MoMA's Chief Film Curator on Contenders Selection Process, Future Areas of Focus

Mike Pont/WireImage

Rajendra Roy explains what goes into the annual awards-season screening series and how he plans to broaden the scope of the New York-based department, which celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2015.

The Museum of Modern Art's film department celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2015, and as the New York-based collection moves into 2016, chief film curator Rajendra Roy says the department hopes to have a larger footprint internationally and plans to highlight important below-the-line talent.

Roy says he wants MoMA film "to be out in the field and … be more active in unexpected places," such as having a "stake in what's happening in Asia." The department also is set to screen films showcasing the work of influential choreographer Jack Cole, starting on Jan. 20, as part of an increased commitment to recognizing crew members beyond writers and directors.

Currently, MoMA is in the middle of its annual Contenders series, consisting of mainstream, indie, foreign-language and other films made over the past 12 months that are likely to have lasting significance. As Roy explains, while a number of Oscar hopefuls typically screen as part of the series, he and other members of the department also include movies "that will never see the light of day on a campaign list."

For instance, this year's series has included Bridge of Spies, Inside Out, Room, Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, Spotlight and The Martian, as well as pics that aren't seen as likely Oscar contenders, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendour, which Roy himself says "is just a remarkable accomplishment but is on zero people's list as an Oscar contender at this point."

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Roy about the selection process for The Contenders, which runs through Jan. 15 in New York and will also have a Los Angeles screening series from Jan. 6-20, as well as his future plans for film at MoMA.

How do you determine which movies are included in The Contenders series? How much is it influenced by whether something's an Oscar hopeful or critically acclaimed, etc.?

I can safely say that we're probably the least campaign Kool-Aid affected program out there. While we really cherish our relationship with distributors, studios and producers who are bringing these films out at this time of year because of awards — and absolutely 100 percent we time this series to be now because of the avid interest around awards season — this is really our very idiosyncratic selection of what we think may stand the test of time in terms of pictures that came out in the last 12 months. On that list are absolutely things that are and will be nominated and eventually win Oscars … but there's also things that will never see the light of day on a campaign list. And that's very much reflective of the people who make the selections, so the process is: We as a department gather beginning in August and start to develop lists of films that we've seen on the festival circuit and in cinemas as part of our selection processes for our internal programs here and start to build a list of things we think would work. And unlike many of our other series, we keep spots open because we know there's things we'll see that haven't been released yet or are still coming down the pike and we include things that are rediscoveries in some cases. A big part of our mission is our collection and restored cinema, and we have a whole festival for that. We really keep ourselves open to things that emerged in the last 12 months and that we think are going to resonate, and we're happy to be a part of the awards season in as much as people come to see things that they may have missed before or are going to see for the first time because they're screening as part of The Contenders. And we're also happy to mix it up with films like Apichatpong's film Cemetery of Splendour [which screened as part of The Contenders series on Dec. 29], which we saw in Cannes and we think is just a remarkable accomplishment but is on zero people's list as an Oscar contender at this point.

How important is it, in terms of a balance, to include lesser-known films or even ones that aren't in theaters anymore compared to ones that are still playing?

One of the great things about the program is the availability of talent to participate in the screenings. We decided eight years ago when we conceived of this program that we were going to include films that were part of the awards hunt … and we were going to do Q&As with talent because this is a public series. We weren't segregating this audience to an industry-only invite list or a kind of patrons-only invite list. This was really for the fans. Obviously at MoMA, it tends to veer a little bit towards cinephilia, so these are informed audiences for the most part and people who really have a grasp, in different ways, of cinema history, so that brings a certain tone to the Q&As and the talk backs. But at the same time, these are public screenings. These are not just another junket along the way to convincing voters of various guilds that they should pay attention to these movies. It's kind of one of the last chances for filmmakers to get their movies in front of audiences, live audiences, before they have run their course if they're things that we're reviving. And I think that that's become very important for people, and actually, the talent comes out of the screenings and they're like, 'My God, that was like a real audience.' That's something that I think this time of year sometimes people forget — that's why these movies were made actually for the public and not for the industry. To get away from those cloistered experiences, I think it's been really important. We're always happy when there are members and academy voters at these screenings, but they're sitting amongst the public.

2015 was the 80th anniversary of film at MoMA. Looking forward, what are your plans for the future or things you want to accomplish in terms of film at MoMA in the immediate future?

We chose to celebrate our 80th not by some grand historical look back at all of the wonderful things we've done but rather highlight things that are part of our regular beat or part of our mainstay mission-driven program here to make the case that we're committed. MoMA is a mainstay. It's one of the original art house experiences in New York and in the U.S., so demonstrating that commitment was important to us and also the idea of discovery, which is baked into what MoMA film has always tried to achieve, not only safeguarding history but also an opportunity for discovery … . While we're committed to history, committed to preservation, we want to be turned on by the next great directors as well, and if we can have them here to screen their films first, that's equally important to us as being able to show a pristine print of a … film that's also a mainstay of our collection. And maybe as a brand-new direction for us in a way — although we've had a great international presence here at MoMA over the years — is to kind of be more present out in the field, and I think the hiring of La Frances Hui earlier this fall is an indication on our part that not only do we want to invite great cinema from Asia, for example, but we want to be out in the field, and we want to be more active in unexpected places … . We want to have a stake in what's happening in Asia as well as Europe … that's something to expect from us, broadening our footprint of where we're present and more active.

In terms of screening series, are there specific directors or genres or some other focus that you'd like to explore?

One of the things I've been talking about recently — and it's going to be very visible soon — is our commitment to below-the-line talent in the context of acknowledging that film is a collaborative artform … . Yes, writers and directors are essential and have really propelled the artform forward, but the artform wouldn't exist without great talent and expertise in various fields. That extends way beyond the rare few that are brilliant self-contained writer-directors. So, in late January, for example, we're honoring Jack Cole, who was one of the most influential choreographers on stage first and then in cinema, who's influenced Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, Bob Fosse and brought to the screen really iconic scenes of cinema [Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, for example]. As a choreographer, [he] maybe hasn't been celebrated to the same extent as some of the directors he may have collaborated with have been, but the idea that any of those images would exist without his input and his direct artistic contribution is just false. So I think that would be an area of emphasis not just on choreography but cinematography as well. We're really looking to expand what a critical investigation of a cinematic artist would involve or who those artists might actually be. So it's not only writers, directors, it's not only actors, it's choreographers, cinematographers and a lot of other below-the-line talent that wouldn't normally get the kind of recognition that they certainly have earned.