As the first full day of screenings got underway today, the festival’s selection committee gathered this afternoon at the Film Center Amphitheater to lay out how the famously selective program comes together year after year. indieWIRE Editor in Chief Dana Harris moderated the event, where she was joined by the society’s program director, Richard Peña; Scott Foundas, the associate program director; and critics Melissa Anderson, Dennis Lim, and Todd McCarthy, who round out the committee.

Peña, who has been with the Film Society for more than two decades, said the selection process begins each year at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, and ends with marathon screenings in New York over the summer. He and Foundas personally vet close to 2,000 entries every year, which an audience member noted was unique along the festival circuit. After about 1,900 films are cut, the real work begins. 

The committee members agreed they had no criteria other than a general sense of favoring surprising, unexpected films. Peña half-jokingly called the process “arbitrary,” with Foundas adding that Peña was the “mix master” for movies that go in front of the committee for debate. Whether they’re already-established films like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia or a striking out-of-nowhere debut like Policeman, the films are ultimately selected for what Peña said was one of the festival’s great advantages: a New York audience that craves smart, challenging, bracing cinema from around the world. In the end, fewer than 30 films make it to the Main Slate.

We’ll have archived footage from this unique look at the selection process availble soon. All of our forums at this year’s New York Film Festival are free and open to the public, though seating is first-come, first-serve. They take place in the Film Center Amphitheater (144 W 65 St) or in certain cases the Upper West Side Apple Store. You can also watch many of the events via real-time, streaming video from home.