Organizers of the New York Film Festival, one of the signature cultural events in a city hit harder than anywhere in the world by COVID-19, say they are still exploring in-person elements for the 58th edition this fall.
Delivering some combination of live and digital experiences is still the ultimate goal, Film at Lincoln Center said, though a number of scenarios are on the table. A final decision on the format for the fest, which is set to run from September 25 to October 11, is expected this summer.
Navigating the path from here to September is a day-by-day process balancing safety protocols, logistics and buy-in from the film industry. Half of the staff of Film at Lincoln Center has been furloughed, NYFF director Eugene Hernandez noted in an interview with Deadline, and the organization has taken a severe financial hit. While parts of the country have reopened this week, New York remains in the midst of a major crisis, with thousands of residents hospitalized and the city accounting for the vast majority of the state’s 26,000-plus deaths.
Throughout its 57 years, however, the festival has persevered. In 2001, it held screenings just weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11.
“The New York Film Festival is a part of the cultural history of our city,” Hernandez said from his longtime apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, where he has been riding out the pandemic. “As an institution in New York, it has this legacy and this history. The 58th New York Film Festival will happen. We have a lot of things we have to figure out about how it will happen.”
Hernandez noted that he is on the board of Arthouse Convergence and has been in active conversations with its members, who are stakeholders in exhibition trying to determine how and when theatrical moviegoing can return. While major studios and exhibitors are also having those deliberations, the talks have a particular urgency in the specialty film business, which already had been on shaky footing before COVID-19. In New York alone, theatrical mainstays like the Lincoln Plaza and the Landmark Sunshine have shuttered due to rising rents and pressure on the theatrical window.
Along with the update on their outlook for fall, the organization also unveiled a revamped programming structure and new selection committee and advisory roles. Dennis Lim, the festival’s programming director, said the changes were being contemplated before COVID-19. “We believe that our new template is one we can adapt for this uncertain year,” he said.
In an interview with Deadline, Lim said he and Hernandez, who were both appointed to their current roles in February, “both agreed that the festival was in need of some streamlining.” The 2011 expansion of the film arm of Lincoln Center added screens and resources, he said, but “that expansion resulted in a larger festival that wasn’t always so easy to navigate, especially for people who don’t know us.”
Unlike the dilemmas for other festivals, which have a dual function as commercial marketplaces, the considerations for New York are more about its ability to function as a meeting ground for world cinephiles. Since its inception in 1963, it has been called a “festival of festivals.” Last year’s edition kicked off with the world premiere of The Irishman, a major awards-season contender, but it also featured Parasite and Marriage Story, which premiered elsewhere first.
Lim said quality work is still available to the fest despite the impact of COVID-19 dramatically altering the usual dynamic of the festival circuit. “We still think it’s possible” to program a strong slate, Lim said. “There are tons of films that have been completed and have had their plans disrupted. These films are looking not only to us but to other festivals that will hopefully be up and running in the fall.” Telluride, Toronto and Venice, the trio held just prior to New York and a crucial stretch of the annual film calendar, are all considering their options. Cannes had to push back from its usual May dates but has talked of mounting some reduced version in the second half of the year.
NYFF’s offerings will be concentrated into five sections: Main Slate, Currents, Spotlight, Revivals, and Talks. The Main Slate selection committee has been expanded to five members. The festival is also bringing new voices into its overall curatorial team, which will now, with the goal of expanding and diversifying our reach, consist of Film at Lincoln Center programming staff and an international roster of programmers and advisors.
“Our goal in revising the festival’s structure was to clarify and strengthen the identity of this venerable event while also making room for discovery and surprise. We began the work of rethinking the festival before this public health crisis, and we believe that our new template is one we can adapt for this uncertain year,” Lim said in a press release. “Our programming exists to champion the films we believe in and to bring those films to discerning audiences in New York City and beyond. The current situation compels us to think more deeply and imaginatively about what that can mean. I’m excited and grateful to be working with this exceptional team of programmers and advisors to put together a lineup we can share with our audiences this fall.”
Hernandez emphasized that the team behind the festival is mindful of the larger picture of upheaval and suffering unfolding across the city and readily acknowledges that the 2020 edition of NYFF will undoubtedly be different. “Movie theaters are going to be different this fall,” he said. “Film festivals are going to be different this fall. New York City is going to be in the wake of and in the middle of an ongoing crisis.”
The financial support structure for NYFF is largely intact, he added. Film at Lincoln Center has individual members and donors as well as corporate sponsors. Initial conversations with studios, specialty distributors and others who annually take part in the festival have revealed a stronger appetite than ever. “Everyone is sticking with us, thankfully, and hanging in there right now,” he said.
The Main Slate, long the core of the festival, functions as a “year-in-review” showcase and features titles from Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and elsewhere in addition to some world premieres. Along with Hernandez and Lim, the selection committee for the Main Slate section will include Florence Almozini, K. Austin Collins and Rachel Rosen.
Currents, a new section designed to complement The Main Slate, emphasizes new forms and voices. Along with Lim, the selection committee will include Almozini, Aily Nash, and Tyler Wilson.
Spotlight, another new section programmed by Lim and Hernandez, will be reserved for sneak previews, gala events, screenings with live or performance elements, guest-curated selections and other special evenings.
Revivals showcases restorations, rarities and titles picked by the festival’s filmmakers. Programming this section will be Almozini and Dan Sullivan.
Talks supplements screenings with free and ticketed panel discussions and conversations. Hernandez will program it along with Devika Girish, and Madeline Whittle.
In unveiling the new structure, organizers said documentaries will now be represented throughout the festival as opposed to having a dedicated section. Shorts programming will largely exist within Currents, as will the experimental work and artists’ films previously shown in the Projections section.
The festival said it has appointed a new team of five advisors: Violeta Bava, Michelle Carey, Leo Goldsmith, Rachael Rakes, and Gina Telaroli.