By Mack Chico
The New York film scene is undergoing its biggest shakeup in years, mostly due to possible changes at downtown/uptown rivals Tribeca and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Exec shuffles at both places have caused a flurry of speculation about how the city’s movie event map will be redrawn. One major potential shift suddenly being buzzed about in film circles has been the long-discussed notion of moving the Tribeca fest from the spring into the fall.
Though Jane Rosenthal flatly denies a Tribeca date change, a berth in October or November could build on the awards-season launch of Toronto, occupying what’s currently a dead zone on the fest calendar while also potentially stealing thunder from Sundance.
There are also reasons not to change dates: Events already planned could be hard to reschedule, and sponsors already lined up could change their minds.
But fall would also allow premieres for kudos hopefuls that miss Toronto, such as last year’s “Revolutionary Road” and “The Reader” or “There Will Be Blood” in 2007.
Arguably, the biggest impact would be undercutting the New York Film Festival. The highly curated selection of 28 films, conceived during the creation of Lincoln Center in the 1960s as a domestic answer to Cannes and Venice, has laid claim to the fall for 46 years.
Geoff Gilmore arrived this month as chief creative officer at Tribeca Enterprises after ending a 20-year run at Sundance. Mara Manus, who spent six years as exec director of the Public Theater, took the top job at the Lincoln Center Film Society last fall.
Both entities have seen turnover associated with those moves. The film society’s No. 2 programmer, Kent Jones ankled, as did publicity vet Jeanne Berney. Slammed by the economy, the org recently had to cut 25% of its staff, including a lot of longtimers.
Meanwhile, Peter Scarlet left his post as creative director of Tribeca in February and has not been replaced. Gilmore’s role is larger than the fest, and the official line has been that he will leave day-to-day operations to others. Publicly, Tribeca reps insist they aren’t changing dates, noting their important new brand extension in Doha, Qatar, which launches this November under Gilmore. Running two fall fests half a world apart would be all but impossible, they say.
At the film society, however, rumors of the date shift have been making the rounds, and no one is counting out any possibility.
“There’s definitely a place for both of us,” Manus said of Tribeca.
From her first day, the biggest challenge for Manus, 49, has been refining exactly what that place should be.
“There’s been a perception that you need a Ph.D. and an apartment on the Upper West Side in order to appreciate our films,” she said during a rare sitdown in her office overlooking Amsterdam Avenue. ” ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ showed that great stories can come in any package.”
Manus has already stirred resentment in some cineaste circles by presiding over staff turnover and drawing attention to marketing and a concern for the bottom line. The fear is that the ultimate bastion of art cinema will drift too far downmarket, that the urge to shake off an elitist rep will tarnish what many in filmdom consider the highest temple of cinema.
Her critics would not necessarily be heartened to know that Manus and other Film Society execs just wrapped a trip to L.A., where they met with agencies and studios — something the org has never done before in its history. “It’s important that we have that dialogue,” she said. “The studios aren’t just making ‘Bachelor Party.’ “
The reference to Fox’s 1984 Tom Hanks comedy isn’t random. Before her long run at the Public and before that at the Ford Foundation, Manus worked as a production exec at Universal, reporting to comedy maven Sean Daniel, a Universal exec who oversaw “Animal House.”
One day Daniel told her she had to see Hanks, then an emerging star, in the Joe Roth-helmed “Bachelor Party.” “I laughed so hard at that screening,” she recalled.
Discovering comedy talent fulfilled an ambition Manus had since the age of 16 — to work as a studio exec or producer.
The Gotham-raised daughter of an entertainment lawyer and lit agent, she was steeped in showbiz. She didn’t hesitate when given a chance in her early 20s to work stints as an underling for Roger Corman and “Dog Day Afternoon” producer Marty Bregman.
Having quit the film biz “cold turkey,” in her words, in 1994, Manus returned to her Gotham roots and rekindled a love of world cinema. With her Hollywood days in a different perspective, she has nothing but praise for chief programmer Richard Pena.
While he remains firmly aboard in his longtime role, Pena has also become part of the speculation surrounding the Lincoln Center Film Society given that his contract expires in 2012.
A major weapon in Manus’ arsenal to retain both Pena and ticket buyers is the $38 million renovation that has transformed Alice Tully Hall from a bunkerlike mid-century monster into an inviting, glass-walled Broadway fixture. By 2011, it will also add two other small screening venues that will complement the recently revamped Walter Reade Theater.
As part of the larger remaking of Lincoln Center, the changes will also bring an array of new public spaces, flat screens and LED displays, all of which promise to make the New York Film Festival more accessible to the public. Internet ticketing, more aggressive marketing and even a change of the film society’s name — everything is on the table.
Manus sent a message by choosing Hanks, a quintessentially Hollywood figure, as the honoree for this year’s fund-raising gala, to be held in Tully. Gone is the traditional black-tie stuffiness of past galas honoring Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen. In its place, Manus hopes, will be a welcome shot of energy from the venue and the crowd drawn by Hanks.
New facilities alone, however, won’t be the answer as competitors keep putting on the pressure, she acknowledged.
“What I’ve learned is that for cultural institutions, it’s the opposite of ‘Field of Dreams,’ ” she said. “If you build it, they may or may not come depending on how well the place is doing.”