Sustaining cinema in the city

Eugene Hernandez, deputy director of the Film Society of Lincoln, with the film director Sofia Coppola. Photo: Mettie Ostrowski
The deputy director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center on fostering his passion

Eugene Hernandez has been to so many film festivals he’s lost count. “When you go, they often give you these little plastic badges that you wear around your neck and for over 25 years, that’s the one keepsake I have from each of my festivals. They’re in boxes, in my closet, hanging up on hangers. There’s hundreds of them,” he said of the mementos that grace his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, the same one he moved into in 1994 when the California native started work for ABC TV.

His penchant for film began during his student days at UCLA, attending screenings at the university’s student union. Hernandez would eventually run the office that scheduled programming there. Once in New York, the world of cinema opened up to him in a different way. “I was intrigued ... because, it turns out, a lot of my favorite movies were made in New York ... ‘Paris is Burning,’ ‘Do the Right Thing,’ ‘Metropolitan.’ There were so many movies that were so important to me that were rooted in New York. So I had this cinematic view of the city.”

His job at ABC was in walking distance form the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and he would frequently attend screenings there on his way home. IndieWire, the online film publication he started in 1996, was born from his growing passion.

Now, as deputy director of the Film Society, Hernandez cultivates his dedication to the art every day. Besides running the Film Society’s day-to-day aspects, he oversees special events and programs, including a dozen film festivals a year, and serves as co-publisher of the institution’s magazine “Film Comment.”

Hernandez is now gearing up for The New York Film Festival, the Film Society’s biggest event, which starts in late September and run through mid-October. He’s also planning its most important fundraising event of the year, the Chaplin Award Gala, scheduled for April 30, at which Helen Mirren will be honored.

Have you always been a movie buff?

I became more focused on movies during college. I went to UCLA. As a student, I just started watching movies on the weekend at the Student Union. Screenings were like a dollar or two dollars. So I just started experimenting and watching movies I had never heard of, the kind of movies you watch on college campuses like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Blue Velvet” or John Waters movies. Those were the typical college campus in the ‘80s midnight movies. And I think it was these kinds of movies you would watch with 1,000 people in an auditorium that had this communal movie-going experience that changed my perspective. And when I started seeing movies coming out of the Sundance Film Festival in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, like “Poison” or “Paris is Burning,” “Reservoir Dogs,” those are the kinds of movies that really opened me up to independent film.

Tell us about the beginnings of IndieWire.

I was in New York working for television, but had this growing passion for movies. I have to mention the place I work now because it’s integral to the story of IndieWire. Down the street from ABC is Lincoln Center. And I just started going to movies at the Film Society because it was on my way home from work. There was just so much happening in New York in the early to mid-90s in independent film production. So the idea for IndieWire was born out of creating a publication that would champion new filmmakers and films. It was a startup, with no funding and no investors.

Did you ever think the site would grow into what it is today?

I couldn’t have imagined that it would become anything, because I didn’t imagine it as anything more than a passion or a hobby. It wasn’t meant to be a company. Through the support of the film community here and other filmmakers, it grew, and eventually I left my job at ABC to work on it full time. We got a point in the early 2000s where we couldn’t even afford an office. There were three of us. We were all working from home and having our work meetings at Starbucks and sending our mail to a post office box. We struggled; the dot-com crash happened in the late ‘90s and the second dot-com crash happened in 2007. We finally had to get an investor, and we sold the company to Ted Leonsis and Steve Case, the guys who started AOL. And that was what really stabilized the company. It’s in such a great place now, owned by Jay Penske at PMC.

You are started at the Film Society as director of digital strategy. What are some initiatives you’ve worked on so far that you’re most proud of?

I am, without question, most proud of these new initiatives that I feel really enrich the mission of the organization. We re-energized an education program here. In the history of this organization, which will be 50 years old next year, education was a key program very early on. From the very beginning, it took filmmakers into local schools. It took Martin Scorsese into high schools. It brought students to Lincoln Center to watch movies. So we brought that back because when we opened the film center in 2011, we realized that it was an opportunity to re-engage the city and the Upper West Side and Lincoln Center in our mission. So I started organizing free events, free talks. I’m very proud of the free events that we do in our film center all the time and daily during the New York Film Festival, because sometimes people just needed to be invited in.

Who is a memorable person you’ve met through your career?

The first person that came to mind was John Waters, and I think it’s because, as I mentioned, his films were so important to me as a college kid. He was just doing something totally different in Baltimore and I found his movies just so outrageous, funny and totally distinctive. So when I came to the Film Society, one of the first programs I was thrilled to collaborate on with my colleagues and our director of programming, Dennis Lim, was a complete retrospective of John Waters’s films on the occasion of his 50th year making movies. So we had John here at Lincoln Center and showed every single movie, including his short films and stuff from his personal collection. Movies he had stored in his attic in Baltimore, and he lives here in the West Village as well. He’s a huge cinephile; he comes to movies here at the Film Society. By way of Baltimore, he’s such a unique New Yorker.

You were honored on Out Magazine’s Out100 list. What did that recognition mean to you?

When I was included, I was invited to stand alongside Christine Vachon, another really amazing and influential New Yorker. She’s arguably the leading independent film producer in the city. She produced “Poison,” and films by so many other filmmakers that I’ve grown to respect and gotten to know in New York. So when the magazine asked me to stand alongside her for a photo for their Out100 issue, it was just a tremendous honor, because she is someone whose work as a producer has had such a dramatic influence on me personally. We stood there as representatives of an entire film community, an entire LGBT community in New York, a creative community here, and of so many amazing filmmakers who Christine has produced or I’ve been able to interview or champion or celebrate, both at IndieWire and now at Lincoln Center.