Film at Lincoln Center was founded in 1969 as a nonprofit organization intent on celebrating both American and international films. For decades, this prestigious group has furthered cinematic education and awareness via movie screenings, in-depth conversations with established and emerging filmmakers, and the New York Film Festival, traditionally held every autumn in Manhattan. Of course, 2020 was anything but a conventional year. When Covid-19 shut down the country, it didn’t spare the entertainment industry, and organizations were forced to pivot with the changing times in order to survive. Lesli Klainberg, executive director of Film at Lincoln Center, and Eugene Hernandez, director of the New York Film Festival, recently joined moderator Mara Webster, head of programming for In Creative Company, at a webinar hosted by New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT). “There has been such upheaval in our industry over this last year due to the pandemic, which has caused both distress as well as opportunities for innovation,” said Cynthia Lopez, NYWIFT executive director. “In these shifting times, as we creep toward a new version of normal, we are pleased to welcome experts like Film at Lincoln Center team to our weekly NYWIFT Talks to discuss the state of the industry and how we can harness this renewed energy to move creative projects forward.”

Fortuitous Timing
Film at Lincoln Center had a mission for 2020 that proved to be fortuitous. They wanted to grow the New York Film Festival beyond the footprint of Manhattan. “We wanted to be at Lincoln Center, of course,” said Hernandez. “But we’d also walked into 2020 with the goal of expanding into other parts of the city.” To that end, Hernandez had already been in talks with Rooftop Films, a fellow nonprofit that supports cinema while engaging with diverse communities by showcasing work in various outdoor venues. The idea was to consider al fresco festival locations. “In spring, we couldn’t have imagined that the way our festival would happen six months later would be drive-ins not in Manhattan and virtual events in parts of the country that weren’t New York City,” said Hernandez.

Close Working Ties
Partnerships like the one with Rooftop Films proved key to the survival of Film at Lincoln Center—and the same held true for other similar organizations around the country. “One thing we realized was how much we’d need to rely on our colleagues,” said Hernandez. “From day one, if we were going to get through this, it was going to be because of our relationships with folks in the field facing the same challenges.” New York organizers connected with their counterparts at the Telluride Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival. “There was a lot of collegiality and camaraderie between us,” said Klainberg. Sundance and Toronto had already been using a “more robust virtual model,” which New York readily adapted. And in thinking about how to approach the upcoming season, a lot depended on the filmmakers themselves. They had crafted and completed projects. How many would push forward for screenings? How many would choose to hold their creations back?

Lasting Change
In the end, the show went on. A festival normally attended by New Yorkers instead reached all 50 states. To “offer that content and curation” to an extended audience was extraordinary, noted Klainberg. Coordinators learned that this organization is a hub of film culture, both when it exists in the physical space and when forced to rethink its mission. “Indoor, outdoor and virtual are the three prongs of the New York Film Festival,” said Hernandez. “And that’s two more areas than it had just two years ago!” Where they go from here is the next big question. “Just a few months ago we were saying that if theaters could reopen by September, that would be great,” said Hernandez. “Now it’s the middle of May and we’re in theaters—in limited numbers, but they’re starting to reopen.” Many conversations are still happening from homes, instead of with participants all together on a stage. And as in-person events resume, talent “may not be as readily able or available to travel,” noted Klainberg. Still, no one is considering reverting to the old-world model. “I see a time when we can have a live event at Walter Reade Theater and bring in a filmmaker from another part of the world, because appearing on screen is normal now,” said Klainberg. Upcoming events will include in-depth talks with exciting and diverse panels from around the globe, not as a subsection of any festival but as an important highlighted feature. “Everything is still evolving, as we’re figuring out how to come back and sustain our organization on a virtual platform,” said Hernandez. “Thankfully, the industry has been responsive, nimble and open, because that was never a guarantee.” It could have been easy to yell “cut!” and put all movie-related matters on hold. Instead, film societies and production companies in New York and around the world adapted their business models in a matter of weeks. “This year’s New York Film Festival won’t look exactly like last year’s, which didn’t look at all like the one before it,” said Hernandez. It’s a work in progress—which makes it all the more exciting.

Flo Mitchell-Brown
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