The 58th edition of the New York Film Festival is unlike any of the previous 57 iterations. Coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings forced the festival’s organizers to overhaul their usual approach to highlighting the best of cinema. Gone are the red carpets, glitzy parties, and celebrity-packed premieres at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, a casualty of a global pandemic that has simultaneously upended awards season and forced many studios to reconsider their plans. In their place is a combination of virtual screenings, drive-in events and online talks.
Despite the challenges facing the indie film space, this year’s New York Film Festival, which kicked off on Sept. 17 and runs through Oct. 11, has assembled an impressive lineup of auteur-driven fare. The list of films includes new works from Sofia Coppola (“On the Rocks”), Azazel Jacobs (“French Exit”), Hong Sangsoo (“The Woman Who Ran”) and Chloe Zhao (“French Exit”). As the festival passes its midpoint, Variety spoke with New York Film Festival director Eugene Hernandez and programming director Dennis Lim about throwing out the playbook while moving forward with their annual celebration of moviemaking in the COVID-19 era.
How is the New York Film Festival moving forward during coronavirus?
Hernandez: The short answer is one step at a time. This spring we spent a lot of time weighing how we’d present the festival this year. There was a lot of uncertainty. We didn’t know if and when we’d be able to screen things in theaters or what opportunities there might be to present films.
We set a goal early on. We were determined to find a way to have a festival this year even if it was going to look really different. It required lots of reimagining about what would be appropriate and what would be safe. At the same time, Dennis and I are new to these roles [both men are festival veterans who were promoted this year], and one of the things we talked about was that we wanted to change some things about the festival. That was more about how it was organized than the programmatic mission. It was really about trying to find ways to simplify and focus the festival. In the midst of the pandemic and everything else happening in our city, we had to rethink how the festival would be experienced.
Lim: The process of actually programming the festival didn’t change at all. That was the only constant. Everything else was completely different. Nothing was the same.
What were some of the larger changes that you wanted to implement?
Lim: The main thing Eugene and I talked about was strengthening the identify of a festival that is 50 years old. This is a festival that has a very clearly defined mission and a very clearly defined place in the film culture of New York. It doesn’t do competitions. It isn’t overly obsessed with premieres. We’re not a survey of an entire year in cinema. We don’t just focus on Oscar films. We wanted to preserve our identity by streamlining it. We announced a new programming structure that allowed us to be smaller than we have been in recent years. It’s maybe 20 to 25 percent smaller than last year. We had expanded in ways that allowed too many films to get lost in the shuffle. We’re not the kind of festival where the point is to have 300 or 400 films that people can happily get lost in. There are benefits to that kind of structure, but that’s not the New York Film Festival.
Hernandez: We wanted to reconnect the festival to New York and bring new audiences to it. The pandemic gave us the mandate and inspiration to do that.
New York has endured some of the worst of COVID-19. What’s it like to host the festival in the wake of all the suffering that people in this city have gone through?
Hernandez: As longtime New Yorkers, all of us know the harddships the city has experienced. Everything that’s happened this year — the pandemic, the social uprising, the financial crisis — have hit us as an organization and as residents of this city and this nation. We’re very mindful of the environment in which the festival will be happening.
Lim: Movie theaters remain closed in New York. I think in the past few months we’ve felt their absence really profoundly. It’s been an isolating time for a lot of people. The communal experience is at the very heart of what cinema offers. Hopefully, we can replicate that even in a year where people are experiencing films in their own homes. We still want to create a climate of coming together to discuss what we’ve seen. We’re having live talks throughout, which allows people to participate in a conversation. We’re showing films on drive-ins as a way for for people to gather safely and see films on the big screen.
I know that many of the films were shot a year ago or more, but does the slate reflect the broader conversation taking place in the country around racial injustice and civil rights?
Lim: It’s true that most of the films predate or were conceived before this year, but a lot of what’s happened recently in terms of the discussions and activism around systemic racism, those aren’t new. They’ve been in the air.
Steve McQueen, who directed the Small Axe films that we are screening this year, gave me a call right after George Floyd’s death and asked if we would take a look at what he’d made. I don’t think they had a festival plan for the films. They were just working to finish them for the BBC for a November airdate, but Steve wanted them to be seen in a different forum. He felt that the resonated in a different light in the wake of Floyd’s murder. They’re set in London decades ago, but they deal with issues of racism and social justice in a way that speaks to today. So we made “Lovers Rock” the opening night film and screened two other films from the cycle.
Across every single section of the festival we remained mindful of representing Black lives on screen. Every one has directors of color. “The Inheritance” deals with a Black liberation group in Philadelphia that was targeted by the police, Sam Pollard’s “MLK/FBI” looks at how the Civil Rights leader was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. There’s a lot of films that speak to this moment.
Were studios wary of moving forward with a festival release when so many cinemas are closed due to COVID-19?
Hernandez: In some cases they were. There were films that we would normally consider that couldn’t finish in time because coronavirus delays. Other films have looked at the landscape and decided to wait until 2021. The disruption of cinemas has been a major factor in their decision-making. On the other hand, there were plenty of really strong films to highlight. There were lots of distributors and filmmakers who decided to release the film this year so they could participate in a broader conversation. They wanted to get their work out into the world right now.
Are you worried about the future of arthouse cinemas and indie films given the financial crisis brought about by the pandemic?
Hernandez: I sit on a working advisory group for the Arthouse Convergence, which is a coalition of cinemas from around the country. They typically gather for annual conventions and a lot of our members are mom and pop theaters. From sitting in that chair and the meetings I’ve been having in that capacity, I can tell you there’s a tremendous degree of uncertainty, fragility and struggle. That extends to many smaller, local film festivals. They are in jeopardy. Some are happening, some are not. There’s a tremendous amount of instability and insecurity. I can’t speak to it from a sense of production and distribution of films. That’s not my world.
Lim: There is a great deal of anxiety, but it’s not limited to filmmaking. It’s pretty widespread across industries. Arthouse cinemas have always been imperiled. They are always under threat. But I don’t think indie film is going to die out. People will figure out ways to adapt.