Richard Peña is going out with a bang.
The executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center leaves that post, which he has held for 25 years, shortly after the completion of the 50th annual New York Film Festival, the largest and most ambitious version of that event to date. Having completed almost the exact same quarter-century tenure as his predecessor, the late Richard Roud, he can look back happily on some extraordinary achievements in the New York film world, not the least of which is creating a permanent year-round home at the Walter Reade Theater.
For fans of Jewish cinema, though, Peña will be remembered as the programming dynamo who helped create the New York Jewish Film Festival — one of the tent poles of the film year for viewers interested in Jewish-themed cinema — and for his important role in the wider exposure of Israeli film here since 1987.
The latter was hardly foreordained. As he explains on a recent late August morning in his magnificently cluttered Lincoln Center office, “I was on the jury of the Jerusalem Film Festival in 1992 and, while the slate of documentaries was very strong we all agreed that with the fiction films, we were voting for the film we hated the least. But within a decade it really blossomed. Today, the Israeli film industry is one of the most interesting in the world.”
That transformation has been much remarked, and Peña has a couple of explanations for it.
“Israel probably has the highest number of film schools per capita of any country in the world,” he says, laughing. “They’ve added so many in the past couple of decades. But the filmmakers I speak to tell me that for them the biggest change is the privatization of Israeli television. There are suddenly all these competing channels, and they all need programming. Ari Folman [‘Waltz With Bashir’ and the original ‘In Treatment’] told me that means, ‘You’re actually working, not just sitting around trying to find financing for your next project.’”
One of the films in this year’s N.Y. Film Festival (Sept. 28-Oct. 14, filmlinc.com) that has Peña’s enthusiasm is an Israeli first feature with an unusual background. “Fill the Void,” is directed by Rama Burshtein, a haredi woman.
Peña explains, “The film offers a unique experience of total immersion in that community in an extraordinary way. People usually assume that a film about the ultra-Orthodox is going to be negative, but ‘Fill the Void’ takes a very different stance. And it’s just beautiful filmmaking.”
Peña is philosophical when asked about the future of film. “I think we are at the end of the era of the movie theater,” he says. “I think we will be seeing massive closings in the next several years. People are getting bigger screens in their homes, with more methods of delivering content. I think within a decade, movie-going as we experience it now will be limited to a ‘museum’ context.”
He clearly sees the Film Society as part of that context.
“If you love films, you’ll continue to go see them,” he says.
The 50th annual New York Film Festival runs Sept. 28-Oct. 14 at the many venues of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. For information on the Festival and their many other film programs, go to www.filmlinc.com.