The Sticking Place

The Unfulfilled Promise of Film at Lincoln Center

by Amos Vogel

There is every expectation that the forthcoming New York Film Festival’s 20th Anniversary season will have its usual share of outstanding films and memorable events. For someone who was there ‘at the creation,’ however, it is a time for reflection.

When in 1963 Lincoln Center’s president William Schuman asked the then director of the London Film Festival and myself as the head of Cinema 16, America’s largest film society, to create a film festival in New York, we could not have predicted that within three years it would become the world’s most prestigious non-competitive film event. Since American commercial film distributors and exhibitors were unwilling to take financial risks on unknown new talents, the Festival quickly established itself as the major American showcase for serious cinema.

President Schuman’s courageous initiative and the important support by Lincoln Center’s staff under Schuyler Chapin were crucially underpinned by the $10 million Lincoln Center New Projects Development Fund which absorbed the Festival’s inevitable deficits.

The creation of the New York Film Festival was Lincoln Center’s first recognition of its previous disregard of cinema. While the Center from its inception had been a confederation of ‘constituents’ in each of the performing arts – music, drama, opera, ballet – it was indicative of its cultural conservatism that film, one of the most vital arts of our century, had never been included.

William Schuman, determined to correct this, already in 1965 gave us the mandate to draw up plans for a full-fledged Film Constituent comparable in size and scope to all other constituents, with its own cinema and year-round operation. The Lincoln Center Film Department was therefore created and I was appointed its Director.

Schuman’s determination coincided with my own conviction that a two-week Festival could not substitute for a comprehensive program of daily, year-round performances designed to display the full, magnificent scope of international film culture.

Disaster struck in 1968 at the very moment when our extensive research for the Film Constituent entered its final stage. Confronted with a huge financial crisis caused by a building costs overrun, Lincoln Center eliminated the entire $10 million New Projects Development Fund. All work on the Film Constituent ceased. It was not helpful that Lincoln Center’s Board offered Schuman less than complete support for the Film Constituent – some of its members leary of contaminating Opera with Godard – and that there were internal conflicts regarding ‘turf’ between, piquantly, two Rockefeller institutions, Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. As Nelson Rockefeller played a crucial role in the negotiations, this was a particularly instructive type of cultural politics at the highest levels.

To save at least the Festival, a new organization of businessmen and a few cultural figures was created who, as the Film Society of Lincoln Center, assumed its ownership and deficits.

The result was a severe reduction by half of the Festival’s budget and audience, its transfer to the much smaller Alice Tully Hall and the elimination of fifty-odd free special events of independent cinema, symposia and lectures presented each year to balance the Festival’s more popular theatrical, narrative features.

The transfer of Festival ownership represented the American marriage of culture and corporation, here experienced on one’s own body. It proved difficult to fend off ideas appropriate for commercial events but not for cultural ones, such as asking producers to pay $10,000 to the Festival once their film had been selected (since its commercial chances would thereby have been enhanced), or having the Festival renamed after a leading cigarette company. These were signs of a growing commercialization of cultural life I was opposed to. My cinematic talents did not encompass coping with corporation heads. I resigned my post in 1968; a step I have always felt sad about and never regretted.

The Festival became the sole survivor instead of the ‘jewel’ in a glittering crown of year-round performances. It thereby assumed a disproportionate weight, its twenty-odd selections a year perhaps inevitably viewed as ‘the best’ that international cinema had to offer. Such a burden is too difficult for any Festival to carry. A two-week Festival, immeasurably more than a year-round operation, acts as a ‘gatekeeper,’ with power to bring to the fore certain filmmakers and unwittingly to delegitimize others by omission.

Proof of this contention is the success and viability of the large number of innovative showcases for cinema in New York – the Film Forum, Museum of Modern Art (including its Lincoln Center co-sponsored ‘New Directors’ series), Center for Public Cinema, Public Theatre, Collective for Living Cinema, Millenium, Japan Society, Goethe House, Whitney Museum, Anthology Film Archives, Thalia, Regency, and Harold Clurman Theatres. They represent part of the dream I had for film at Lincoln Center. With the passage of time, however, I think that the decentralization inherent in these important efforts has a great deal to recommend it.

It is a tribute to the organizers of the Festival that it survived at all; I had not been sure of this and am glad that I was wrong. Its continuing achievements cannot be denied. Its very prominence, however, has created problems of concern to all serious film lovers: the increasing use of the Festival as premiere showcase for films theatrically released the next day; the growing number of ‘favorite’ directors assured of having their newest work shown, due to the Festival’s age and ‘auteurist’ orientation; the disdain for short films – those selected do not represent the quality and scope of existing production – and the insufficient attention to independent, avant-garde, social/political cinema. These developments diminished the Festival’s earlier pioneering role in reserving most of it’s slots for new talents.

In 1982 it is possible to view the demise of the Film Constituent plans as part of a wider cultural crisis at Lincoln Center. Given its chronic inability to provide for a proper Drama Constituent at the Vivian Beaumont, its severe difficulties at the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera’s endless need for million dollar subsidies to sustain operations, it is clear that Lincoln Center is an embattled bastion of establishment culture, its largely non-controversial programming primarily designed for the middle and upper class. Given its huge building and operating costs and the nature of its governing boards, this was probably inevitable. Lincoln Center is Official Culture – and the New York Film Festival is part of the package. The fact of its location, financing sources and governance defines its limits; the fact that it is also Lincoln Center’s most innovative and most unconventional project defines its achievement. The dream of a true film center at Lincoln Center, however, was aborted.

© Amos Vogel
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders

A draft of this piece was sent to The New York Times in June 1982, as Amos
prepared for the twentieth anniversary of the New York Film Festival in September
of that year. The piece was rejected, and doesn’t appear ever to have been published.
Here and here for New York Times articles about Amos’ time at Lincoln Center.