Sunday, September 13, 2020

Where are you going NYAFF? Pondering a festival

With The New York Asian Film Festival over for 2020 I am once more trying to deduce the hows and whys of how some festivals never seem to skip a beat when the programmers and upper management change while other seem to flounder and die. Festivals are in their way like magazines or newspapers whose readership can ebb and flow with the person at the top as can be witnessed by the changes in Film Comment when Nicolas Rapold took over from Gavin Smith and the magazine went from a largely all inclusive film magazine, to one focused on the art house and Lincoln Center centric programs. Film festivals some times have this happen to them.

I have been writing on film for over a decade and I have been going to film festivals for much longer. While I initially just went with whatever the festivals threw at me, I became more and more interested in how they were run as I began to get closer to the programmers of several different fests.

This piece comes from the fact that for the last year or so I have been trying to deduce where the New York Asian Film Festival is going. The festival has been undergoing a constant metamorphosis over the last half decade and with the a seeming final split from Subway Cinema in 2019 (the festival is licensed to The New York Asian Film Foundation who earlier this year asked outlets not to mention Subway cinema in connection to the festival or it's programs)  the festival is now standing on it’s own two feet except for it’s connection to the main festival having a home at Film at Lincoln Center.

For those playing the home game the last five years has seen the crazy genre films that once filled the festival, and gave it it's reputation as a place anything could happen, lessen to the point the festival looks less like what the festival was in its first decade to the point it is now an Asian clone of many of the series that regularly play the theaters at Lincoln Center. This year out of the fifty one films screened only three or four would represent what most long time attendees would think of the original wild and crazy NYAFF and the rest of the fest (scifi series excepted) being actually rather staid and regular to the point that other than the films coming from Asia, they could have come from anywhere else in the world.

I am trying to deduce if this is a good thing or a bad thing.

You do have to understand that I do love the New York Asian a great deal. The festival is the focus of this piece because of all the festivals I cover/attend it has undergone the most radical shift. Others have changed, I'll get to those in a minute, but NYAFF made a hard turn into respectability that seems to be at odds with its early years when its move to Lincoln Center it seemed like it was the barbarians storming the castle (which was part of the fun). The real problem here is the  festival is so respectable now that there is absolutely nothing to make it stand out from any other festival. It's now largely exactly like every other fest out there. In human terms it is like the hippies of the 60's who gave up on the counter culture or what made that generation unique and went to Wall Street and became the exact people they used to fight against..

I know NYAFF's shift away from straight genre films has been a shift in the Asian film market. Here in New York current Asian films (at least from China India, and Korea) are constantly showing in several theaters across the city. Films that would have been the big film for NYAFF, say last year's IP MAN 4, or the Oscar Winning PARASITE got regular, and long releases in the various multiplexes. As a result that the pool of what is available is depleted before the festival even starts. Additionally there was a point where a conscious decision was made not to program older films (there are now a couple of offshoot series) so wherein years past NYAFF could cover a dead year new release wise with a Kung Fu retrospective, that is no longer possible. The only old films come when tied to an award or a personal appearance and even then it is now a single title.

I am well aware from talking to the founding Subway Cinema guys over the last decade the absolute difficulty they have in programming films, more so when the festival is essentially competing with two other Asian festivals at the same time, the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts and the four decade old Asian American International Film Festival (which NYAFF is now looking more and more like), not to mention other fests that crop up during the year. I have been told on numerous occasions there are only so many good Asian films out there. And I have been told that some films can't be had because the studio/production house wants something special . What is programmed is a kind of crap shoot and on many levels we are just lucky to be getting any of the great films they show at all.

That is not a snide remark but the truth. Having talked to programmers and filmmakers I know that there is dumb and blind luck involved with everything related to film fest programming. The festival had tried to screen the live action SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO in 2011 but the studio wanted things the festival couldn't provide. In another case The New York International Children's Film Festival was forced to take films it didn't want to run in order to get the films it did.(I was told they would never do that again because of the complaints)

But assuming there are no limits, assuming we all can pick from the same pool the question then becomes what films are we going to pick?

That becomes the job of the programmers. Usually a festival will send people out to look for films, they will work with various online sites (Filmfreeway for example) and take submissions. I know festivals like DOC NYC use screeners who watch all the submissions who then send them down the line for further review. The choices are the further cut down. Ultimately the top people have to make the decisions and that very often becomes a matter of taste, and sometimes a festival's taste remains the same and sometimes it shifts and sometimes changes direction.

If you want to know a festival that has remained steady since it started look no further than the New York International Children's Film Festival. In over two decades they have been so successful at finding and picking great films for kids that they managed to spin off a company to release the films they found over the years and to go find new ones. That company, G Kids has been responsible for at least one Oscar nominated film every year, except one, of its existence. That's a hell of a thing to do. More importantly NYICFF has never missed a beat with programming from year one. As the founders came and went (the founders were all parents looking for films to show their kids) the festival simply grew and stayed true to its mandate. Truly, other than a failed attempt at programming a year round festival (a screening every weekend) and the above mentioned deal with a Chinese distributor that required them to take films they didn't want to, they have never misstepped. Even if you didn't like a film you knew why it was programmed

If you want an example of a festival that shifts it's focus and still goes on there is the New York Film Festival. Grandparent of most New York festivals it has stood the test of time. It has also shifted its focus with its head programmer and with the winds of change festival wise. In the last decade you can see how the all-inclusiveness of Richard Pena (anything could end up being shown) shifted to a more artsy one with Dennis Lim (the films tended to be more art house) and more best of the other fests under Kent Jones. All of the selections have been good, and all contain films the others would not have programmed.

NYFF also has had to weather and find a way to thrive when battered by two key events. The first has been the arrival of established and in some cases upstart fests like Toronto, Telluride and Venice all hitting in the weeks prior to NYFF and steal away most of the thunder of the big films. NYFF has had to shift away from being the big fall fest into being the best place to see the cream of the rest. My attitude is why travel to the other fests when NYFF will bring them to NYC.

More importantly while NYFF may not get all the big films the ones they get are choice with last year's premiere of THE IRISHMAN being so huge they had to do the press screening in Alice Tully Hall which is 3 or 4 times the size of the Walter Reade where they normally screen for the press.

And the other things they have had to contend with is not giving into corporate money. Where other fests have big corporate sponsorship, and added awards and galas and things named for various big corporations, NYFF has remained largely the the same fest, focused just on film and not trying to sell us  cars as well. They want you to come for the films which is commendable, even if it has meant a slight downsizing in the last few years (there are less sidebars). I have been told the fest could be flush with cash if only they let X sponsor an audience award (and maybe make a suggestion), but they want to focus on what matters, the films

And then there are the festivals which noticeably shift with the programmer.

For years Lincoln Center's magazine ran a series in February called Film Comment Presents. It was a festival that drew me in to really going to festivals outside of NYFF and NYAFF because long ago the festival ran all sorts of things, Anything from Kiyoshi Kurosawa jobs for hire, to Klaus Kinski performance pieces to Claude Lanzmann films made from the cast off of SHOAH, anything was possible. Under the watchful eye of former Film Comment editor Gavin Smith the fest like the magazine proved film was anything anyone wanted it to be.

Of course Gavin left a few years ago and Nicolas Rapold took over. Under his watchful eye the festival shifted to more art house choices and the festival has scaled back to a now occasional series of screenings. Personally I like some of the choices but as any reader of Unseen Films knows my tastes run much wider.

And then there is the shift with NYAFF. Since Sam Jamier has taken the reigns of the festival it has moved away from the "big" Asian films toward the smaller ones. The festival has also thrown its net wider to be more inclusive of all of Asia not just Japan, China and Korea. I completely understand the need, since as I stated above the pool of films has shifted, but it also comes because Sam has always had a very broad taste in films. But what interests me for the purpose of this discussion is the noticeable change in style in that while the festival is looking more and more like the Japan Cuts festival that Sam used to run when he was at the Japan Society in New York. The films are much more staid and with the crazier films being a tad more cerebral. In many ways NYAFF is now like Japan Cuts but covering all of Asia.

Now before you think I am complaining I am not. I still love NYAFF I am simply using it as an example of a festival that had a change at the top that resulted in the whole festival feeling different than it was previously. I do like what they program and I love that there is some effort made toward a more inclusive slate with the festival running sidebars on LGBT or other social issues. The net they are throwing out is wider and has resulted in some great films that the original programmers may not have run.

At the same time the problem is that NYAFF of today doesn't feel like the something unique. It feels like any other non-specialty based festival. Where in years past when you walked in you knew you were not in Kansas any more, the last few years you'd be hard pressed to know what festival you were at.

Okay, yes admittedly part of the change is we no longer get Grady Hendrix wild and wanton openings. But even the days Grady wasn't there NYAFF was always hopping. There was an air of expectancy with the volunteers and programmers talking up what was coming or just played and a sense that there was family. Everyone was high on every film and everyone, programmers and people in the seats were all together as if it was a giant family reunion. Everyone felt approachable because we were a family.

I know that the shifting programming has changed the audience and altered the family. Where years ago you would see many of the same faces at every screening and many of us walking in to the theater would get a greeting from the regulars, the regulars don't seem to be there. Yes, you see them here and there, but even allowing for life getting in the way more times than not many old timers are not there. Most of the old time regulars now pick and choose the films they attend. Few people seem to go to everything… or rather it’s been a different sort of audience goer who is going to see everything the last few years, it’s the sort of film fan that is more in tune with the art house as opposed to the grind house. The audience is also skewing differently to those who are heavily into the social media outlets that the festival is using to promote their events (Instagram and Facebook, you must now be on those platforms or you will miss something).

I do know that part of the problem of the changing audience is the fact that until this year NYAFF has gotten later and later in announcing their schedules. I know this affected how festival goers could plan going to see a good chunk of the festival with the short turnaround time prevents people from getting time off. For example in 2019 they announced the slate 2 weeks before the fest started giving many people I know no chance to rearrange their schedules. They couldn't go to the fest as much as they wanted because they couldn't get time off. Were they really that uncertain of what they are going to be screening that they can't even announce any titles until the last minute?

This year the festival announced their schedule four weeks in advance, however they didn’t announce the actual schedule of screenings until tickets went on sale four days before the start of the festival. I know this was a problem for some people because I was fielding questions about the schedule and films for the weeks leading up to the festival from people were not really sure how things were going to go. (I won't get into the app which got mixed reviews from the people I talked)

I do know that part of the change in audience over the previous few years is do to the festival programming films in such a way that weekday screenings are after 6 (which is fine) and after 930. I mentioned to Sam and other festival organizers that the way that they were programming the weekday start times made it difficult to attend the second showings since those of us who don't live in NYC can't really make the post 9 PM start times because it will require us to get home after 1 AM because of mass transit. The answer I was always given was that its summer and we should be off or that we should just stay in the city. Sadly, while I know that was meant to be a joke that is not a helpful thing to say to those who have to work but are jonesing to be at every screening. A similar discussion with Grady Hendrix years ago brought an apology and a long discussion of festival scheduling.

Sadly there is a sense now that the programmers are the programmers and if you aren't one of the inner circle they will be polite to you but they aren't going to even think about showing you the secret handshake let alone let you in on their thinking. There is a kind of circle the wagons mentality that was never there before. When I would question why a certain film was programmed I got the sense that what they are showing you what they have picked  and they didn't care what anyone thought because they liked it - though I'm not always sure they like some of the films. (And as for not caring I know they were a bit confused that some people didn't want to or simply couldn't use their new app) To me its noticeable because I have interacted with several of the programmers prior to the break with Subway Cinema and until that happened everyone was approachable but now, not so much.

I’m trying to deduce if this piece is the result of simply my not liking, or understanding the new direction or simply not being as big a fan of the choices made. I think it's because I really haven't liked the recent choices, which was a feeling re-enforced when I seemed to be sharing with many people I talked to who had been regulars of the festival. Because I have been very attached to the festival and because I have seen the vast majority of films they have screened over the years I thought I kind of  understood what the festival was  or was trying to be. I've seen the changes and I think it’s part of my uncertainty of the direction is, I don’t understand some of the programming. It’s not the type of the films, it’s simply that in earlier years even when I did disliked something I genuinely knew why something was programmed (Title X was a film some programmer loved or they felt it was an example  of something people should see - CHILDREN OF THE DARK anyone?). The last couple of years most of the films that didn't float my boat or the boats of my friends made me wonder why they were screening it since they were just unremarkable. I wasn't certain even the programmers liked the film since some screenings just ran the film with no real introduction. They made no effort to get the audience to connect it. Every fest I go to makes some sort of pre-film announcement to put things into some context whether it is good or bad, that didn't happen the last few years for some lesser titles.

The lack of love for some films and the lateness of previous years slates makes me wonder if they are genuinely having trouble getting a full slate of films. I ask this because according to my experience dealing with dozens of festivals every year the very late announcement of a festival slate is a sign the programmers can't fill slots. I know this year they had their fiftyone  films way in advance, but in this year of Covid and nothing is normal.

The obvious question for me would be if you can't fill all the slots why not cut back on the films? I'm sure it's a contractual thing with Lincoln Center, they agreed to so many screenings, but why not present the films you are most certain will be well received as opposed to adding in clunkers that make people not certain they want to see them or come back to the festival? Why not do what the original NYAFF did or what most other major festivals do and that is screen a film more than once?

The idea of making sure you are programming things people will love is an important one. Not that I am saying my thoughts mean anything but as a member of the press and a long attending fan of the festival who is recognizable I am frequently asked when I walk into screenings  early in the festival (or via email) questions about what's good and what isn't. People know I often have early access to the films playing and they want to know  if it's worth their staying to 11:30 or schlepping in for this film or that. While everyone I’ve spoken with since the leadership changed genuinely likes the wider set of choices, most people seem to be aware that there is a growing question of  how many of the films are actually any good. It’s a weird sensation being at a major film fest and having people wonder if the selections are worth the effort this year because the last few years were so scattershot. and had they really didn't like.

Allowing that not everything was available for screening without using the app, this year's selections were okay at best. I loved three films (ABRACADABRA, DANCING MARY and THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME),  thought I'd include four others in a fest I'd program and, even though I liked a many of other titles I'd have cut the rest loose since they really didn't belong in a festival that is nominally supposed to highlight the BEST in Asian films, not just any Asian films we can find.

That last line "any Asian films we can find" is really the crux of what seems to be my problem with NYAFF the last few years, this isn't  the show case it once was, its just like a big bland Asian multiplex full of largely okay films. I don’t know why this happened. Some have suggested that there are too many other fests, but other than Japan Cuts taking a large slice of that country’s films there should be way more good films out there- right?  (Then again even with Japan Cuts taking a large number of Japanese films NYAFF always still has a large number of Japanese films) And even if one year is bad there shouldn’t be multiple clunky years in a row. This is something deeper - something feels like it's going wrong since more and more films being huge question marks.  What I want to know is why isn’t their selection process working?

I don't know. Is it what they are being offered? Is it the programmers around Sam? Or is it a battle with Lincoln Center, since as the shift in focus at Film Comment has shown, it now has more interest in the art house than the grind house or even the regular house films.  I don't have any concrete answers for that other than being told several times over the last decade by multiple people in the fest and in Lincoln Center that some of the higher ups and money people at Lincoln Center didn't fully approve of NYAFF's programming and only put up with it because the festival made them money.

This leaves me to wonder would NYAFF be better off leaving Lincoln Center? Would the move away from Lincoln Center bring back the feeling that the festival is a huge family? Or is it a matter of money? Do they need Lincoln Center's financial input? Could the festival make a break and survive?

I don't have any answers. I only have a feeling that there is something wrong with the festival and it is moving toward not being really relevant any more. At the very least I'm at the point where they will have to show me something exciting before I will begin to reconsider if I want to attend.

For all I know the change in feel could simply be the result of the mix of everything that goes into the fest not working despite being the best. What I mean is like when you are cooking and you get the best ingredients for a stew you can but then finding out when you put them together that the high end carrots or meat you got were not as good as the lower "quality" ones you usually use.

To be honest this piece has been several years in coming. Normally after the founders of a fest leave or there is a change in programmers you get  a year or two where things bump about before things get back to the new normal. NYAFF never really got back on track, as different pieces seemed to slide. More and more people, and myself have been looking at the films programmed and wondering what the films are going in and why some of them were programmed coming out. Even my hardcore fan friends of the fest have been scratching their heads the last few years as to what many of the films were. It has gotten so bad that this year I stopped watching films for the festival when I ran into five films in a row  that I abandoned half way in because they were just sort of there and weren't worth writing up. I used to love at least trying anything NYAFF ran because you never knew how things were going to turn, and now I'm at the point where I just don't care because the films programmed are so unsurprising you can tell where most are going early on.

I have been discussing this piece with a few friends over the last few weeks and even before the fest announced it's schedule they told me not to say anything, this being the Covid year after all. But the truth is even allowing this is a Covid year there is still something wrong. Why could Fantasia, Tribeca,  Out on Film, The Harlem International Film Festival, and so many others still field festivals that excited and worked, but NYAFF fumbled?  Don't get me wrong NYAFF has some great films but over all the feeling this year, as its been the last few years, is blah.  It shouldn't be blah, it should be YEAH.

If you really want to know how things have changed consider that where I used to have a year end list of the great festivals I covered and what I found there. I don't do it anymore. I don't do it because NYAFF hadn't been on it in years. Yes there have been moments and there have been great films but over all the last few years have just been there. I stopped doing the year end list because it feels wrong not to have NYAFF on it. NYAFF is supposed to be the highlight of the film year not just another festival I go to.

Ideally I would love NYAFF  to turn it around and be great in whatever form it takes. I don't need the old days- I need good experiences. I need great films and a sense of family. I want to feel like the festival actually cares but doesn't casually suggest that we shouldn't be working and just going to the festival or in the case of this year being told off handedly that if you can't use the app you'll have to skip the year (yes I was told that and yes I know it wasn't said or meant that coldly but it really was annoying). I want a sense that the festival is one where the programmers are burning with excitement to share the wondrous things they have discovered with their friends, not doing a dull job. Right now it feels like it's being programed by rote by a bunch of bored desk jockeys.

Ultimately what I really really want is to be looking forward to the next fest the instant this year's festival  ends - and right now I don't even care about next year.

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