After 50 Years, Film Society of Lincoln Center Is a ‘Society’ No More

After 50 Years, Film Society of Lincoln Center Is a ‘Society’ No More

April 28, 2019

The Film Society of Lincoln Center turns 50 this year. To celebrate, the organization is holding an anniversary gala Monday and planning free summer movies. But most important may be what won’t be around for the festivities: The organization is dropping “society” from its name. Beginning Monday, it will be known as Film at Lincoln Center.

The change, modeled on Jazz at Lincoln Center, has been in the works for years. Lesli Klainberg, the group’s executive director, described the move as primarily an effort to broaden the institution’s appeal and reach a wider audience.

“‘Society’ has a sort of old-fashioned sense of elitism — it feels more closed,” she said. “We want to be, and we consider ourselves, a more open place.”

Dennis Lim, the group’s programming director, added that the word “society” evoked a particular period of filmgoing culture, when exclusive clubs first formed in the 1920s and ’30s and held periodic screenings.

Lim emphasized that his organization does much more than that. Perhaps best known for the New York Film Festival and the New Directors/New Films series, it is also a year-round home for “mini-festivals” like the documentary-focused Art of the Real, as well as a magazine (Film Comment) and talks with cinematic luminaries.

Last year, the organization recorded the highest attendance in its history for both the New York Film Festival and its year-round screens. So the need to present itself as a more welcoming venue raises questions about its audience. What type of moviegoers does the society attract and who is it trying to reach?

Richard Peña, a film studies professor at Columbia University who was the organization’s programming director from 1988 to 2012, said many suggested he drop the word “society” during his term. But he didn’t have any trouble with it.

“To me, the phrase ‘film society’ has a very long and honored tradition in the history of alternative film practice,” he said. If the organization has seemed forbidding to some, he said, it has more to do with the fact that it’s tied to Lincoln Center, one of the city’s most prestigious cultural hubs.

When he was in charge, he recalled, a teacher contacted him because she wanted to bring her students to a Latin American series he had organized. After going over ticket prices, she asked, “Do the boys have to wear ties?”

“That wasn’t a completely off-the-wall comment,” Peña said. “She thought that if you go to the movies at Lincoln Center, it must be like you’re going to the opera.”

The organization has tried to do away with that image and make itself more accessible over the years, Peña added.

It reaches diverse crowds through internationally themed series presented with partner organizations, like the New York African Film Festival and Rendez-Vous With French Cinema. But he said it still mainly attracts Upper West Side moviegoers because of its location on 65th Street near Broadway and because New Yorkers rarely venture outside their neighborhoods.

Ted Hope, now the co-head of movies at Amazon Studios and the former executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, said that may be true. But he said that core audience could also be described as “affluent, educated, city-based folk.”

“There is lots of diversity within that, but it does represent a very specific taste sector,” Hope said. A film that might play well on the Upper West Side has nuance, beauty, emotion and a theme that is graspable but not deliberate. And, he added, it would generally be in the running for the Oscars. (Unlike Peña, Hope did not know about the name change when asked for comment.)

Klainberg said that her group drew different audiences seeking out specific offerings. But on a fundamental level, the organization appeals to cinephiles, a demographic that has changed since the society’s beginnings.

When the inaugural New York Film Festival unspooled in 1963 (the film society was born from it six years later), 80 percent of the audience was under 25, Klainberg said. The organization still draws crowds of all ages. But, like many film exhibitors, it has been trying to appeal to younger people who grew up in the age of Netflix.

The name change is just one tactic. The organization also wants to make its academy programs for aspiring critics, artists and industry professionals — which are largely behind-the-scenes affairs — better known. And it’s been developing its online presence through social media and two podcasts: a weekly one that will be renamed Film at Lincoln Center Podcast and another run by Film Comment.

Vying for young viewers — or anyone with a streaming subscription — isn’t the only challenge.

“The competition for Big Apple filmgoers comes from other theatrical venues,” Annette Insdorf, a film professor at Columbia University and moderator of the Reel Pieces series at 92nd Street Y, wrote in an email. She said that in the past, it was revival houses that beckoned to cinephiles.

Now there are different offerings to consider, like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Alamo Drafthouse in Downtown Brooklyn or the Metrograph on the Lower East Side. On the one hand, that means film culture is still very much alive. On the other, it means venues have to provide more than robust programming to compete, like serving patrons food and cocktails at their seats.

Klainberg said her organization’s free talks are particularly successful. People recently lined up for hours for a discussion between the “High Life” director Claire Denis and its star, Robert Pattinson. The amphitheater where the talk was held can seat only 75, but a YouTube video of the talk now has more than 12,000 views. That’s the type of accessibility the group is aiming for.

“We don’t want to be confined to just the folks that find us here on 65th Street,” Klainberg said. “It’s about the reach we have beyond those doors.”

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