Kent Jones reflects and bids farewell to the New York Film Festival



When Lincoln Center launched the New York Film Festival opened in 1963, moviegoers and art cinema enthusiasts were drawn in by the promise of watching foreign and avant garde films. At one of the initial screenings, 500 people piled into a theater at the Museum of Modern Art for “Harakiri,” the Japanese film by director Masaki Kobayashi from 1962. They watched a young Samurai warrior brace himself for an act of ritual suicide. As his sword pierced his stomach, the audience let out “audible gasps,” according to a New York Times review the following day.

Just a year earlier, Lincoln Center was not planing to show films for a festival or ever. Established in 1955 and opened in 1962, Lincoln Center maintained a policy that film was not a performing art equivalent to opera, orchestral music, or dance. However, after receiving requests and petitions from film enthusiasts, the Center relented, establishing a festival that aimed to emphasize film’s artistic achievements.

Over the last 57 years, the New York Film Festival, which has been hosted in Lincoln Center theaters since 1965, expanded its programs and grew its audiences, breaking its own attendance records in 2018. But now, the person who has been credited with much of the festival’s growth in the last seven years is leaving.  Filmmaker and curator Kent Jones, who assumed the role of festival director in 2013, is leaving. He will focus more on directing his own films, hoping to build on the success of his critically acclaimed Diane, which won the Tribeca Film Festival Award last year.

In an era when many cultural institutions are under pressure to become more inclusive, Jones bristled when Lincoln Center decided to change the name of its “Film Society,” which has hosted the festival since its third edition, to “Film at Lincoln Center” last April, an echo of the Jazz at Lincoln Center constituency established in 1987. For Jones, who mocked the renaming “branding,” the implicit criticism behind the renaming is one he has heard before – that the New York Film Festival and other art cinema circles are criticized for being “esoteric.”

“I don’t see anybody leveling that charge at anyone in the art world or in the world of literature,” said Jones, “It happens in cinema.”

Jones’ defense of cinema comes at a time of tumultuous changes in the way films and television programs are experienced.  the Pew Research Center reported that most young people currently get their video content by streaming. 2018 data from Statista, a market research firm, shows that adults prefer to watch movies at home. In addition, a 2017 survey commissioned by Netflix reveals that the vast majority of Americans are streaming movies and TV outside of the home, including at work and while in transit. The way Jones describes it, there has been a complete separation between “mass entertainment, mass audio, visual entertainment, and the world of serious filmmaking” that has changed how films are seen, distributed, and made.

“This age of streaming creates a situation where I think curation is more important,” said Dennis Lim, Director of Programming for Film at Lincoln Center, “We’re drowning in a sea of content.”

These trends have resulted in many closings of small movie theaters. Fans were stunned by the news near the end of August that New York’s beloved Paris Theater, located in midtown Manhattan and the oldest art cinema theater in the country, was shuttered.

Alex Huffman, who works as an associate producer for a New York-based documentary filmmaker and regularly attends the New York Film Festival, said that these changes have enhanced the festival’s role in preserving New York’s film culture. “If you’re really going to invest in seeing world cinema, then this is the place to do it,” he said.

During Jones’ tenure, the festival’s attendance has increased as he has struck a balance between tradition and innovation. For example, the festival’s film lineup includes movies produced and distributed by Netflix and other up and coming distribution companies. In a break with tradition Jones chose Ava Duvernay’s 13th, a Netflix documentary, for one of the festival’s main screenings rather than a world premiere. Still, Lim emphasizes that the festival is at its core is still designed to highlight films that “we think will stand the test of time.”

Also, Jones has protected the New York Film Festival’s philosophy about prizes and awards. Unlike other organizations like the Cannes Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival has never awarded a prize for any films. As Lim explained, that keeps moviegoers focused on a film’s content, not a measure of its popularity among judges.

Jones’ most widely recognized innovation was his expansion of the programming practice of “sidebars.” These are featured films that can be seen in addition to the festival’s central lineup, known as the “main slate.” In recent years, Jones added two sidebars to the program for the first time. One featured innovative storytelling styles. Another highlighted several documentaries. He also expanded the offerings within existing sidebars. Yet another programming addition offered standalone special events that included talkbacks with celebrities, classes with award-winning directors, and screenings of restored films.

Film critic J. Hoberman attributes these strategic moves by Jones in part to wide criticism of the festival’s relevance in the early 2000s. Hoberman, a longtime writer for the now folded Village Voice, remembers that journalists criticized the New York Film Festival for being elitist and passé compared to the newer Tribeca Film Festival.

Today, Hoberman acknowledges that the festival has been reinvigorated by its expansion. Still, he observes that the innovation has come at a price. Referring to the expanded programming, Hoberman commented, “various sections get more attention,” and sidebar films “compete with each other” for audiences.

Jones defended his innovations as further development of the festival’s ethos. “The basis of this festival and the reason that I’ve always loved the festival itself is that it is based purely on curation programming” he said, “We’re not claiming to be arbiters or cultural mandarins…we’re just offering [films]. You can react to them however you want.”

It remains to be seen who will lead the New York Film Festival into its next era. In the interim, Film at Lincoln Center Executive Director Lesli Klainberg will oversee the transition. She did not respond to requests for comment.

For some, Kent Jones has been a staunch protector of the New York Film Festival’s traditions in era of transformation throughout the movie industry. “I would say that by and large, the festival hasn’t changed, and that is precisely because of Kent’s leadership,” said Lim