Pena, now in his 20th year as selection committee chairman of the New York Film Festival, remembers those times fondly. Back then, he says, audiences went to the movies to explore and to be challenged, and Americans' taste for foreign films hit a high-water mark.
"We like to think that things only change for the better, but ... that openness that existed in the '60s disappeared," says Pena. "We not only lost it, we became hostile to it."
Since coming to Lincoln Center, Pena has made it his job to, if not resist the narrowing of the audience's collective mind, then at least to ignore it. For two decades as czar of the New York Film Festival and program director for Lincoln Center's Film Society, the professorial Pena has doggedly culled through tens of thousands of new films, searching for that elusive new masterpiece from France, Iran or any other country from which an aspiring auteur can mail a DVD screener to the Upper West Side.
With its small size -- about 25 films over 17 days starting in late September -- the Lincoln Center festival has been likened to a boutique shop amid a field of department stores. But as new festivals have spread out like a spilled tub of popcorn, it's hard to deny that Lincoln Center's event has lost some luster. When Richard Roud and Amos Vogel founded the New York festival in 1963, it was the only game in town. Now, by Pena's count, there are more than 60 festivals in Gotham alone. Most films that play at Lincoln Center already have shown at venues like Cannes or Toronto, and many arrive with distribution.
But the 54-year-old Pena says the festival's mission isn't to be the first, but rather to spotlight the highest-caliber films being made. He aims to show how cinema, at its best, is the equal of opera, ballet and the other arts.
"I feel strongly that is why the New York Film Festival has continued to exist," he explains.
In good years, the festival can serve as a kind of cinematic Ellis Island. It has helped introduce New York to daring works by directors like Pedro Almodovar, Wong Kar-wai and Jane Campion. On Pena's watch, the festival also has raised the profile of Americans such as Wes Anderson, Todd Solondz and Michael Moore.
"It's a real affirmation of quality because it's so selective," says Daniel Battsek of Miramax, which has two films, the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" and Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" in this year's festival. "It puts the film on a pedestal."
Pena sees his job as "overseeing of the best of every kind if cinema there is," says David Sterritt, who has served on the selection committee and was the long-time film critic for the Christian Science Monitor.
"What's nice about (the NYFF) is that it's more curated in a way," says New York-based writer-director Noah Baumbach, who grew up attending the festival. "Each movie gets its own time and night. It feels like a special night. You feel like when your movie's screening it's the only one; it's not like it's conflicting with something across town."
With "Margot at the Wedding," Baumbach will be making his third appearance at the fest after "Kicking and Screaming" received its world premiere there in 1995 and "The Squid and the Whale" screened in 2005 after its launch at Sundance. He says "Kicking" was at risk of not getting a release and that it was the NYFF "acceptance of it that really saved it."
Pena has wanted to head the event since the age of 12, when he attended his first festival. He hasn't missed one since, except when he was living out of the country.
Pena, the child of Spanish and Puerto Rican parents who were avid moviegoers, grew up with an affinity for foreign cultures and a love for film. He read all six of the books on cinema at the local library. Mainly, though, he went to the city's many theaters.
"New York was the education -- you could study film by living there," says Pena, who, in addition to his work at Lincoln Center, also teaches film theory and international cinema at Columbia U.
In 1980, Pena, who attended Harvard and earned a masters in film studies at MIT, took a job at the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, eventually becoming the center's director. Then, in 1988, he got his break -- he was hired to replace Roud at Lincoln Center.
Roud left behind a distinguished record, including having introduced New York audiences to Godard, Fassbinder and the young Scorsese. To this day, Pena says he hopes to live up to Roud's and Vogel's festivals.
According to Sterritt, while Roud also was too "Euro-centric," with his picks tilting heavily toward established French filmmakers, Pena "was much younger and much more well-versed in new global cinema."
Pena quickly worked to "expand the palette" at Lincoln Center. For his first festival in 1988, he gave the high-prestige closing spot to "Red Sorghum" by Zhang Yimou, a newcomer who Pena's committee has since invited back six times. And for the opening night -- an evening critics and Roud supporters would watch closely -- Pena tapped Almodovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."
At the time, Pena says, Almodovar was regarded in America mainly as a cult-film director. By spotlighting "Women," says Pena, the festival helped the Spanish director make the transition to "arthouse darling." Almodovar also became an enduring festival favorite, returning five times, most recently with "Volver."
Pena has likened the selection process to playing the stock market: Some picks pan out, others don't. When Pena first invited Abbas Kiarostami to the festical in 1992, the Iranian filmmaker's "And Life Goes On" filled perhaps half the auditorium. But Kiarostami, who also directed "The Taste of Cherry," kept coming back to Lincoln Center, as did other Iranian directors, and soon the seats began to fill up.
"I like to think that we made it OK to like Iranian cinema," Pena laughs.
Some directors championed by Pena have never found a commercial audience, including Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whose work has been shown a half-dozen times at the festival over the past 20 years. "These things sometimes take time," says Pena.
Some years produce better festivals than others. Pena is particularly proud of what he described as the festival's "interventions." He notes that Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" got "burned" at Cannes, earning no prizes and a tepid reception. "But we loved it," says Pena, who picked the film for New York's opening night. Pena, who has a picture of Eastwood above his desk next to his children's drawings, feels the buzz generated at Lincoln Center helped revive the film's fortunes and launch its Oscar campaign (it eventually earned six nominations and won to acting statuettes).
Although known for its rarefied air, the festival has seen occasional protests over films' content. Most of the drama usually plays out behind the scenes, with angry phone calls about passed-over films. People "curse me, curse my children, curse my children's children," Pena says.
While the committee's decision can be colored by their opinions of certain directors, Pena says nothing is pre-ordained. Wong Kar-wai, a festival favorite, did not get an invitation this year for "My Blueberry Nights." But Brian De Palma won his first spot with "Redacted," which takes a tough look at the war in Iraq. "If you had told me we would never show a De Palma film, I would have said 'that's probably true.' "
Some critics argue that the festival is too staid. Others fault the festival's recent inclusion of obvious crowd-pleasers like "The Queen" -- films that didn't need an extra boost. Last year, the New York Times went as far as to wonder if perhaps the perennially elitist festival was losing its edge.
In an age of "atomized" audiences, Pena says the festival offers "something for everyone" -- serious films and giddy if thoughtful entertainments. The 1994 edition is a case in point: That year, "Satantango," a seven-hour Hungarian black comedy, shared the slate with "Pulp Fiction."
"I am in the film history business," he says. "I look at this vast, worldwide gurgling mass of films produced in the past 110 years ... and try to help people find a way into it."
1963: The New York Film Festival, co-founded by Richard Roud and Amos Vogel, opens with Luis Bunuel's "Exterminating Angel."
1965: Pena attends his first NYFF.
1969: Amos Vogel resigns from the fest.
1972: Audiences members walk out during a screening of Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris."
1973: Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" makes a splash; Scorsese later credits the festival with helping jumpstart his career.
1976: Pena graduates from Harvard with a major in Latin American history and literature.
1978: Pena receives his master's in film studies from MIT.
1980: Pena begins working at the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
1985: A NYFF showing of Godard's "Hail Mary" attracts picketing nuns.
1987: Roud is ousted from the festival.
1988: Pena's first festival as program topper opens with "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."
1994: Tarantino's Palme d'Or-winning "Pulp Fiction" opens the festival.
1996: With such works as Mike Leigh's "Secrets and Lies," Milos Forman's "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and Lars von Triers' "Breaking the Waves," this edition shapes up as one of Pena's favorites.
1999: Fest's showing of Kevin Smith's "Dogma," a provocative film about the director's Catholic faith, meets with protests and a rebuke from then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
2006: "The Queen" opens the fest as an unofficial launch into its awards-season run that results in almost across-the-board statuettes for Helen Mirren.
2007: Pena celebrates 20 years at the helm.