Beyond first run: Rose Kuo guides Film Society's new audience initiatives


Rose Kuo has reigned atop The Film Society of Lincoln Center (FSLC) as its new executive director since July 2010, giving her just enough time to settle in before the much-anticipated grand opening of the organization’s $41 million, three-screen Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center this past June.

With its brand-new Film Center, New York’s preeminent nonprofit independent cinema hub of screenings and world-famous events now enters the front ranks of first-run specialty exhibition in the art-house capital of Manhattan. As outlined in Andreas Fuchs’ article, the new facility comprises two standard theatres—one with 144 seats, the other with 87—and, for a wide array of alternative programming options, an 87-seat amphitheatre between them featuring tiered bench seating and a state-of-the-art, 152-inch Panasonic plasma screen.

More accessible than FSLC’s nearby flagship Walter Reade Theater, the new complex sits smack in the middle of Lincoln Center’s sprawling Upper West Side campus but operates separately from it.

This historic expansion is allowing FSLC to increase audiences and educational panel and lecture programs, leverage game-changing new technologies, and, of most interest to a challenged film industry, take significant new steps into first-run exhibition.

As executive director, Kuo shares leadership with longtime, highly regarded FSLC program director Richard Peña. FSLC, already world-renowned for events like the New York Film Festival (currently planning its 49th edition for this fall), and its “Chaplin Award” Gala Tribute honoring legendary stars and industry leaders, who have included Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

The Film Society also runs the New Directors/New Films independent film series produced in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art; oversees the ongoing programs of international, classic and cutting-edge independent cinema at the 268-seat Walter Reade, and has published Film Comment magazine since 1972.

Along with Peña, Kuo is taking these and other FSLC activities to the next stratum, thanks to the expansion to the new Munroe facility. For its bold forays into exhibition and the digital world, FSLC recently brought onboard independent distribution vet Bingham Ray as The Film Society’s first-run strategy consultant and, last fall, former IndieWire founder/honcho Eugene Hernandez as director of digital strategy.

FSLC is a nonprofit, but the commercial cinema world is taking notice of its move into competitive first-run, which has FSLC venues now competing for audiences with established Manhattan art houses like Film Forum, IFC Center, Angelika Film Center, Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Kuo points out that, with the exception of Lincoln Plaza, all these venues are downtown. Uptown still remains an underscreened art-house zone, thus providing The Film Society’s screens leverage in the city’s first-run specialized game.

With experience in several film worlds, Kuo has worked in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, in both production and programming. She has led world-class film festivals and organizations, produced and directed fiction and documentary films, and worked with critically acclaimed filmmakers including Michael Mann, Edward Zwick, Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese.

As AFI Fest’s artistic director for three editions, Kuo was the architect of AFI’s successful “free festival” in 2009. She has also served as a programming consultant specializing in Asian cinema and worked for the San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Mill Valley film festivals. In December 2009, the International Film Festival Summit honored her with its prestigious IFFS Excellence Award.

On the filmmaking side, she produced and directed the documentary California AIDS Ride ’94 and executive produced The Fluffer, the debut film from directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.

Kuo notes that her filmmaking background “helps me always keep in mind what filmmakers often have to experience and how organizations like ours can encourage them to get to the next level.” She adds that having traveled to so many film festivals, she further understands “that experience” and that it will enhance her ideas regarding guidance of the FSLC’s signature New York Film Festival.

On June 10, Kuo oversaw the weekend celebration launch of the Bunin Munroe Center, where, along with the venerable Walter Reade Theater, a variety of free screenings and film-related events were held, including appearances by directors Mike Nichols, Oliver Stone, Paul Schrader, Jason Reitman and Kevin Smith. The following weekend, on June 17, Magnolia Pictures’ New York Times doc Page One premiered on the new venue’s two big screens.

Kuo calls the June events “exciting in a number of ways.” The free screenings especially offered a reminder of how much the FSLC is obligated to the community and how wide a demographic, including children, can be served by The Film Society’s expanded activities.
The June events were also noteworthy, Kuo observes, because the public got to see the breadth of new programming FSLC can now offer (first-run and archival films from around the world, 3D works, panels, lectures, live feeds, etc.). And in addition to ongoing ventures with partners as diverse as global archives and the Hollywood studios, new partners are coming on board, be they directors like Schrader and Reitman, companies like Emerging Pictures for FSLC’s current British film series, or groups like the Ghetto Film School that brings younger generations into film.

“The addition of the amphitheatre is especially exciting,” Kuo declares, “as we witnessed the potential for this space, which is dedicated to so many different things like panels, video art, trailer loops, live feeds and more.”

Digital strategist Hernandez is a key player at the amphitheatre. Coming from a more box-office-conscious corner of the independent film world, might he experiment with something like a live feed beamed into the new Film Center or the Walter Reade that would allow more budget-constrained film fans to watch live and at manageable prices the FSLC’s Chaplin Award event across the street at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall? “Sure,” Kuo responds. “That could be a possibility.”

While June’s free FSLC activities brought in the crowds, they also provided the organization with valuable insights. Reports Kuo, “We learned that just as our audiences love films, they also want to be engaged with live speakers. There were also strong responses to other new things we can do now, like streaming on the Internet and into theatres nationwide [via their partnership with Emerging Pictures] and our ability to answer questions live via Twitter.”

Kuo also notes how popular the Film Center’s café was on opening weekend (“We couldn’t get food out fast enough”) and the response to the facility’s free WiFi. But more important, “with the turnout we had, we are further convinced about how much the Upper West Side has been starved for theatres.”

Overall, the FSLC expansion, as described by Kuo, furthers its mission “to show the best of world cinema and create and grow the community around these films as we also support the filmmakers.”

FSLC program director Peña is an old friend of Kuo’s. “We’ve known each other for quite a long time, as both of us were based in Chicago, where I lived. Here [at The Film Society], I’m more focused on where we should go and how to expand. Richard focuses on the programming. I’m trying to create an environment and structure that best allow Richard’s department to do what it needs to do and to do it best.”

Beyond more first-runs, Kuo suggests no major change in programming philosophy: “We’ll be augmenting what we already do, showcasing works year-round, having single theatres present multiple films, but now we can have a single screen do extended runs.”

As for Ray’s role as the first-run strategy consultant, he’ll be interfacing with the FSLC programming team and with the filmmakers whose work is showcased. Kuo adds that Ray might also be charged with bringing in “films that miss one of our time frames but that we really want to show.” Those could be films considered for the New York Film Festival or for ongoing FSLC country-specific series.

Kuo says that, like downtown’s Film Forum, FSLC is giving its first-run films a minimum of one week and “we can do holdovers if we want to.” Current or imminent works programmed include Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Project Nim, Another Earth and The Mysteries of Lisbon. These first-run bookings, Kuo adds, “coincide with the expansion of activities in the areas of education, emerging artists and digital delivery to other theatres.”

Hernandez’s focus on new digital initiatives will encompass web streaming of movies and other web content like live panel discussions and Q&As after screenings. The strategy is akin to giving film buffs those DVD-like “extras,” except that The Film Society can offer them live with real-world interaction. Says Kuo, “We’re having more directors appear and do Q&As, as we have the amphitheatre for it. So directors whose films are showing in the larger venues here can move over with much of the audience and the discussion can go broad.”

With the FSLC expansion come new marketing considerations, abetted by what Kuo calls the “total relaunch” of the FSLC website ( In addition to its marketing function, the site is “our fifth screen, the one that transcends the limitations of buildings and geography and takes our mission further than ever before,” she says.

As for FSLC’s outreach to art-house fans, Kuo believes that “we promote the smaller films so much more strongly than the big chains.” What about films with no title recognition like those in its current “From Britain with Love” series with Emerging Pictures? Kuo answers that the imprimatur of the FSLC itself, including its expertise at curating and promotion, carries weight, as do presentation “extras” like the live post-screening Q&As. And there’s also that broader reach far from Lincoln Center when the films are beamed from their cinemas to venues nationwide.

Will FSLC’s historic and costly expansion mean a hike in its ticket prices? Responds Kuo, “Our prices are the familiar $13 for regular tickets, $9 for seniors and kids and $8 for [Film Society] members. There may be some slight tweaking, but for now [first-run] is the same as what the IFC [Center] charges.”

The expansion assures a continuing global outreach for films rarely seen in the U.S. Says Kuo, “Last year, for instance, we added an Asian film festival and [we’re doing it] again this year. We’re continuing with retrospectives and bringing over films from places like Romania, Argentina, China and Taiwan where the output has exploded.”

Finally, might The Film Society try to tame that unwieldy Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center name and make it more user-friendly? “We’ve heard a number of possibilities,” she laughs, suggesting that with so much on her and the organization’s plate, finding a nickname is hardly a priority.

But might it make for a fun contest? Film fans, she shares, can already participate in the FSLC “Name a Seat” competition that will earn the winner his or her name on a plaque on a new theatre seat. Fans compete on the FSLC website to “tell us your ultimate film fan story.” Surely, there will be many more such stories emanating from this intimate new movie center.