NEW YORK (AP) — When the playwright Tony Kushner recently grabbed a microphone and sat down for a post-screening Q&A with a filmmaker and the film's cast, he mumbled that he felt like Richard Pena.
So central has Pena been to film in New York over the last 25 years that for many merely sitting in front of a movie screen here is likely to bring him to mind. As the programming director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chairman of the New York Film Festival selection committee, he's one of the city's most devoted advocates of global cinema.
This year's New York Film Festival, the 50th, is also Pena's last. After 25 years, Pena is retiring at the end of the year.
"I'd be really pleased to be known as the person who kept the — what I think — extremely high level of the festival constant," Pena said in a recent interview in Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. "That indeed I was given a trust in 1988 and I didn't screw up."
Most would give him far more credit than that. Pena has overseen film at Lincoln Center through a tumultuous period that's seen the graying of art house audiences, the birth of digital filmmaking and distribution, the exponential growth of film festivals and the shift of the art film's epicenter away from Europe and toward the Middle East, Asia and South America.
It hasn't always been easy — critics have claimed narrowing relevancy for the NYFF — but most see in "The Festival" an exalted, uncorrupted platform of some of the best in movies. When the 50th NYFF begins Friday, it will be much how it's always been: a carefully curated, highly-selective few dozen films from around the world, including choice offerings from international festivals and highly anticipated fall films from Hollywood.
The premiere of Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," a 3-D adaptation of the fantastical best seller, opens the festival. "Sopranos" creator David Chase's directorial debut, "Not Fade Away," is the midway centerpiece. And the Robert Zemeckis drama "Flight," starring Denzel Washington, will close the fest.
The rest of the 32 movies in the main slate include films from Noah Baumbach ("Frances Ha"), Brian De Palma ("Passion"), Olivier Assayas ("Something in the Air"), Michael Haneke ("Amour," the Palme d'Or winner at Cannes), Cristian Mungiu ("Beyond the Hills") and Abbas Kiarostami ("Like Someone in Love").
This year's festival promises to be a milestone, celebrating the NYFF's past and its future. Along with various 50th anniversary celebrations, Pena will be feted in one of two galas (the other is for Nicole Kidman, star of Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy," an entry in the main slate). But the festival has also responded to a changing landscape by expanding: A three-screen theater opened last year, allowing the Film Society to broaden its offerings and add some less stuffy events, like a reunion of the cast of Rob Reiner's 1987 comedy classic, "The Princess Bride."
The 59-year-old Pena, who also teaches film at Columbia University, has seen the passion that accompanied the art house of the '60s — when films by Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni were met with fervor — wane: "Something happened along the way there and I don't really know what it was."
In festival programs and retrospectives, Pena has sought to expand the horizons of contemporary cinephilia, trumpeting directors like Kiarostami, Pedro Almodovar, the Dardenne brothers, Wong Kar-wai, Hou Chao-sheng and Edward Yang.
"In terms of international cinema, I would love to take a bow for that," says Pena. "But on the other hand, you have to realize, I had much greater access to that kind of work than my predecessors did. I mean, VHS tape was invented in 1985 and I came in 1988."
Rose Kuo, executive director of the Film Society, says Pena "very much took a lead" in bringing foreign films to Americans.
"When everybody else was looking right, he decided to look left and search out what other regions were producing interesting work," says Kuo.
Fittingly, the first festival Pena oversaw opened with Almodovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." The Spanish director has since been a regular at the festival. In a book planned for release this fall on the festival, Almodovar writes of the resonance of the festival and its director: "At that moment I initiated a dialogue with New York City and its cinephiles that has only increased in intensity, fun, variety and passion."
It was Koch, the longtime administrator of the Film Society, who hired Pena, formerly the program director at the Art Institute of Chicago. His arrival, initially in a lesser role, was promptly expanded in wake of the acrimonious exit of Richard Roud, who had been program director for the festival's first 25 years and was also hired at age 34.
"Things were simpler in those times and in hiring Richard, I believe I made the most important decision of my 32 years as administrator of the Film Society," says Koch. "After the first year, I knew he would make it to 25 — and probably another 25, if he wanted to work 24/7 a few more decades."
Pena will be succeeded by not one but two: Programmer and sometimes documentarian Kent Jones will be director of programming of the festival, and critic Robert Koehler will be director of programming year-round for the Film Society.
With three kids ranging in age from 15-24, Pena says he's "winding down a bit" and will likely occupy himself by organizing smaller programs here and there and doing series of lectures.
"I always think that there's stuff out there," he says of film. "If you're willing to move a little bit and make a tiny bit of effort, you can discover all kinds of wonderful things."