’t want to read.”

Observer: As you’re planning the actual days of the schedule, is there any sort of thought about having a very accessible movie in the morning and then the kids will love that movie so much that they’ll say, “I want to see another one” and maybe then you can put in the deeper cuts?

FA: Yeah, but you start with the younger age, usually, and then you go older and older through the day. Until you get to, like, Where the Wild Things Are, which the small kids would be scared of. And in the mornings, we have some free screenings with some schools that are coming in and filling the theater with diverse communities. And the directors love this because they get to meet a lot of people.

Observer: Looking ahead to next year and the years to come, do you hope to expand the festival or do you think this is the perfect size for what you’re looking to accomplish?

FA: I want to try it like this to start. I want to make sure it’s successful and I want to make sure we can handle everything properly. I think it could grow. Maybe not in the next year or two, but I think it has potential to grow.

Observer: Are there any movies, older or new, that you really wanted to have in the festival but you weren’t able to for rights or technical issues? 

FA: No. There were some movies I really hesitated on in putting them there, but it’s also because I was watching a lot of movies for the French film festival at the same time so it was too many French films and it was going to be like, “My First French Film Festival,” so I stopped myself from adding a few films that I really liked because it was just too much French and I need other things. But it’s because of the timing and because I was working on both at the same time.

Observer: Last question. What would need to happen for you to decide this was a successful festival?

FA: I think it would come from the reaction of the children coming here. Sometimes it’s just one person talking to you. But I know when we showed silent films on Father’s Day, a few kids came to talk to me after Battle of the Century (a 1927 Laurel and Hardy comedy) and they loved it. This made it work for me.

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  Behind the Screens: Film Society of Lincoln Center Programmer Florence Almozini