Jockeying for space is tricky biz at NYFF

Jockeying for space is tricky biz at NYFF

NEW YORK -- The New York Film Festival is a prestigious 44-year-old institution, but despite its reputation as an apolitical event (apart from some heated arguments among the selection committee), there are a few movie industry maneuverings that can influence what films they show and when they show them.

Film Society of Lincoln Center program director and committee chair Richard Pena makes no secret of the fact that distributors pitch, lobby and cajole his group (which also includes associate programmer Kent Jones and critics Philip Lopate, John Powers and Lisa Schwarzbaum) to get their films included among the 25 or so selections. After all the winning parties are informed, inevitably a few will come back and argue for special slots. "Some say, 'Unless we're the closing-night film, we don't want to be in the festival,'" Pena says.

Other distributors even fight for rejected films, with Pena citing Sony Pictures Classics as among the most passionate. This may be attributable to its dovetailing tastes in foreign films and art house fare, which have led to 35 SPC entries in the fest over the past 15 years. Regardless, such arguments never work and all decisions are final, Pena says.

The only argument SPC co-president Tom Bernard says he makes revolves around the committee's choice for its opening-night film. His company (which has this year's centerpiece film and Spain's just-announced Oscar entry, Pedro Almodovar's "Volver") has had five of them in the past 15 years. But, he says, "A lot of the reason why someone gets the slot has to do with who's going to pay for the opening."

While Pena says "it's not as if when you pay for the party, you'll get in -- we choose the film first," he does admit that covering the bill is a factor for his nonprofit organization. "Generally films that do open the festival come with a distributor. They want to choose the festival as (an awards-season) launching pad," he says.

Because each opening film is a North American premiere, it's arguably well worth the cost of 2,000-plus Lincoln Center movie tickets and a catered Tavern on the Green after-party.

Certainly Miramax Films' decision to accept the slot for Stephen Frears' "The Queen" makes economic sense. "The alchemy created by opening the festival, taking advantage of all its publicity and reviews, then releasing it the following day in the same weekend is obviously a great benefit," president Daniel Battsek says. "It gives you the maximum amount of impact at the boxoffice."

His argument proved true this past weekend when the film scored a two-day, three-theater gross of $123,000 after its Friday NYFF opening.

Picturehouse president Bob Berney agrees. He sees only an upside for his closing-night feature, Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," a horror-filled Spanish-language fantasy set within a political context that was just named as Mexico's official Oscar entry. "It helps with critics and exhibitors around the world and positioning it in the awards season," he says.

The grand irony of the NYFF's long-term success is that, because of its prestigious reputation, not every distributor wants to be in the festival. "Major studios often think it makes their film look like an art film, which is why you see so few studio films there," Bernard says.

Pena cites a few films, including Walt Disney Co.'s "Beauty and the Beast," as examples of big-budget studio fare with a NYFF launch, but admits he's run into this art house-fare attitude a few times. He recalls hearing that Paramount Pictures pulled Robert Redford's "Ordinary People" in 1980 for that reason, but such arguments about being labeled make little sense to him. "Do people in Iowa really care?" he asks. "I'd be flattered, but I doubt it."