New York Film Festival selection committee undergoes changes under new director


Kent Jones, Director of NYFF at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center

Kent Jones, Director of NYFF at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center. Photo: Emilyn Teh.

In the second year of Kent Jones’ tenure as director of New York Film Festival (NYFF), there have been changes to the selection process — including the introduction of a documentary category, a new method of selection and a redefined selection committee. During a “Meet the NYFF selection committee” panel in late September, members of the committee addressed these changes at the Film Center Amphitheater, Lincoln Center.

NYFF, North America’s second oldest film festival after the San Francisco International Film Festival, began in 1963 with a mandate to introduce American audiences to world cinema. Today, public donations, ticket sales, membership dues, and corporate sponsorships fund the festival. Unlike the Tribeca Film Festival, also held annually in New York, there are no awards and juries for the 17-day NYFF, which was attended by more than 60,000 people this year.

According to Karl Bardosh, associate arts professor at New York University, NYFF is significant, in a world oversaturated with film festivals, because it provides an overview of  important filmmakers and trends. “Often the most important one [film] from Cannes is also invited to the New York Film Festival,” he said, referring this year to Jean-Luc Godard’s first film in 3D “Goodbye to Language.”

Jones is a film critic whose work has appeared in The Village Voice, Cahiers du Cinema, LA Weekly, and Sight and Sound. He still actively contributes to Film Comment, where he is deputy editor. Jones got involved with NYFF in the late 90s, after he helped program a NYFF series and caught the attention of his predecessor, 25-year-old veteran Richard Peña, who asked him to become associate director of programming. Jones eventually became a member of the selection committee and has been with NYFF since, except for a stint as executive director of the World Cinema Foundation, which concentrates more on films from Third World countries.

“I loved [Humphrey] Bogart and some of the newer movies and it became something that was really important to me a very long time ago,”said the 54-year-old Jones in an interview after the panel. He is also a screenwriter and director who has collaborated with director Martin Scorsese  on documentaries for many years — including “A letter to Elia,” a documentary on director Elia Kazan that won a Peabody award.

Jones said that he did not set out with an agenda for change, but that it evolved organically. “Richard and I are good friends but we are different people, and so it is inevitable that we make different decisions and handle the question of selections by the group differently.”

One change is the stronger emphasis on documentary, and a new category, “Spotlight on Documentary,” which included 15 documentaries this year. Two additional documentaries – Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour” about Edward Snowden, and Nick Broomfield’s “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” about a South Central Los Angeles serial killer – were also included on the otherwise heavily fiction-based “Main Slate” category, which consists of 31 films.

Another change is the method of selection, which has gone from a simple majority to a consensus. In an interview after the panel, Marian Masone, a senior programming advisor who has been with the NYFF for 30 years and is also on the selection committee, said, “We come to a consensus to include the film, even the people who didn’t like it have to agree to include it. I’d much rather see a film I don’t particularly like or get but a few of my colleagues are really passionate about than everyone just saying ‘that’s alright.’” Approximately 2,000 applications were submitted for consideration this year, according to the press office.

Masone said that the core mission has remained the same since before she joined NYFF. “There are no themes. It has always been – what are we seeing out there in the films that speak to us on a different level? The audience trusts in what we think are good films and they may disagree but they trust us.”

The composition of the selection committee has also changed under Jones leadership. In the past, there were three staff members and two rotating members who sat on the board for three-year terms. Now, Amy Taubin, contributing editor to Film Comment and Sight and Sound, is the only rotating member and Jones has no intention of removing her when her term is up. “She and I will talk about it when she is ready. I certainly won’t bring it up as I really love working with her,” he said. The remaining two members of the selection committee are New York Times contributor Dennis Lim and Film Comment editor-in-chief Gavin Smith.

NYFF is not market-oriented like Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and Los Angeles Film Festival, Bardosh said. “It [NYFF] is really a showcase for outstanding quality internationally, encouraging American filmmakers to attune themselves to the most important film makers – both emerging and the great ones.”