NYFF: Inclusion here means it's time to get serious

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Considering the glut of film fests around the world -- let alone in New York -- the New York Film Festival's devotion to the art of cinema should have made it irrelevant years ago.

But at a time when nearly every major fest is considered a place to do business first and celebrate filmmaking second, the stately event, first held in 1963, has managed to stand apart from its rivals precisely because of its cineaste tradition.

Anyone striding across the white granite expanse of the Upper West Side's Lincoln Plaza to attend Friday's opening gala presentation of Fox Searchlight's "The Darjeeling Limited" will be in the bosom of high culture: Across the street stands the Juilliard School, with the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera hovering close by.

"You've got a blue ribbon panel who decide upon the small number of films chosen here," says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which is distributing Oct. 14's closing-night film, "Persepolis." "If your film is picked, it says something special about the quality of your film, and that speaks loudly to critics around the country, that this is an important film. It speaks loudly to New York filmgoers. It speaks loudly to the Academy. And to theater owners."

Ah, the Academy. Like so many fall events, the NYFF has deemed itself an important precursor to the Oscars. Fortunately, the ever-widening awards season calendar -- and the acclaim garnered by last year's opening-night film, "The Queen" -- has helped lend some real legitimacy to that assertion.

"People know we take ourselves seriously, so if we choose a film, I expect they're going to say, 'Why is the festival behind this one?' " says NYFF program director Richard Pena, who has held that same position for the past 20 years. "I think that from our announcement to the showing of a film here to what follows, you can say we have an effect."

That effect is all the more pronounced in the case of smaller-budgeted independent films or foreign-language features, say, "Persepolis," for instance. The animated story of a young Iranian girl's life that came from a graphic novel took home a prestigious Jury Prize at May's Festival de Cannes and features voice work from actors like Catherine Deneuve.

"Hollywood shies away from the festival because it doesn't want its films to be branded 'art house,' " Bernard says. "But when it was announced that our film was closing night, the news was picked up all over the world."

Searchlight COO Nancy Utley says the media spotlight only serves to enhance the profile of a film like "Darjeeling," director Wes Anderson's latest project about three brothers locomoting across India. "The festival means free publicity, for one," Utley says. "It puts a halo of quality around the film. The festival will get us started without burning through all our marketing funds. We can conserve them for our rollout, for when the film goes wider."

The question is: How to best capitalize on such endorsements. Those who follow the so-called "smart film" circuit explain that there are basically two types of movies that play the NYFF: Those that launch soon after presentation, and those -- like "Married Life," from director Ira Sachs, which at press time was in negotiations with SPC for U.S. rights -- that might not be released theatrically until months after they screen.

"Releasing later gives a film the luxury of building on the momentum that starts in the fall, without the pressure, building organically with people who love it and talk about it," says indie veteran Bingham Ray, newly installed president of Kimmel Distribution. "It means nurturing it so the film finds its complete audience and making sure it isn't yanked off screens before it has reached its potential."

Miramax is still feeling a warm glow from "Queen," following its NYFF opening night and the subsequent Oscars it won. "It was a seminal moment in this company's history," Miramax president Daniel Battsek says. "It was wonderful for Helen (Mirren) and (director) Stephen Frears to see how this movie connected with an audience in the U.S. and to see that reaction in such a high-profile slot. It was a launching pad for the success that followed."

Battsek is back in the game again this year with Joel and Ethan Coen's violent Western "No Country for Old Men," which will serve as the festival's centerpiece. "There's skill and excellence in writing and directing throughout the film," Battsek says. There's excellent cinematography and acting. Everyone's at the top of their game."

As they'll have to be.

Pena says that there's a common theme in many of NYFF's films this year, "films where people really stare at something evil, and learn to cope with it, and sometimes defeat it," he says, pointing to such films as the Japanese legal system drama "I Just Didn't Do It" and "No Country" as standout examples; so the real battle for distributors will be making sure their films stand out and get noticed -- by audiences and Academy members alike. (Films like the highly buzzed about "Margot at the Wedding," directed by NYFF vet Noah Baumbach for Paramount Classics, clearly won't have to worry about distributor interest.)

But for the others, the NYFF is happy to assist.

"We've had a strong run the last few years with Oscar-winning films," Pena says, "so people now see that this is a terrific place to begin a campaign. The fall is -- as any distributor will tell you -- a crazy time. Any Friday, you'll see nine, 10 films being released on the same day. It's extremely competitive to get attention. And the New York Film Festival is well-placed to give a film a lot of attention, a very bright spotlight."
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