New NYFF Director Eugene Hernandez Wants to Make an Impact on New Yorkers Year-Round

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Eugene Hernandez was just announced as the new director of the New York Film Festival Wednesday morning, but he’ll hit the ground running this week as he heads to Germany for the Berlinale Film Festival. And he’s already got his eye on a few titles he’d like see playing at Lincoln Center later this fall.

Hernandez’s goal in taking over for Kent Jones, who left after 2019’s NYFF to become a full time filmmaker, is to really keep in mind audience and how the festival strives to be inviting year round. While the festival’s program is smaller than what you might see at TIFF or Sundance, its strength is that audiences continue to return to Film at Lincoln Center after the festival has ended.

“This festival is such an important celebration of the work that we do year round. There are many different types of film organizations in this country and this world. Some are very specifically built around an individual festival, and others have a year round impact with an audience that comes back the minute the festival ends. They’re coming back the next week,” Hernandez told TheWrap. “Our programming is international, and we need to be as open to the international audiences that live in this city and inviting them, so that’s why we’ll continue to have more opportunities and ways to engage an audience.”

Hernandez is taking on the role of director of the festival in addition to his existing duties as part of Film at Lincoln Center, where he’s been the deputy director since 2016. He’ll pile on the responsibilities of the festival in addition to leading FLC’s Artist, Industry, and Education initiatives and serving as publisher of Film Comment.

He’s got a lot on his plate. But Hernandez says as he heads off to Berlin that this transition and added responsibility feels a lot more natural than when he moved from founding Indiewire to his work with Film at Lincoln Center.

“I’ll probably have to juggle my calendar a little more carefully this week to make sure I get to watch movies at the same that I’m getting the opportunity to sit down and have meetings with people. But it’s a natural extension of the work,” he said. “The bigger change was 10 years ago, was being a journalist and running an editorial publication to working at a year round cultural institution. That might’ve been a bigger disruption or change in my life.”

Hernandez will report to Lesli Klainberg, FLC’s executive director, who told TheWrap that hiring in-house made sense, not just in terms of Hernandez’s reputation both inside and out of the organization, but also the holistic mindset of tying in NYFF with the larger goals of the film center.

“We knew we had a wonderful person in terms of the public face of the organization and the festival and a lot of good will toward Eugene. People like him. That’s a unique person in the industry right there, a person whose liked by most people,” Klainberg said. “It just felt like a very natural and obvious fit.”

The departure of Jones specifically made Klainberg rethink what the process should be for putting together a festival and how it can carve out a place in the culture “writ large.”

“We were looking at where we are in the film culture and where we are in the culture writ large, really considering what we need,” Klainberg said. “It was very clear that we needed to move in a different direction and have a person whose responsibility included all those different things that we considered as part of the building blocks of the festival. Once we did that, it was very clear that Eugene was the right person for that job.”

Hernandez’s other challenge coming into this year is continuing to make the festival relevant in an era when the awards calendar is getting increasingly cluttered. That doesn’t even mention the fact that the festival kicks off right around the time the opera, philharmonic and ballet all decide to launch their seasons.

“There’s so much cultural renewal that happens in New York in the fall,” Hernandez says. “Our festival really continues to look at the art of cinema and the art of film from a bunch of different perspectives, and that’s the foundation we’re working to build on.”

He adds that he’ll still rely in part on his predecessor Jones as a resource, whether in working as a consultant or moderating panels. But Hernandez wants to make a bigger priority of spreading the conversations that are hosted at the festival more widely.

“Every conversation that we have at our festival, the longer Q&As, the conversations we have on our stages, we’re recording and capturing those so we can share them on our YouTube channel, we can share them on our growing podcast,” he said. “I think a lot about audience, because I think of how I got invited to be a part of this festival experience as an audience member, so I think a lot about what it means to just be open to an audience and signal that we’re a festival that audiences can engage with in a bunch of different ways.”

The 58th edition of the NYFF runs Sept. 25-Oct. 11, 2020.