New York Film Festival Puts Tradition Into Turnaround To Meet The Drive-In Moment

The New York Film Festival exudes tradition. Since 1963, its Lincoln Center commingling of culturati, Oscar hopefuls and cinephiliacs has been a mainstay of the city’s fall calendar and the global festival circuit.

This year, though, COVID-19 has thrown tradition to the wind and New York movie theaters and arts venues remain stuck in a lengthy, agonizing suspension. “We had no choice but to reinvent this year,” NYFF director Eugene Hernandez told Deadline in an interview. “It’s a 58-year-old festival, but it also feels like the first.”

Kicking off Thursday with drive-in screenings of Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, New York will become the biggest U.S.-based festival thus far to test the pandemic waters. It will join Venice and Toronto in forging ahead, with altered logistics, in a year when Cannes, Telluride and other film destinations had to regroup and look toward 2021.

In place of Alice Tully Hall, the Walter Reade Theater, red-carpet pomp and bashes at Tavern on the Green will be online screenings and drive-ins in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. (The drive-ins are a collaborative effort with fellow non-profit Rooftop Films.) Because screenings are happening online, they will be accessible to ticket buyers anywhere in the U.S. for the first time. Travel restrictions and safety precautions mean that filmmakers and talent, with the exception of some locals, will not attend in a formal capacity.

The atmosphere will be muted by comparison to the other festivals that herald the usual arrival of awards season (an elongated one in 2020-21, with the Oscars pushed to late-April). Venice managed to draw a selection of press and talent, though the wattage was notably dimmer than usual. Toronto, while it is similarly ditching red carpets, public screenings and the usual awards-season frenzy, is managing to screen some films at the Bell Lightbox, though only for Canadian locals.

New York’s slate is, by pre-COVID design, about 25% smaller than last year’s. The centerpiece film is Chloé Zhao’s Venice Golden Lion winner Nomadland, and the closing night film is French Exit, whose starry cast is headed by Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges. Other notable entries include the world premiere of Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks as well as Garrett Bradley’s Time and MLK/FBI, the Sam Pollard documentary acquired this week by IFC Films. New work by Frederick Weisman, Cristi Puiu, Hong Sangsoo, Philippe Garrel and Christian Petzold will also screen in the main slate.

Programming director Dennis Lim said once it became clear that initial hopes for some form of in-person element would not be realized, organizers have focused on recording Q&As and introductions. “Context and conversation is central to the festival,” he said. Accordingly, the talks and roundtables usually held onstage are all happening online, with more than a dozen added to the schedule on the eve of the festval.

Lim and Hernandez both noted the timeliness of the slate even though the films were completed before 2020. “There’s something very of-the-moment about these films even though most of them were made before the pandemic,” Lim said. “There is a strong political through-line running through the program.”

As they moved toward finalizing their selections, organizers of New York, Toronto, Venice and Telluride — who normally fight tooth and nail for world premieres — pledged to collaborate. That vow applied not only to choosing films but also to best practices about safely convening large-scale public events.

McQueen, Lim noted, is the first filmmaker since Godard to have three films selected for New York’s main slate; in addition to Lovers Rock, he directed Mangrove and Red, White and Blue. The three come from his five-part Small Axe series, which will air on the BBC and stream on Amazon later in the fall. The presence for a streaming project is one element that is consistent from the 2019 festival, which opened with the world premiere of Netflix’s The Irishman.

The differences between the 2019 edition — which also included Parasite, Joker, Uncut Gems and Marriage Story — and the 2020 experience could hardly be more stark. For Hernandez, though, there is an appealing opportunity for the festival to reach wider audiences, even after the pandemic subsides. He recalled his first trip to Lincoln Center for the 1994 fest, watching Pulp Fiction after it had caused a sensation in Cannes, something he could only read about while growing up as a film lover in California. The next year, he co-founded IndieWire, Deadline’s sister site, serving as editor-in-chief until 2010. (He officially succeeded Kent Jones as NYFF director in February.)

“New York is always fading in someone’s mind,” Hernandez said of chatter that the city — and its traditions — may not survive COVID-19. “But that gives us a chance to reinvent ourselves.”

Because Film at Lincoln Center is a year-round organization with its own screening venues, 2020 festival selections could get a rain-check opportunity to screen theatrically once theaters reopen and vaccines or treatments kick in.

French Exit director Azazel Jacobs said he isn’t going to wait for a second chance to be in New York for his big night. Even though he won’t be able to bask in the usual balcony spotlight at Tully, the New York native will be in the city, even if he has to quarantine for 14 days, per the current New York state mandate. Jacobs has a lifelong affinity for the festival, having grown up attending it with his father, an experimental filmmaker.

Given the widespread suffering in 2020, Jacobs said, “I’m not going to whine about not having a screening” in a regular venue. “I just want to be in the city when this occurs even if it’s far away” from the screen.

Jacobs is focusing on the positive aspects of being part of this year’s festival, as singular and strange as it may be. “If there’s anything about this year, it’s learning about what we’re willing to roll with,” he said.

Lim said the essence of New York’s festival is a consideration of film in all its facets and promoting dialogue about ideas explored on screen. “You need films and you need audiences,” he said. “If you have them both, it’s about figuring out how to connect them.”

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