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New York Film Festival’s Richard Peña

The festival head looks back on 25 years as a cinematic tastemaker

After a quarter century spent curating some of the most closely-watched festivals in the world, Richard Peña, the trail-blazing head of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is stepping down from the job. But don’t worry, it’s a happy ending. Peña, who oversees the annual New York Film Festival as part of his Film Society responsibilities, exhibited a precocious enthusiasm for boundary-defying cinema. When he was a child, he dragged his aunt to a festival showing of an Erich von Stroheim flick; later, at Harvard, he studied under eminent director and renowned experimentalist Vlada Petric. After spending eight years in programming at the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1987 Peña landed in the topspot at the Film Society, where he has bolstered the careers of Quentin Tarantino, Michael Moore and Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and premiering such films as Hoop Dreams and My Own Private Idaho

“Richard’s taste is amazing, and his knowledge of cinema is awesome,” says filmmaker Harmony Korine (Kids, Gummo). “I think the festival always tends to reflect that.” Film Society programs launched under Peña include the rookie revue New Directors/New Films, which introduced works from auteurs from Egypt, Turkey and Thailand, and The New York African Film Festival. Both have become fixtures on cinephiles’ calendars. “The thing about New York,” Peña explains, “is that you can find an audience for almost anything.”

Enough moviegoers that in 2011 the Film Society opened the 17,500-square-foot Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center as a complement to the 21-year-old Walter Reade Theater across the street. The new space gave Peña and colleagues common areas plus two additional screens that have allowed the society to expand into first-run films and more esoteric offerings like a career retrospective of French director Claude Sautet.

With the expansion firmly in place, Peña admits he’s “looking forward to slowing down a bit.” Although he’ll leave Lincoln Center at the conclusion of this fall’s festival—which launches its 50th season on Sept. 28—the show’s not over for him entirely. He’ll continue to teach film at Columbia University and perhaps even watch a movie or two for fun. “I think,” he says, “it’s time to sit back and enjoy the work of others.” 


Photo: Kirk Edwards