The 61st New York Film Festival opens Friday on a high note, with advance sales of passes and tickets at kickoff up 50% from last year, which was a record-breaking fest. It’s also a day of heavy rains and flooding in New York City.
“We have never seen [sales] numbers like this,” said artistic director Dennis Lim as the curtain is still planning to rise tonight at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall with Todd Haynes’ May December, followed by two weeks and 111 films (66 features, 44 shorts) from 45 countries.
The opening comes on a day where many subway lines are shuttered and NYC Mayor Eric Adams has declared a state of emergency, urging New Yorkers not to travel if possible. NYFF organizers says no changes so far to the opening-night schedule.
Staffers and talent arriving for opening presser reported that taxis were even more scarce than in a usual bit of New York rainfall. Ubers were also extensively delayed and surge-priced. While locals knew to dress appropriately, some Angelenos landing for opening night found their wardrobe plans were in sudden need of an overhaul.
Hoping for sunnier days, NYFF is rolling out Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla is the Centerpiece, Michael Mann’s Ferrari as the closer. Bradley Cooper’s Maestro on Leonard Bernstein makes its North America premiere at David Geffen Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic. Foe by Garth Davis and The Curse, an upcoming Showtime series by Benny Safdie and Nathan Fielder, are world premieres.
“It felt like we were spoiled for choices. There are always difficult decisions over here, but it felt like we had to make a few tough calls because we liked a lot of films,” Lim said. “I see enough good work every year to get excited about the state of cinema, of the art form. The industry is very unsettled right now. But I think the art form is doing fine.”
Lim says Covid may have helped sparked the fest’s burst of popularity by getting young people more involved.
“I felt like 2021 was a kind of eye-opening year for us, just in terms of who was coming to the screenings. It felt like a lot of younger people … I remember filmmakers, remarking on that to us that year. Older, higher-level donors and members likely weren’t comfortable coming back yet, and didn’t buy as many passes, which actually made a lot of tickets available. And that translate to who’s in the audience. I noticed a lot of film students came that year. And I think that year did a lot to sort of shake up the perception of like, what is a Lincoln Center Film Festival? It’s not just, you know, for people who go to the opera or the ballet, but there are movies and you can watch them with your peers.”
The Curse is likely to skew young given the Safdie fan base. NYFF has done TV before, screening Lars von Trier’s series The Kingdom last year, but it’s not a regular thing, Lim said — The Curse is just “incredibly cinematic.”
“I wouldn’t say we have any rules about TV, versus no TV, because certain things are a bit more fluid than that [given] how some people work in both spaces,” he said. But television “is something that people consume in a very different way from movies. … We’re not purists in that sense, you know, but I do think a film festival should primarily be for films.”
The fest also dispensed as soon as it could with a virtual edition. “We believe in the big-screen experience. We believe in the communal experience,” Lim said.
Lim, a longtime programmer for NYFF, is the main face of the festival this year after longtime chief Eugene Hernandez exited in 2022 to run Sundance.
NYFF launched in 1963 and in many ways hasn’t changed: no competition, no prizes, no market. No call for submissions either, but Lim and his team watched about 1,000 features.
The fest’s goal is “a meaningful summary of the year in cinema,” Lim said. “If we are to make a case for cinema as an essential art form, as a vital art form, which are the films that we would put forth as evidence?”
That philosophy has made NYFF a mainstay of New York City’s cultural calendar and nurtured generations of local filmmakers and cinephiles. Directors who grew up locally and return with films in the lineup regularly preface remarks by thanking the festival for their early exposure to world cinema.
A short film this year, Pier Paolo Pasolini – Agnès Varda – New York – 1967, is Varda filming Pasolini as they explore Times Square together, both in town for the fest.
“I think a healthy festival needs to represent as many forms of cinema as possible,” Lim said — bigger budget, art films for an older audience, experimental films, and an interesting mix of directors.
“If you look at Todd Haynes, Sofia Coppola and Michael Mann, they are very, very different filmmakers. But for me, it makes sense to think of them together, as filmmakers who have done wonders for American cinema. … But they are also of different generations. They make very different films. They are models of how you can have a singular uncompromising career while making fairly big movies.”
It is also Mann’s first time at the New York Film Festival, a moment that Lim called “so overdue.”
“If you look at it — I actually went back — if you look at the release history of his films, they’re often summer films,” so the timing wasn’t right before.
NYFF is notably unspooling as Hollywood labor relations thaw. The WGA and AMPTP have settled, ending a nearly five-month strike (pending member approval). Most actors have not promoted their films at the recent crop of fall festivals and SAG-AFTRA is still on strike. But talks are scheduled for Monday and there’s a general expectation they won’t drag on too long. The word from NYFF: all talent welcome if the strike ends before the festival does.
Weather has not been cooperating with NYC fests — the Tribeca Festival opened in June to a haze of acrid smoke from Canadian wildfires.
Dade Hayes contributed to this report.