Photo: Jim Spellman/WireImageFilm Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Pena has spent most of his lifetime hanging around the New York Film Festival. In 1965, at age 12, he saw his first festival film, Erich von Stroheim's "The Wedding March," and he was hooked. He returned in 1988 to lead the festival and he's been there ever since. Now, after 25 years of programming the best of international movies and domestic fare, he's stepping down the same year that the festival turns 50.
Pena was in the lobby in 1993, when I reviewed my first festival film, Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," for the New York Post. We first met in the early '80s while he was at the Art Institute of Chicago and I was an intern at the American Film Institute. We've covered a lot of movie ground together. On the phone earlier this week, I asked Richard about his legacy, and this was his response: "I'd like to think my legacy is that I left after 25 years with the festival as an institution that is respected and continues to have a role to play in the creation and promotion of film culture in the USA. I kept up the high standard that I found when I got here."
What's changed in that quarter of a century since Pena took the helm? "The festival has expanded exponentially," replied Pena. "When I grew up in New York City, the festival was the New York Film Festival. There are 70-plus film festivals now -- Brooklyn has two international film festivals, there are two or three gay and lesbian festivals, two Jewish film festivals, the Moon and Stars Project, and the Turkish Film Festival -- the New York Film Festival no longer has the primacy it once did."
The festival itself has been able to expand its offerings over the last 25 years, said Pena. "The festival became much broader -- Iranian, Argentine, Rumanian, Israeli cinema. In part, that reflects that I came to the festival during the digital age. I could become conversant in, say, Taiwanese cinema. During my tenure, the festival became broader, which reflects my tastes as well as the fact that international films became more accessible over this period."
Pena will be leaving the Film Society of Lincoln Center, but not the film community. He will continue to teach at Columbia University, where he is the Professor of Professional Practice in the Film Division of the School of the Arts.
Has Richard ever been inspired to make films himself? "No," he told Yahoo! Movies, "I'm not a filmmaker -- I don't have any real artistic pretentions or desires."