New York Film Festival Returns To Hallowed Ground As Fall Fests Navigate Path Back To Audiences

Last spring, as Covid-19 vaccines began rolling out and movie theaters and other venues reopened, organizers of the New York Film Festival were pretty sure they wouldn’t be forced back to the drive-in.

They soon would decide to require vaccination of all staff, filmmakers, audience members and other participants (a call then validated by New York City’s enactment of its own vaccine mandate). Despite feeling a surge of relief and energy at the prospect of returning to in-person activity at Lincoln Center after a 2020 festival of drive-in and virtual screenings, they also had a few questions. Or, actually, a lot of questions.

“Our ambitions are always very big,” fest director Eugene Hernandez told Deadline in an interview. “Now, though, we had to ask, ‘How do we scale this?’ How do we go all in on the cinematic experience? How do we do it safely?”

The ensuing months leading up to tomorrow’s opening night world premiere of A24/Apple’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, were an exercise in nimbleness and industry crowdsourcing, Hernandez said. (Other tentpoles slated in New York are Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog and Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, each of which world-premiered this month in Venice.)

“There’s a path that a lot of films follow in a typical year, but this year that path looks different,” he said. “We’re an international festival, so it quickly became a question of feasibility and that has been constantly changing based on all of the quarantines and situations around the world.” He said the organizers have constantly updated a spreadsheet with three categories: “talent confirmed,” “talent wanting to come but waiting for clearance’ and “talent blocked from travel.”

In 2020, when the pandemic wiped out Cannes, Telluride and other festivals and forced countless others online or outdoors, New York, Toronto, Venice and Telluride announced an unlikely alliance. They vowed not to compete with each other for premieres, but instead, given the urgency of the moment, collaborate on logistics and share best practices so that the overall fest circuit could have a chance to continue.

The co-operative arrangement has survived in 2021, Hernandez said, albeit in a less formal way. Regular Zoom calls are convened for fall festival principals, among them New York, Chicago, Mill Valley and AFI. “That network has grown wider and deeper,” Hernandez said. “Everybody is charting a new path. It doesn’t look like 2020 and it doesn’t look like 2019.” Having managed to pull off a festival last year, Hernandez said, “We know we can do it. … Not everything is going to go as planned. And that’s OK.”

Because of the still-uncertain Covid situation, Toronto wound up a much more subdued affair than usual this year. That makes for an unusual fall season, one in which not only New York, but two other festivals staged nearby and overlapping with its dates could see their profiles expand: Hamptons and Woodstock.

Each has had a solid run in early fall for the past two-plus decades, but their approaches in 2021 are diverging. Hamptons is scaling back the number of venues but is hosting everything in person. Woodstock will be a hybrid event, with attendees on the ground but films also made available virtually.

Anne Chaisson, executive director of the Hamptons, said audiences on the East End of Long Island have returned in force to theaters. One venue in use during the festival will be the newly renovated Sag Harbor Cinema, a three-screen arthouse that reopened last spring after a fire had nearly destroyed it in 2016. “We have so many people who have just been ready to come back,” she said in an intercview. “We’ve had to re-think a lot of our spaces with safety in mind but we’re glad to be emphasizing the theatrical experience at a time when everybody really needs it.”

Woodstock executive director Meira Blaustein is seeing somewhat different trends in her part of the state. “While absolutely nothing can replace the unique magic and shared experience of a communal in-person gathering under one roof to watch a film and share a conversation,” she said, “we find that many folks are still hesitant to spend a few hours at indoor theaters watching a film.”

Blaustein expects the festival to land differently this year, but not in a negative way. It will open on Wednesday with the East Coast premiere of Fanny: The Right to Rock. She said this year reminds her of 2001, when the festival was held just nine days after the attacks of 9/11. The impact of the films was heightened, she said, by the state of the world off screen. “That year was a transformative and healing one for everyone who attended,” she said.

Because most festivals are run by non-profit organizations, the financial impact of how they present their events can be significant. For New York, ticket sales are “coming in close to where we were two years ago,” Hernandez said, a remarkable feat given 30% declines at other cultural organizations in the city. On the eve of opening night, the festival proclaimed “the most robust corporate sponsor support in the festival’s history,” from the likes of Campari, Citi, HBO and Turner Classic Movies. Apple is another significant force this year. The tech company’s opening night party at Tavern on the Green will be its splashiest yet on the fest circuit, and a bookend of sorts to Netflix’s 2019 Irishman bash on New York’s opening night.

After staging a successful virtual program in 2020, enabling the festival to reach a far wider audience than usual, distributors balked at a major virtual component, so all screenings will be in indoor theaters this year. In addition to Lincoln Center, NYFF is breaking ground with screenings across the city and region, from Brooklyn Academy of Music to the Anthology Film Archives to Pleasantville’s Jacob Burns Film Center.

All of the New York-area festivals have a chance of standing out more than usual, and even if they don’t have world premieres, they are venues where films gain momentum and traction. The Hamptons, which will open with Matthew Heineman’s Covid doc The First Wave, has a noteworthy streak going in terms of awards. For the past 11 years, a film featured in the festival lineup has gone on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The fest says that’s a streak unmatched anywhere else on the global circuit.

Hernandez, better than most, understands the larger context of the festival circuit and how each of them jockeys for recognition and films. Before joining Film at Lincoln Center several years ago and eventually rising to festival director, he co-founded IndieWire, Deadline’s sister outlet.

“For us, how we’ve tried to hone and focus ourselves is on the New York audience this year,” he said. “We’re all in on indoors and the communal experience of cinema.”

Two quintessential New Yorkers won’t need a limo to drop them off at Alice Tully Hall. Frances McDormand and Joel Coen, the star and director, respectively, of The Tragedy of Macbeth (who spoke exclusively to Deadline’s Mike Fleming ahead of the premiere) live just a few blocks uptown from Lincoln Center. They’ve told the festival they’re planning on getting there on foot.

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