New York Film Fest Director Richard Pena on 50th Edition, Decision to Step Down (Video)

This week, I stopped by New York's famed Lincoln Center to meet with Richard Pena, who has run its New York Film Festival for the past 25 years and will be stepping down from his post after the fest's 50 edition, which will run from Friday, Sept. 28, through Sunday, Oct. 14. (Video of our half-hour chat can be seen at the top of this post.)

Pena, 59, grew up in New York and first attended the NYFF at age 12. His interest in cinema had already been piqued by screenings of classic movies on television and books about film. But he recalls his trip to the fest to see Erich von Stroheim's The Wedding March (1928) as "a transformative experience" that immensely encouraged his pursuit of film study and sparked a lifelong love of the fest itself.

Pena eventually went to Harvard, but it was in the countries of Latin America, throughout which he traveled between his junior and senior years, that he realized that he wanted to wind up in a career that revolved around film. He wound up writing his senior thesis on Brazilian and Argentinian cinema, and then headed to M.I.T. to pursue a masters in film. When he graduated in 1978, he learned that the University of California at Berkeley was seeking a visiting lecturer to teach about Latin American cinema, applied for the position and wound up holding it for the next two years, before he decided to head back east to teach at the College of Staten Island.

Then, in 1980, he was hired to become the assistant director at the Film Center at the Chicago Art Institute, but was almost immediately promoted to become the director when that position opened, and served in that capacity for the next eight years. His innovative work in Chicago, and an impressive paper that he delivered in New York, caught the eye of Joanne Koch, who was the executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and who eventually convinced him to come back to New York.

When Koch initially reached out to Pena, she was seeking someone exclusively to coordinate programming at FSLC's then-new Walter Reade Theatre, not to become involved with the New York Film Festival, with which he told her he hoped to play a role. But, by the time he got to New York, FSLC's relations with Richard Roud, who had overseen the fest for its first 25 years (the first six of them with Amos Vogel), had soured and he had been let go, creating a vacancy that FSLC decided to fill with him. He laughs today, "I don't think I ever imagined I'd stay 25 years."

Founded in 1962, the NYFF is only the second major U.S. film festival -- the San Francisco International Film Festival was started in 1957 -- and takes place in the media and cultural capital of America. Pena confesses that he felt no small amount of tredipdation when he became its director. "The New York Film Festival was an institution I worshipped," he says. "It was actually the institution that taught me more about film than any other person or any other thing. The idea that I was now in some sort of supervisory capacity at that festival filled me with dread."

Pena eased into his NYFF tenure, electing to retain many of the things that had made it special to him as a festivalgoer. For one thing, he kept it small; it is and always has been a carefully curated fest with only 25-30 films in its main slate, chosen these days by Pena and a small selection committee. (Pena explains, "By having a small number of films, you shine a very bright spotlight on that number of films and really help them more.") Also, it does not and never has awarded prizes to films or filmmakers. ("I've never really liked competitive festivals," he says. "Those kinds of competitions poison the atmosphere a little bit.") Furthermore, the NYFF, unlike the other major fests, has never insisted upon having a film's first screening. (He chuckles, "I think of it a little bit like a Broadway show -- Broadway shows often have road tours, and they get shown in Hartford and Philadelphia, but it doesn't really happen 'til it gets to Broadway. We're Broadway.")

But make no mistake about it: Pena has left his own stamp on the NYFF in a number of ways. To cite just two: On his watch, there has been a massive expansion of the FSLC's real estate holdings (what started as one screen in one venue has grown to several venues that can operate five screens simultaneously) and the NYFF's programming content (what started as a Euro-centric fest has grown into one that is much "more broadly international," particularly in its inclusion of great works from up-and-coming Latin American and Asian filmmakers).

Moreover, the fest has had a large number of triumphant opening night screenings (including Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother, Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, and David Fincher's The Social Network), which are massively important to Lincoln Center donors and precede the biggest film party of the year in New York (the opening night party at the Harvard Club). Pena believes that this year's opener, Ang Lee's Life of Pi, will be regarded in that same class of films.

So why, as a happy and healthy man, has he decided to step down from his dream job? (The news was first announced before last year's NYFF closing night screening of Payne's The Descendants.) He says, "Basically, I feel that 25 years is a very good run at a major cultural institution, and I think it's healthy for the cultural insitution -- and also, I think, for me -- to take on some change. New eyes, new tastes, new vision -- I think all of that is good. It's nice to be leaving a little bit on a high -- things are going very well -- as opposed to when people want you out. And, for me, I'd like to leave at a time when I am young enough that I can try other things."

Two film critics will try to fill Pena's large shoes: Kent Jones, whom Pena hired to work at FSLC in 1997, will become the NYFF's director of programming, and academic Robert Koehler will become the year-round director the FSLC. Pena, meanwhile, tells me that he will continue to teach film at Columbia University (at which he founded the M.A. program in film studies), just as he has since 1989, and also hopes to also teach aboard and do other "things that I've always wanted to do but just could never do while having the Lincoln Center job."

Undoubtedly, he will continue to attend the NYFF each year, just as he has for the last 47 years. If it remains even half as good as it has been under his watch, film lovers the world over should consider themselves very lucky.