NEW YORK — For years, the New York Film Festival was a quaint afterthought on the fall festival circuit, good for locals to catch up on prestige titles but devoid of much Hollywood fizz.
The Lincoln Center event has become an increasingly important spot for big fall movies, both launching pad and bellwether for the frenzied months of Oscar-contending releases that follow. The 51st edition opens Friday with the Tom Hanks hijacking thriller "Captain Phillips," part of an ambitious Hollywood slate and an indication of a new festival bent.
"This year, some of the studio films kind of us blew away," said Rose Kuo, executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which oversees the festival. "And when you have world premieres that are highly anticipated, there's a certain energy they create that's good for the festival. It hits the radar in a very powerful way."
Over the next two weeks, the confab will host world premieres of major titles from three different studios — Sony Pictures' "Phillips" directed by Paul Greengrass; 20th Century Fox's character fantasy "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" directed by Ben Stiller; and Warner Bros.' whimsical romance "Her" directed by Spike Jonze.
There is also the possibility of further debuts — in the form of so-called sneak screenings — that would follow in the footsteps of the unannounced world premieres of "Lincoln" and "Hugo" at the last two festivals.
NYFF's curated group of 30 or so movies (compared to the more than 250 titles that play North America's largest gathering, the Toronto International Film Festival) will still be populated with high-end titles that have been making the rounds at places like Venice and Toronto, including Hayao Miyazaki's pre-war Japan reverie "The Wind Rises" and Philippe Garrel's Paris romance "Jealousy." It will also feature its share of anticipated American fall releases that have played elsewhere, such as the Coen Bros. "Inside Llewyn Davis" and Alexander Payne's "Nebraska,' which premiered at Cannes.
But the industry's eyes are trained on the troika of studio titles. After all, how these movies will be received by both the hurly burly of New York media and the city's art-house population will go a long way to determining their prospects at the box office and the Oscar podium.
The new mandate is the result of efforts by Kuo, a veteran of Los Angeles' AFI Fest now three years into the New York job, and Kent Jones, a Film Society veteran who ascended to the top post of NYFF's director of programming shortly after last year's edition.
Both pay deference to a tradition of auteur discernment enacted by the festival's longtime chief, Richard Pena, who retired at the start of this year. But longtime followers of the festival also point to a more outward-looking mindset that seeks to integrate aesthetic standards with the buzz that comes from a major world premiere.
Jones himself acknowledges the shift, which he attributes not just to the festival but to the culture. "Younger people have fewer prejudices, moral or aesthetic, than young people did even 10 years ago," he noted.
For the first time this year, the selection committee included Lincoln Center programmers in addition to the usual panel of critics, further widening the field.
That move likely had an effect in other selections, such as with the North American premiere of "About Time," a crowdpleasing romantic dramedy from "Love, Actually" director Richard Curtis that will be released by Universal Pictures on Nov 1.
The new expansiveness has worked out well for Hollywood. Those behind the movies say they appreciate the breathing room New York's more leisurely schedule gives them--it's a far cry from Toronto, where three or four major releases will premiere in the same night--as well as the cineaste seal of approval.
"The New York Film Festival allows us to erase any preconceptions the audience has about this film that 'oh, it's just a remake' or 'oh, it's just a commercial movie,' " said John Goldwyn, the veteran Hollywood producer behind "Mitty." "Being in the company of the New York Film Festival allows us to say, 'This is a movie with ambition.' "
Centering on a nebbish man with an active imagination, "Mitty" is nominally a remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye movie and based on James Thurber's 1939 short story. Long-stalled in development, "Mitty" was jumpstarted when Stiller, who had committed only to star, opted to direct as well. It will premiere Oct. 5, a high-profile Saturday-night slot known as the centerpiece, in preparation for its commercial rollout on Christmas Day.
The festival also offers the option of premiering after the feeding frenzy of Toronto. Sue Kroll, Warner Bros.' president of worldwide marketing and international distribution, said that "Her" made sense for New York, where it will premiere as the closing-night selection on Oct 12, because the movie wasn't ready for Toronto and because the festival offered a spot closer to its holiday release. "October provides the perfect time to launch the film and begin to build word of mouth heading in to a very busy season," she said in an email.
Opening night also remains a large stage.
For "Phillips," which opens Oct. 11, Sony aims to follow the template for "The Social Network" three years ago, when it used the NYFF opening as a springboard to eight Oscar nominations and $97 million in box office. Last year, Fox used the slot to launch Ang Lee's "Life of Pi." The movie was the right blend of auteur piece and big-event spectacle, and a rapturous reception paved the way for a global hit and a best director Oscar win for Lee. (Things worked out less well for 2011's opener, Roman Polanski's stage-to-film adaptation "Carnage," which proved a dud.)
There is also the matter of the "sneak screening," which has been a powerful tool for studios.
In 2011, "Hugo" made its surprise world-premiere at the festival, and last year "Lincoln" followed suit. But Kuo remains coy about what it will be, or if it will happen at all. "There may not be one this year. Or there may be two," she said. 'We just want to surprise everyone."