On stage at Lincoln Center last night, Richard Peña (right) with Michael Moore. Photo by Godlis

Richard Peña has seen his share of standing ovations at Lincoln Center over the past 25 years, but its safe to say that few were as touching as the resounding applause in his honor last night. Hundreds rose to their feet to cheer Peña as he took the stage during a funny and moving two-hour tribute at Alice Tully Hall. The artistic chief of the New York Film Festival and Program Director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center since 1988, Peña was saluted by family, friends, colleagues, co-workers and fans as this year's festival heads into its final days.

As the landmark 50th New York Film Festival comes to a close, the reality of the change about to occur is coming into focus. Peña will present his final film at NYFF on Sunday and at the end of the year will leave his post at the Film Society. In his time here, Peña has shaped the organization and its mission in ways that few others have.

It's hard to imagine movies at Lincoln Center without Richard Peña, folks said over and over last night before and after the evening program hosted by filmmaker Michael Moore. A fixture on the stages of the leading arts campus, introducing films or talking with filmmakers, Peña also presents movies on NYC's local PBS station WNET. For decades he's been introducing moviegoers to films and filmmakers from around the world.

However, Peña's relationship with New York City audiences hasn't always been easy.

In his first year at NYFF, Peña presented Derek Jarman's The Last of England. Sitting alongside the filmmaker in the Alice Tully Hall balcony box in 1988, Peña watched as countless audience members got up and walked out as the screening continued. The same thing happened a couple of years later when the crowd turned on his Opening Night choice, the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing. There were fewer than a thousand people left in the 2,800 seat hall by the end of the movie, Peña recalled.

Upset by such reactions, Richard Peña went to NYFF co-founder Amos Vogel at one point. The founder of New York's legendary Cinema 16 film society, a screening series that began provoking Manhattan audiences in the 1940s, Vogel offered Peña sage advice.

“Walking out is a perfectly legitimate response,” Vogel told Peña.

Peña took the counsel to heart. He's since embraced as a key component of his  programming philosophy that moviegoers will sometimes respond quite negatively to a movie .

“The idea that people are angry, are moved, that means they're engaged,” Peña reiterated last night. “That means that that work of art really established a connection with them, even an unpleasant connection.”

When Peña arrived at the FIlm Society from the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 80s, film programming at Lincoln Center was mainly an annual event during the fall New York Film Festival. Within years came the opening of the Walter Reade Theater, giving contemporary international cinema a permanent home and putting Peña in an ongoing dialogue with this city.

“You know, we are in such a fast food entertainment age, everyone wants things to go down easy without any problems and to not be rattled,” Richard Peña elaborated last night. “I think it's great when you can show people a vision that upsets what they think about the world. Indeed, that's been one of the things i've hoped to do.”

In addition to Michael Moore, Richard Peña was saluted last night by Film Society Executive Director Rose Kuo, journalist Joan Buck (a past member of the NYFF selection committee), former Film Society Executive Director Joanne Koch, Film Society staff members Gavin Smith and Kent Jones, as well as former Film Society president Roy Furman and Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker alongside filmmakers Paul Schrader, Joseph Cedar, Rama Burstein, Dror Moreh and Charles Ferguson.

Photo: Richard Peña with his wife and three children last night at Lincoln Center. Photo by Godlis

Before taking the stage for an extended discussion with Moore, Richard Peña sat with his wife and children in the front row of Alice Tully Hall during much of the tribute, smiling, nodding and clapping as guests toasted him. Seated a few seats away, his son Ari leaned back in his chair at one point to snap a cell phone photo of his father's name splashed across the giant Alice Tully Hall screen. 

Among the most revealing comments of the evening were by someone who knows Peña better than anyone in the room, his own daughter Maya. She explained the uneasy relationship that she, her brother and sister maintained with her father's professional life.

“The New York Film Festival has been a stepsibling of sorts for the entirely of our lives,” Maya Peña explained. “Some would even say the festival has been the neediest sibling, occupying a tremendous amount of my father’s time and energy, at times to our dismay. But like all familial relationships, as much as we have resented the festival at times, we have loved it even more, simply for the sheer joy it has brought to my father and the film-loving community of New York City.”

The Peña family smiled as she spoke. She introduced her father and invited him on stage, praising her Dad as “a man smarter than anyone, who’s face would light up as he watched those around him gain joy from the thing he so dearly loved—movies.”

Peña took the stage to an extended standing ovation from the crowd and then settled in for the discussion with Moore, who's Roger & Me debuted at the New York Film Festival in 1989. Like Olivier Assayas, Noah Baumbach and others, Moore credits the festival will making his career what it is today.

During their discussion, Moore probed about the future of film culture and Peña expressed a prediction that in the coming decade numerous cinemas in this country will close because moviegoing habits are shifting irreversibly.

“It's not that people aren't watching movies, they just aren't watching movies theatrically,” Richard Peña worried. Movies are harder to find on film and cinephiles are less and less likely to crave seeing them in a movie theater. But Peña still relishes the experience.

Near the end of the evening, as Michael Moore wrapped up their conversation, he asked Peña to name a guilty pleasure film. Apparently at a rare loss for words, Peña hesitated and his son Ari yelled out a suggestion from the front row: Dude, Where's My Car!

Laughing, Richard Peña didn't miss a beat. He recalled seeing the movie with his son at a city multiplex. There were about 20 people in the audience and afterward they looked around at each other as if to say, “Don't tell anybody we were here.”

“There is no greater communal experience,” Peña offered before sharing a few final words with the crowd. Expressing confidence in the Film Society's future, he added simply, “Please keep supporting film here at Lincoln Center and in New York.”

On Saturday, October 13 at 4:30pm Richard Peña will participate in a free NYFF Live conversation about cinema and his career in the Film Center Amphitheater. Can't make it out? You can also stream it live via YouTube! More information is available here.