February 1987. At the end of the meal, the waiter at Shun Lee brought Richard Peña a fortune cookie. Peña, a 33-year-old film curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, unfolded the note: “You will have a big change in your career.” Peña laughed; so did Joanne Koch, sitting across from him. Just before he’d cracked open the cookie, Koch, then executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, had asked him to lead its new theater, the Walter Reade.
Months later, Richard Roud, co-founder and longtime director of the New York Film Festival, was forced out, shocking the city’s cineastes. Koch turned to Peña to replace him. Peña remembers a difficult coronation. “People were saying: ‘Who’s that guy? He’s unknown. Why is this guy from Chicago?'” Having moved back to New York, where he’d grown up, he settled on the only way to prove the critics wrong: being good. “They might continue to talk,” he figured, “but they’ll have less munitions.”
Almost 25 years of leading the New York Film Festival has made Peña a major figure in independent cinema, and he has certainly been good. Koch says, “Hiring Richard was the best decision I’ve ever made . . . besides marrying my husband.” But Peña is retiring in December, leaving behind an institution that has changed fundamentally and grown exponentially.
Peña, who’s 59, turned what had been a mainly Eurocentric festival into an international landmark. Roud lived in Paris and hated flying; Peña has traveled the world, picking up seven languages along the way and gradually introducing American audiences to directors from China, Iran, and Latin America. “When everyone looks left, he looks right,” says Rose Kuo, executive director of the Film Society, who thinks Peña has been the most aggressive and far-reaching programmer in the industry, bringing to light major names like Pedro Almodóvar, Wong Kar-wai, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
His dedication to foreign movies also provoked political confrontations such as in 2001, when the Bush administration denied a visa to Abbas Kiarostami. Kuo describes Peña as a “maverick internationalist” who stood strongly behind the filmmakers he believed in.
Despite the festival’s expanding horizons, Peña never called for a greater number of movies. While most festivals now screen hundreds, Peña has fought to retain the New York Film Festival’s initial formula: no more than 28 films a year. No awards.
The 700 movies screened over 25 years have all survived the same arduous process. Each year between March and August, Peña and a committee of four screen up to 3,000 movies. “I don’t see all the films all the way through,” admits Peña, who believes 15 minutes is enough to reveal whether a film might make the cut. When he’s winnowed the field to 100, half drop out relatively quickly. The hardest part, he says, is to slash from 50 to 25. “Probably every one of these films could be in the festival, so how are you going to chose?”
“Richard was extremely confident, and he could probably easily have chosen all the films himself without a committee,” says Phillip Lopate, a committee member for years. He remembers a friendly but hectic summer atmosphere in which the team would meet from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and screen movies. Suffering from back pain, Lopate would sometimes lie on the carpet.
In August 2000 around 10 p.m., everyone had left the Lincoln Center except Peña. Opening his mail, he found a message from a Japanese producer he knew: “I just finished this film. I hope that there is still a chance you can look at it.” The festival was days away, but Peña told himself, “I’ll watch a little of this before I go home,” and he played the DVD. Three hours later, he hadn’t moved.
“I have good news and bad news,” he told the committee the next morning. “I think I saw a masterpiece last night . . . and it’s three hours long.” The members looked as if they’d like to strangle him, but a few days later, Platform, by Chinese director Jia Zhangke, made its Western debut.
Peña “wasn’t filled with self-doubt,” says Lopate, who never talked him out of a position. In one polling for an American comedy, three members voted for and two against—but the film didn’t get in. “Richard doesn’t always laugh at comedies,” says Lopate, who sometimes suspected him of political correctness.
Although 25 years of movie-watching has drained Peña’s energy, he still describes himself as a movie buff who goes to theaters purely for pleasure “all the time.” He even sits on the front row during screenings in his class at Columbia, where he has been teaching film theory and international cinema since 1989.
He’ll keep on at Columbia, but Peña believes the film festival needs fresh air. “It’s better to get going when you feel you can leave more or less on top,” he says. Since turning 50, he has wondered: “Do I really want to stay until I’m 75? Am I still sharp? Am I really aware?” Now, he wants to work less, write more, teach abroad, travel, and spend more time with his wife and three children, ages 14 to 23.
On September 13, the Film Society announced that not one but two program directors will take over Peña’s job in 2013: Robert Koehler for the year-round program and Kent Jones—a former committee member and Peña’s protégé—for the festival. “I suspect we’ll see Peña’s fingerprints in the festival and the year-round program. His visions will be carried forward,” Kuo says.