Everything Filmmakers & Fans Need to Know About the New York Film Festival

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Photo Source: Sean DiSerio

This year, the New York Film Festival (NYFF) returns to New York City, almost six months after the city began an extensive lockdown due to COVID-19. The festival, now in its 58th year, will offer virtual screenings through its website as well drive-in showings in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, Sept. 17–Oct. 11.

The pandemic has sent shockwaves through the film world, forcing the cancellation of both Cannes in France and Tribeca in NYC. The remaining fall festivals, including NYFF, Telluride, Toronto, and Venice, are focusing on collaborating rather than competing for attendees. Fewer films have finished production this year, leading to significant overlap. NYFF will virtually screen the NYC premiere of Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” this year. The film, which stars Frances McDormand, screened at both Toronto and Venice, where it won the Golden Lion Award.

Despite the disturbances, this year promises to be exciting for NYFF. The new festival director is Eugene Hernandez, editor of Film Comment and co-founder of IndieWire. His appointment has been described as a welcome push for inclusivity. Hernandez said that he was “honoured to usher [NYFF’s] legacy forward, and create an event that is inviting, engaging, and a home for a diverse array of artists and audiences.” This year, NYFF’s Currents section will offer the festival’s latest attempt to portray “a more complete picture of contemporary cinema with an emphasis on new and innovative forms and voices.” The Spotlight section will continue the festival’s showcase of sneak previews and special events; Hernandez has also expressed interest in using the section to address “big topics and important ideas that our society is grappling with today: voter suppression and police brutality.”

The legacy Hernandez will be continuing includes plenty of industry buzz for both indies and studio pictures. In the past three decades, NYFF (despite presenting no festival awards) has screened a number of films that had strong showings during awards season. Last year, Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” debuted in NYC at NYFF, going on to win the best picture prize at the Oscars. In 2018, NYFF’s opening film was Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favorite” and its centerpiece film was Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma.” Those films ended up taking home Oscars for best actress and director, respectively.

Read on to learn all about NYFF, including when the festival started, how to get your film a screening, and how to virtually screen films from your home this year.

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When and how did the New York Film Festival start?

In 1963, Lincoln Center’s president William Schuman created a brand new film department to promote film alongside the Center’s programs for theater, opera, and music. The film department had no permanent physical location, but organized screenings, events, lectures, symposia, and more.

For their first year, the department founded the New York Film Festival. The first film screened was Luis Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel.” The showing was in the Philharmonic Hall, later renamed Avery Fisher and now known as David Geffen Hall. The festival’s first programmer was Richard Roud, a young and internationally recognized programmer based in London. He was joined by Amos Vogel, known for founding the challenging film society Cinema 16. NYFF had an immediate impact on film culture in the country. According to American film critic Phillip Lopate, “The New York Film Festival [helped] shape the [national] discussion by setting high standards and calling attention to daring, demanding works of cinematic art year after year.”

After several years of successful film festivals and other activities, Lincoln Center was able to transform the film department into the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1969. This organization was created to be a more permanent part of Lincoln Center, screening films year-round as well as producing the NYFF. Decade by decade, the festival and the Film Society have continued to grow. In 1974, the Film Society acquired Film Comment magazine, a prominent cinema journal. In 1991, the Film Society opened the Walter Reade theater in the Lincoln Center. Alice Tully Hall was added in 2009, where NYFF opened that year; 2011 saw an even more significant expansion when the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center opened. The Center has three spaces for screening films—Francesca Beale Theater, Howard Gilman Theater, and Amphitheater. For its 50th anniversary, the Film Society of Lincoln Center shortened its name to Film at Lincoln Center.

What has been NYFF’s role in the international festival landscape?

NYFF was originally created to bring international cinema culture to New York. The focus was resolutely on arthouse and experimental cinema. In 1967, famous critic Susan Sontag joined the selection committee, where she would serve for 10 years. Film Comment characterizes her selections as “austere, even severe.” That same year, the opening film was Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers,” now considered a classic of experimental film. Three films directed by Jean-Luc Godard were also on the slate for 1967. In fact, the French director would be shown for nine out of the first 10 years of the festival.

The atmosphere of the first years of the festival can be attributed to original program director Roud. “Richard was the right man in the right place in the right time,” said Sontag. “He got to know all the innovative New Wave directors and became a spokesperson for a whole new generation of young [filmmakers],” she continued. “He was an impresario for these continental filmmakers, and the films he promoted changed people’s taste in [the United States].” Filmmaker Martin Scorsese agreed, saying “Richard Roud shaped the very look of American movies, because so many filmmakers saw, and were influenced by, what he chose since 1963.... He built up a separate market for art movies around the country, and then distributors picked up the films he chose for the festival.”

Times have very much changed. Nowadays, NYFF enjoys a reputation for premieres of future film classics. Many of these pictures are from major Hollywood studios and established American filmmakers. For example, Steven Spielberg’s hotly anticipated “Lincoln” had a surprise debut at NYFF’s 50th anniversary, his first showing at the fest. The film went on to win best actor for Daniel Day-Lewis and earn the most Academy Award nominations for that year. Similarly, Scorsese’s “Hugo” had a work-in-progress screening at NYFF in 2011. Scorsese credits the festival, and Roud, for starting his career. NYFF screened the director’s “Mean Streets” in 1973. “He changed my life,” Scorsese said of Roud. However, the industry has clearly changed, as well as Scorsese. “Hugo” is an animated film distributed by Paramount, faraway from Scorsese’s early arthouse films.

Such high profile “popcorn fare” from major studios arrived at the festival about three decades ago. In 1991, NYFF famously screened an in-progress version of Disney’s animated film “Beauty and the Beast.” The screening was received with a standing ovation. The event was so well remembered, the film secured a 25th anniversary showing at NYFF in 2016. “Beauty and the Beast” ended up with a nomination for best picture at the Oscars. However, there were some grumblings behind the scenes. “We got a fair amount of flak for it at the time,” said Program Director Richard Peña. He recalled that “the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum [asked] ‘What’s next? A retrospective screening of Casablanca?’ ” Those concerns are now in the rear-view window. Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” produced by the somewhat controversial streamer Netflix, opened NYFF last year. The film went on to secure many major award nominations. 

Who selects the films that screen at NYFF?

The NYFF is produced by Film at Lincoln Center, known previously as Film Society of Lincoln Center. The large organization presents films year-round at Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side. Each year, the NYFF has a rotating programming team. Many, but not all, of the programming team and support team are drawn from the staff of Film at Lincoln Center. (You can read more about this year’s programmers here.) Dennis Lim is the director of programming as well as its chair; he has been director of programming at Film at Lincoln Center since 2013. Hernandez, new to the director position this year, is also on the programming team. Hernandez joined Film at Lincoln Center in 2010, and also publishes Film Comment and is the co-founder of IndieWire. Other members include K. Austin Collins, film critic for Rolling Stone, and Aily Nash, a film programmer working internationally. 

The diverse programming team has 15 members overall, including an advisory team. Together they program five sections: the Main Slate, Currents, Spotlight, Revivals, and Talks. Each section has a different curatorial purpose and aim. Lim describes this year’s Main Slate as addressing “the disorientation and uncertainty of this tough year [by] returning us to core principles.” This year, 19 countries are represented in the Main Slate. Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” is this year’s centerpiece; the film is also part of the official selection for both Toronto and Venice. Steve McQueen’s “Lover’s Rock” opens the 58th NYFF and Azazel Jacob’s “French Exit” closes.

Director of Programming Lim describes Currents as “the latest—and the largest—incarnation of [NYFF’s] category of programming [for] work that challenges the cinematic status quo.” The section will include 14 features films this year, as well as 45 short films, from a total of 28 countries. Rounding out the festival’s programming, Director Hernandez explained how the Spotlight section “reshape[s]...the New York Film Festival...[featuring] cinema’s brightest names...but also exploring big topics and important ideas that our society is grappling with today.” Films include Spike Lee’s filmed version of the Broadway musical “David Byrne’s American Utopia.”

FLC Senior Programmer at Large Florence Almonzi said that the 2020 edition of the Revivals section was “reshaped...to showcase the relevance, the vitality, and the beauty of yesterday’s cinema...cover[ing] the ’70s to the ’90s, from Europe to Asia to the U.S.” Films include Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” and Terence Dixon’s “Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris.” Revival selections will be shown in a combination of virtual and drive-in screenings. The festival kicks off soon after a Sept. 15 free virtual talk with NYFF’s curatorial team, led by Talks programmers Devika Girish and Maddie Whittle. 

How can I submit a film to NYFF?

NYFF only accepts short film submissions, which they define in their guidelines as a film with a runtime of 40 minutes or less. Feature-length programming is selected by programmers. Submissions are processed through Film Freeway. For the 58th edition of the fest, the submission window ran May 4–June 12, 2020. Both NYFF and Film Freeway have guidelines and terms posted for filmmakers. For example, filmmakers are not allowed to resubmit films.

Most importantly, NYFF is seeking New York premieres only; films can’t have had any prior public screenings or exhibitions in the state. Additionally, any publicly distributed films are ineligible, by DVD, VOD, or otherwise. However, private screenings are acceptable. Films must be in English or subtitled in English. Filmmakers have the sole responsibility for obtaining copyright clearance for all the content in their films. Other than that, there are few constraints for filmmakers seeking to submit their work. Have a question? Email the festival here.

What awards does NYFF present, and who votes on them?

The New York Film Festival does not give out any awards, unlike many film festivals. In fact, there are few strictures on NYFF’s annual slate of films, even in comparison with its own history. “There’s never any consideration of how it compares or contrasts with other film festivals or with last year’s festival,” said Kent Jones, NYFF’s festival director of 2018. “We have a very simple directive: Pick some movies that we like the best. Period.”

Perhaps one reason the festival doesn’t have a competitive section can be attested to its comparatively low number of films. In 2018, the festival had only 84 films compared to Toronto’s 255. But the film festival nevertheless thrives, partly due to its location as part of Lincoln Center. “We have a very dedicated audience,” said Lesli Klainberg, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Executive Director.

How often have films with NYFF premieres gone on to earn major accolades?

NYFF doesn’t have any official awards. They also claim to be blind to a film’s awards future for their main programming. “When a good movie [at the festival] gets nominated for awards, it’s happenstance,” former NYFF director Jones told Indiewire. Of course, not being conscious of a film’s awards potential doesn’t preclude eventual winners premiering at the festival. In fact, plenty of NYFF’s programming has done very well during awards season. Four of the last seven Academy Award best picture winners were in NYFF’s Main Slate. That includes last year’s surprise winner “Parasite,” which premiered in New York at the 57th NYFF. So there’s a good chance the 2021 best picture winner could screen at NYFF this year—not to mention films that will be competitive in other award categories.

However, a strong showing or a highlighted premiere at NYFF is no indicator of success. For example, director Richard Linklater’s films have a strong track record of Academy Award nominations and wins. That caused a certain buzz when his film “Last Flag Flying” premiered by opening 2017’s NYFF. The film, produced by Amazon Studios, didn’t earn major nominations and was met with muted critical praise. 

For awards watchers, COVID-19 adds another serious wrinkle to any predictions for this year. Major festivals Cannes and Tribeca were both forced to shutter for this year. The remaining major festivals this fall are collaborating, and their programming will involve some overlap. However, that’s not necessarily unusual, as Director of Programming Lim pointed out to Backstage. “There’s always overlap among the festivals, if you look at pretty much any year,” he said. Lim added, “We didn’t really consult one another before we went ahead and invited films [for this year.]” 

However, the perception across the industry is that things in 2020 will be considerably different. Veteran awards consultant Cynthia Swartz of Strategy PR told the LA Times, “With the festivals diminished, it’s going to be an odd Oscar year.” The lack of major studio films and closed theaters across the country has some predicting “an Indie Oscars.” Others are looking for patterns in programming overlap between fests. For example, Zhao’s “Nomadland” is premiering at all four major festivals this fall, including NYFF 58. The film also stars Academy Award winner Frances McDormand. “Chloé’s on the cusp, and these festivals will be a good way to get her on the world’s collective radar,” said Michelle Hooper, executive vice president of marketing for Searchlight, the film’s production company. The Beijing-born Zhao, who is also directing Marvel Studio’s “The Eternals,” has already claimed Venice’s Golden Lion for “Nomadland.” And NYFF’s virtual screening of the film is as of now sold out.

When and where does NYFF happen?

The NYFF happens every fall at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. The multi-building complex is just a short stroll from Columbus Circle at the southwest corner of Central Park. Lincoln Center is home to some of NYC’s most recognizable performing arts spaces, including the Metropolitan Opera, The Juilliard School, and the New York City Ballet. The Film Society of Lincoln Center organizes the NYFF each year. They operate in several theaters at the Lincoln Center: the Walter Reade Theater as well as the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, which houses the Francesca Beale Theater, the Howard Gilman Theater, and the Amphitheater

The 2021 edition of NYFF will take place Sept. 24–Oct. 10.

How can I attend or participate?

This year, due to COVID-19, NYFF films will be available online to people in the U.S. through Lincoln Center’s Virtual Cinema. Once you’ve created an account, you can “rent” any of the films in this year’s selection. Tickets are limited, and screenings do sell out. Additional tickets for sold out screenings will be announced here. Tickets range in price; some screenings are free. An all-access pass for the Currents section is $150. Individual films tend to be $12–$25, although some are more. There are no refunds or account sharing. You can navigate the webpage by all films or by each category including the main slate

Films can be viewed on a PC or Mac, as well as iPhone/iPad devices and Android phones. TV screenings can be set up with the assistance of proper cabling or Chromecast and AirPlay for Android TV and Apple TV, respectively. For more info, see NYFF’s FAQ. Once you “rent” a film, it will become available for streaming at 8 P.M. on the day of the premiere. You have five days to watch it. Once you start watching it, you have 24 hours to complete your viewing. You can also watch the film however many times you want in that 24-hour window. Some films have four- or 48-hour windows. To find a film’s screening window, see the full schedule here. Details will also be included on each individual title’s listing. 

In addition to virtual screenings, NYFF has drive-in theaters in Brooklyn and Queens, each offering full line-ups. Rooftop Films has locations at the end of the scenic pier at Brooklyn Army Terminal and behind the the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Four screenings will also take place at the Bronx Zoo. Viewers with cars only (no motorcycles, bikes, buses, RVs, trailers, or passenger vans) can attend with up to 5 passengers; the festival recommends two people per car for visibility issues from the backseat.

Tickets start at $35 and must be purchased online. Check-in starts 90 minutes before screening, with “doors” opening 60 minutes prior. COVID-19 safety guidelines will be followed, including contactless ticket check via a scanner and either a phone or a printed ticket. Concessions are not available, and viewers are encouraged to bring their own food and snacks. Portable toilets will be operated with social distancing measures. For more information, see the Brooklyn and Queens Drive-In FAQs. This year also saw press and industry accreditation for online screenings.

Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!