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Interview with “Film Comment” editor Gavin Smith

An interview with the editor in chief of Film Comment magazine.

Above: Guy Debord's In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), which plays in the Film Comment Selects 2009 program.  Credit: The Film Society of Lincoln Center / agnès b.

The Film Comment Selects program at New York City's Film Society of Lincoln Center is always one of the most eagerly anticipated film events in the city each year.  Abandoning the select prestige factor that defines the New York Film Festival's programming, and likewise avoiding the organization that chiefly defines the Film Society's repertory program throughout the year—national cinema surveys and director retrospectives—as the name implies, Film Comment Selects is programmed not by Film Society programmers but by Film Comment editor Gavin Smith with assistance from the magazine’s editorial staff.

The Notebook had a chance to talk to Film Comment's editor and the chief programmer of Film Comment Selects—which began on February 20 and runs through March 5—about the interaction of the magazine, the Film Society, and this program, now ten years old, and the various intersecting forces of audience, market, magazine, and programming that uniquely come together each year at this time.

The interview was conducted by Andrew Grant, Daniel Kasman, and Ryland Walker Knight.


  • NOTEBOOK: What is Film Comment Selects’ relationship to the Film Society of Lincoln Center?
  • SMITH: Well, within the context of programming year round at the Walter Reade, it's become one of those things we do annually because it's been fairly successful. I wouldn't say it's through-the-roof successful the way tent poles like Rendezvous with French Cinema or the Jewish or Human Rights Watch festivals—those are gigantic programs that can do matinees and four shows a day and they all sell out. We're not quite at that level, but I think we are one of the midlevel sort of successful programs. It functions differently, or is programmed and structured differently than the other programs we do here.
  • I'm involved with some areas of programming, but generally I'm more of a bystander to a lot of the FCLC programming. Film Comment Selects is cross-sectional or horizontal, whereas most the programming here is vertical, in the sense that it's a country or it's a director. What we do is neither of those; it's deliberately intended to be eclectic. It's also intended to be eclectic without being inaccessible. We are looking to show films that maybe are edgier or, taste-wise, aren't quite appropriate for the New York Film Festival. This is the first year where I had at least one distributor approaching me, saying "would you consider this for Film Comment Selects?"—that's nice, it is some recognition that this is a meaningful showcase, and I don't know if that's particularly true of a lot of the programming here.
  • When we do, say, Spanish cinema, or any national cinema, there is usually an involvement with some kind of body in the native country that is pre-selecting or advising. With Film Comment Selects, it's up to us what we do, there isn't much oversight. The expectation is that we will come up with something that is surprising, and different, and fresh—to mix things up a little in relation to the normal approach to programming at the Walter Reade. In a way, Film Comment Selects functions as that two weeks in the year when you can expect the unexpected, and things get shaken up, and hopefully a slightly different crowd shows up for that. Sometimes a film will attract the audience it normally does here—an Upper West Side audience—but we do consciously try to do stuff that will reach out to a younger, more downtown audience.
  • NOTEBOOK: Do you see this approach to programming as an organic organization versus a more constructed or focused program, one around themes or a subject?
  • SMITH: I'm not clever enough to create a diverse mixture of films with a thread running through them or underlying connections, I don't think in three dimensions like that. Now that you mention it, perhaps that is something we should try or aim for in the future.
  • NOTEBOOK: Well actually that's what I like about Film Comment Selects; it seems to be a survey of the unfound films of the year, regardless of specific links...
  • SMITH: It definitely began that way, with a mission originally that the magazine was publishing content about films that weren't on the radar, and so we thought let's show some of these films, let's close the circle. We used to get letters from people living around the country who'd say "I love your magazine, but it's really torture because we can't see these films!" And I thought, gee, maybe that means we need to re-think what we are covering, or maybe it means we need to address that by showing some of the films somewhere where our readership is, so they'll get a crack at seeing them.
  • NOTEBOOK: I remember last fall during the roundtable at the New York Film Festival about film criticism, that Cahiers du cinema editor Emmanuel Burdeau was rhetorically talking about whether Cahiers should be involved in distribution, should they be going out and programming things...have you thought about this kind of extension? For example, taking the Film Comment Selects on tour around the country?
  • SMITH: Emmanuel was thinking outside of the box and that's good. Cahiers has been releasing DVDs for years, but they aren't necessarily new movies. I have to say there's definitely been interest in having this show tour, passing the package on to someone else. Nothing would make me happier than to be able to do that, but it's all I can do to pull it together in New York, and I don't really feel like I have the time or the know-how to take that and then have that go on tour. If someone could do that for me, we'd be thrilled, and it would be great for the magazine to go on the road and literally send a box of issues to every venue that hosted the series.
  • At the end of the day, Film Comment Selects' idea was to call attention to the magazine, because the magazine hasn't really got anything in the way of a marketing push behind it. In a way, you could say it was about branding. We can now say with a straight face that Film Comment is a brand; in a way Film Comment Selects has facilitated that by extending us into another realm. The kind of coverage we get does definitely get our name out there, and I suppose we are building some kind of audience. I don't know if it is an audience of people who read the magazine, or whether it's an audience that's just interested in the movies. My hope is that people come because the movie sounds good, they check out the magazine, and they want to become a reader, become part of the Film Comment community.
  • NOTEBOOK: I guess I'm curious about the interaction between Film Comment's serious film criticism and trying to literally connect to an audience by not just writing on films but showing films.
  • SMITH: do people read about films and then see them, or see films and then read about them? I think that we still can't make up our minds about that on the magazine's editorial staff. We try to strike a balance between the two.
  • NOTEBOOK: When you are making the program, do you look for films that don't have distribution? How does that affect the line-up?
  • SMITH: I really like to show films that don't have distribution, and in the first few years it was easy to do that, but it has gotten harder to do that. Despite the fact that New Yorker Films just went out of business, I think the distribution business has become much healthier in the last two or three years. Anything that is a strong movie gets picked up in some shape or form, if it's not by a big distributor it's by someone like that Netflix initiative Red Envelope Films, or someone like your company, Benten, or Cinema Guild.
  • That being said, there are films that don't have distribution that I think are really good that I'm not showing because I think it would be too hard to bring an audience to them. Every year I tend to feel some disappointment that there are certain films we select that I really think are just as good as everything else, but they become orphans, they don't get written about, they somehow don't attract an audience. That’s frustrating. My response is to be more careful about things that I pick, and whether I can sell that movie to an audience that would potentially find it satisfying.
  • Part of it is you think "how would I describe this film in a way that would intrigue people?" and there is a limit to how many films you can do that with in any given series. I think one of the big problems with a lot of film series is they show too many films! The more films you are faced with in a particular series, whether it's here or at Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, or the Anthology Film Archive, is that you don't know how to prioritize or make choices, and so you just give up and don't see anything. With something like Film Comment Selects that has more of an eclectic structure, you hope that different things will pop out for different people. The whole thing is an experiment. Every year we try to do different things, and incorporating a retrospective aspect is something that's grown, and it's spinning out of what we are doing in the magazine. Sometimes it is chicken and egg—if I'd like to show a film I guess I have to assign someone to write something about this, and that will build interest in us showing it, and other times we do an article and I think "that sounds good, I should take a look at that, maybe we can show it." So there is an on-going dialog between the programming side of my brain and the editing side of my brain, and Film Comment Selects is the outcome of that.
  • NOTEBOOK: Have any film sales come out of Film Comment Selects?
  • SMITH: Not lately. I think back in 2002 Ryan Werner came to see how the audience responded to demonlover, that was when he was with Palm, I think. I don't know if that clinched it for them, but he said something to that effect. Amongst the films we are showing that don't have distribution, I think we are kind of the end of the line; acquisitions people have already looked at the movies and passed on them. With the small film companies, as I said, things aren't falling through the cracks as much.
  • NOTEBOOK: How does it work dealing with sales companies when programming this series? Are they supportive of it?
  • SMITH: They seem to be. Mostly the issue is price. If they want a lot of money to show a film, especially if it's a per-screening amount, that's going to put us off. If it's a difficult film and they want a lot of money, that's going to kill it; it's just not worth the risk. If it's a difficult film and it's going for a song, well let's do it, let's show it once—you never know.
  • NOTEBOOK: I just got back from the European Film Market in Berlin, and everyone there acknowledges that it is a pretty lousy time for the industry, but prices haven't come down. In The City of Sylvia, two years later, is still too expensive to distribute.
  • NOTEBOOK: It ends up playing at Anthology, like Birdsong or maybe, eventually, Liverpool. Did you want to show either of those two films this year?
  • SMITH: I don't think either of them is like the most exciting film I've ever seen, although I like both filmmakers and we're going to publish an article about [Birdsong director] Albert Serra. I think Alonso's [Lisandro, director of Liverpool] films have gone downhill in terms of how interesting they are, although our editor at large Kent Jones thought we should show Liverpool. But I didn't like it that much; there's nothing wrong with it, but I could see just five people watching it in the theater and I think that's pointless, I think it's pointless to show movies you know no one is going to show up for. In a situation where the screening is completely subsidized like at MoMA, it doesn't matter how many people go. It's much more appropriate for them to show things like Liverpool.
  • NOTEBOOK: What do you think about IFC Festival Direct?
  • SMITH: It's something else that erodes what we are doing. We are showing things that IFC aren't giving a theatrical release to, so we just have that window of when we can show stuff before it goes online or straight to dvd or on demand cable. I feel like the walls are closing in a bit, so probably having the retrospective element to Film Comment Selects has let us keep things lively and diversified when things get tight. But also, we do events around the year. So we can just throw things out there now and then. Last year a good model was Captain Ahab, which I discovered too late to show in at 2008's series. So I showed it in June and it got a really good audience. But the thing is that we weren't trying to push twenty films, we pushed one film and actually got people to focus on that film and it stood out from everything around it. To me the future is to show single films. If you give people one shot at one thing, maybe that will work. The whole idea of programming in blocks is maybe not the best way of programming.
  • NOTEBOOK: In general?
  • SMITH: Maybe. What the IFC Center does is interesting. They show all kinds of things; it's a great mix. You don't really feel like it's a wall of stuff; it feels like there is something for everyone. They are halfway to that model of a completely atomized programming structure, where you have isolated films that get the specific attention and care in terms of marketing that they needs.
  • NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like you are getting the word out to the right audience for the right films? A film like The Chaser, something that certainly appeals to the Film Comment cinephile crowd, but is also a populist film as well. Did that other audience come, did they find out about it?
  • SMITH: Not as much as I would have liked. It got an audience that was acceptable; but you know, I thought it was a real kick-ass film. I think we have had more luck with Asian cinema of that kind in the past. When I think back to how great it was to show Ichi the Killer and the kind of response that got, you could feel it. We're very proud to have shown it. The rise of the New York Asian Film Festival has created competition for us with that type of film and audience, and we got The Chaser because IFC Films had it, but if we were going after other things it might have been harder.
  • NOTEBOOK: I remember when the Film Comment Selects started in 1999 that the screenings were really packed.
  • SMITH: Well, when we screened films that didn't have distribution or were new discoveries that may have been the case. What's changed now is that it is much easier to see those types of films now. Back then, there wasn't Netflix and on-demand. Foreign film distribution was a bit moribund, but I think it's been revitalized by DVD. DVD's been a real shot in the arm for distribution, but after the high you get the low. Now I don't know what's going to happen with foreign film distribution in the next few years. It may be more like companies like Benten doing tactical things where they pick a film here or a film there and give them a single show maybe in Cleveland, and then another screening in Austin—that's how it's going to be.
  • NOTEBOOK: In terms of the retrospective films this year, are these things that pop into your head or people approach you with a new print of an old film?
  • SMITH: The Guy Debord films were one thing. Sometimes the reason why we are showing the movies is because I want to see them myself. I've seen probably 85-90% of what we are showing this year, but the Guy Debord films for instance no one has seen. Something like this is an historical occasion, the American premiere of these films, and that's just not something we have to have an in-depth knowledge of the films to program, it's just obvious that we should. We waited five years to get the prints with English subtitles. As for The Killing of Sister George, that was something Melissa Anderson wanted to write about, and we did the same thing where she wrote about Play as it Lays about two years ago and we showed it, and she was able to bring in a really good audience. That went really well, so I'm trying to see if lightning can strike a second time. I think the film is an interesting time capsule and isn't often shown. Her piece built a platform for it, so we'll see. As for Demon Lover Diary and Seventeen, I've wanted to show them for years, but I didn’t feel I could show them in a vacuum. So I got one our writers to write a piece on them, and the rest is history.
  • NOTEBOOK: I'm curious about your interest in advocacy—in general, not just for Film Comment Selects but as a critic—how much you tend to value that or highlight it as part of your project.
  • SMITH: Wow! I love that word, "advocacy"! I think we're pretty big on advocacy in the magazine and in the programming. The advocacy is balanced by opportunism and calculation; they counterbalance each other. Definitely now as opposed to when we started Film Comment Selects I look at a film and think "could this get an audience?" and if I think it can get a really big audience I'm much more inclined to program it. When it comes to the magazine, I maybe don't do that, but the magazine has just gone through a period where it got way too overboard on the advocacy, and we were publishing stuff about a lot of films and filmmakers that really weren't on the map. I always thought part of Film Comment was to put people on the map, to go into the areas that are neglected or overlooked and shine a light in there. I still think this is what we need to do, but it needs to be carefully balanced by stuff that people can relate to so they immediately know where they are. If you just fill the magazine or the film series with really strange, esoteric, arcane stuff, I don't think people have a natural tendency to take risks and jump into the dark and will read about it or watch them. I am acutely aware of the need to have readers and have an audience. And readers don't have to read the magazine; you have to make them want to read it. I don't think it's a good recipe to make people want to read your magazine unless you want ten readers, to write about stuff that is really out there and that people can't easily connect to. Right now, I'm definitely trying to think about how to strike a better balance. The last three or four issues of Film Comment if you are really reading closely you can see we are tilting the other way.
  • NOTEBOOK: Having more concrete works of criticism?
  • SMITH: Just paying more attention to films you can walk down the street to see, and not have to wait a year to see once at Anthology or something.
  • NOTEBOOK: What prompted that shift in the magazine?
  • SMITH: It's in not wanting to see the attendance fall or subscriptions to drop; it's thinking "I've got to be careful." It's also self-reflection. I personally, as an editor, get a lot of satisfaction out of publishing stuff about things I don't know much about and want to know more about. The really nice thing about being a magazine editor is being able to get someone really smart who's a good writer to write something I can read and learn more about it.
  • The most extreme example of that was the twelve-page piece we did on Alexander Kluge about a year ago. That, for me, was a revelation. This was a guy I'd first heard about when I was a teenager and I'd only seen one or two of his films in the years since, and I hadn't read much about him. I got a writer I used to read as a teenager [Thomas Elsaesser] who I think is a great writer to do this. It snowballed, and I definitely had to take a deep breath before making that much space in the magazine for something like that, but I did it and I don't regret it—that was advocacy. But that's not something I'm going to do again for a while, you can't do that to readers. We're part of an organization that is partly dedicated to expanding people's horizons about movies; and on the other hand it is an organization that wants an audience. So I try to think how the magazine can shadow, or compliment, or be slightly ahead of what the organization programs. That's a big part of our mission, when we can, to enrich the Film Society's audience's experience of seeing these movies, so that they can either read up about them afterwards or find out why they should see something. Sometimes we do that a lot and sometimes we do it rarely at all, depending on the programs.
  • NOTEBOOK: I'm curious about programming commitments to “the new.” I always tend to prefer the retrospectives; there is always so much new to account for, I think it would be great for Film Comment Selects to start a separate retrospective series.
  • SMITH: The next single screening we're going to do is The Friends of Eddie Coyle because Criterion is putting it out on DVD about a month later. That's a bit more like what you're talking about—it's a great film, it's not available on video, and it doesn't show much. So we have an article in the next issue about it, that's totally advocacy.
  • But I hear what you are saying, and I think there are too many new films. Sometimes I wish the film industry would have a two year moratorium on making films so we can appreciate what's already around. I had this feeling at Rotterdam; there are lots of things that are interesting sounding, but you start to feel, like at Sundance, that you are seeing the same four or five films again and again. It gets a little wearying. Isn't there any other kind of film they can make? I suppose films like Birdsong and Liverpool are against this grain, but they've got their own predictability, which is this kind of new minimalist tendency. I'm sure both filmmakers would love to have the biggest audiences they can reach, but consider the way they are approaching things—-they are all descendents of Straub-Huillet or Bresson. And more power to them, but that becomes predictable too. How many films like that can you watch in a given week? Wouldn't it be great to show Birdsong right after The Chaser?
  • NOTEBOOK: I just saw La Rhonde and Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach last month back-to-back, and I’d love to see more programs like that, a double bill that will totally jam you.
  • SMITH: Yes! That's great, that's really fun programming. Not everybody wants to see to films back-to-back. The days of double bills are dead. I often program in those terms, but when pressed to say if it is two separate screenings or two films for one ticket, I'm forced to say two separate screenings. You guys are our core, our core readership and our core audience—but you aren't enough to sustain the Walter Reade and Film Comment.
  • NOTEBOOK: But there are events like the Ye-Ye thing you did, those are very popular, right?
  • SMITH: The frustration is that you can publish something about a film, you can build interest, and then you can do an event and a screening and get a great audience to come—and then the next day it's as if it never happened. We haven't figured out how to capture those people and make them want to come back. On the other hand, I don't know how many of the people who came to the Ye-Ye thing would come tomorrow, if they necessarily want to see a lot of films. Maybe they just want an experience. So part of what we're going to do is to create experiences for different types of audiences. The Captain Ahab screening is a good example, as it brought out people who had more literary interests than pure cinephile interests. To some degree, programming is like throwing a lot of films against a wall and seeing what sticks. But then after that, there's no way to take what sticks and do more with it. It's over; it's all hindsight. You never know what'll do well or what won't. I don’t know…do you have the feeling that people don't want to go to the movies much anymore?
  • NOTEBOOK: Definitely. I think there are too many demands on people's time, not just movies.
  • SMITH: I think that in the long run, people recognize that going to the Walter Reade will eventually become like going to the opera. It'll be something for devotees, not the general folk. That's at least ten years away, if not twenty or thirty. The magazine...right now I don't see any magazines disappearing and becoming web-based. A lot of magazines are hedging by basically having the magazine online, but who wants to read that? I don't believe magazines translate onto the Internet. Some business people, who think technology solves everything, don't think about what a magazine means, what it's like to hold it in your hands; it has a presence; you buy it, bring it into your apartment, it sits there. It's not like, click, gone, click, back. We hope to continue being a tangible thing that exists in the world rather than something that exists on your screen until you go to the next thing on your screen.
“I think it’s pointless to show movies you know no one is going to show up for. In a situation where the screening is completely subsidized like at MoMA, it doesn’t matter how many people go. It’s much more appropriate for them to show things like Liverpool. " As someone who worked at MoMA, can say (unfortunately, as I´m sure most MoMA staff would agree) this is totally false. Besides, didn´t only 100 people listen to the Velvet Underground?

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