New York Film Festival Salutes Programming Director Richard Peña in Warm Gala Tribute

Richard Pena NYFF - H 2012
Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Richard Pena NYFF - H 2012

The outgoing director of the festival was lauded by friends and filmmakers, one of whom said, "he probably saved my life."

After two and a half decades of offering his stage to celebrate filmmakers and actors, introducing and displaying their work and facilitating discussions where it could be explained, the spotlight at Lincoln Center finally belonged to Richard Peña.

The outgoing programming director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and head of the selection committee for the New York Film Fest, who steps down after this, his 25th year running the elite international showcase, was saluted in a warm tribute program at Alice Tulley Hall. Hosted by Michael Moore, who joked that a humble Peña was probably the only one in the room that didn't want to be there, the evening brought back some of the NYFF chief's collaborators, selection committee members, and employees to give testimonial of their great appreciation for his quarter century stewardship.

Beginning with a video featuring prominent directors, such as Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach, Todd Solandz and Oliver Assayas, it was noted time and time again the intensity of Peña's passion for films of all kinds; Scorsese gave him credit for bringing South American and Asian cinema to what was a very Euro-centric festival, while Baumbach remembered Peña introducing him to an old silent Chinese film, and the joy that it brought the cine-file director.

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Assayas, for his part, said that Peña "probably saved my life" by giving his film Cold Water, which had not been well-recieved in his native France, a second platform, which would ultimately turn it into a hit and launch his career. Moore also recounted how Peña had a profound impact on his career: the festival's selection of his first documentary, Roger & Me, which would be bought out of the event and put the Michigan native on his way to being the most lucrative documentarian of all time.

Alternating between videos and live speeches, Film Society employees and board members joked about Peña's messy office, a labrynthian den of stacked books and films; his love of Chinese takeout food; and the long hours his selection committee would sit through, whittling 1,000 films down to a 28-picture slate. They credited him with taking risks -- there were smash hit opening nights, such as the Pulp Fiction premiere that so shocked a man that he fainted, as well as miserable ones, such as the mass exodus during Miller's Crossing -- and providing a forum for controversy, even when the politics of certain films didn't please the corporate board of directors.

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The festival director was also praised for his willingness to do the dirty work -- Moore said that he was speechless when he saw Peña cleaning theaters after screenings, even scraping up Junior Mints from the floor -- and his kindness, which extended to offering to babysit employees' children so they could get out of the house and see a screening at night.

Most of all, friends and colleagues reflected on his deep, abiding love for film, which started as a 12-year old living in New York City and blossomed through attending the NYFFs of his youth and then while he studied Latin American cinema at Harvard. During a Q&A session with Moore -- Peña was welcomed to the stage by his daughter, who noted that having a cinephile for a father meant that she showed Psycho at her sixth grade birthday party -- Peña described his odyssey through South America during an off-year from his studies, as he embraced Brazillian film and help bring its greatest directors to American prominence.

Professing his confidence in the future of movie-making, even in the face of disappearing film stock and shifts in the industry, Peña said he was looking forward to new opportunities, though he'd miss his NYFF family. He largely declined to give a final speech; perhaps he felt it would be too difficult, but more likely, he just wanted to get home to watch some films.