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Joanne Koch, Who Led Lincoln Center’s Film Society, Dies at 92

A lifelong film lover, she stood up to protesters, and to federal and church authorities, to bring challenging movies to the masses.

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By Alex Williams

Joanne Koch, the longtime head of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, who stared down picketers and, at times, government and church authorities to present controversial works by the likes of Godard, Scorsese and Oshima while presiding over the New York Film Festival, and who oversaw the creation of the center’s own temple for cineastes, the Walter Reade Theater, died on Aug. 16 at her apartment in Manhattan. She was 92.

Her daughter, Andrea Godbout, said the cause was aortic stenosis.

A lifelong defender of artistic freedom, the Brooklyn-born Ms. Koch (pronounced “coke”) served as the Film Society’s executive director over more than a quarter-century of change and growth, starting in 1977. (She was not related to David H. Koch, the oil magnate whose name adorns the ballet theater at Lincoln Center).

In 1973, she helped create the film festival’s New Directors/New Films series, which showcases the work of emerging directors and has included the work of Spike Lee, Pedro Almodóvar and Wim Wenders. She also helped produce 19 of the society’s celebrity-studded gala tributes to film luminaries including Fred Astaire, Laurence Olivier and Audrey Hepburn, as well as spearheading the acquisition in 1974 of the influential critical journal Film Comment, where she served as publisher.

As the society’s chief financial officer, she helped raise funds and coordinate the design for the Walter Reade Theater, which opened in the center’s Rose Building in 1991 as a sanctuary for independent and foreign films at a time when the VHS revolution was imperiling many repertory film houses.

“Her passion was always to build new audiences for films and provide them superior venues for moviegoing,” said Wendy Keys, a board member and former executive producer of programming for Film at Lincoln Center, as the society is now known. “She wasn’t just a dollars-and-cents person. She was driven by her great love of film.”

Her most visible role, however, was managing the prestigious New York Film Festival. At a time when competing film festivals in North America were exploding, she helped it maintain its international prominence — and its strictly curated format.

“We would fight like cats and dogs over every film we showed,” Ms. Keys, a former member of the selection committee, said in a phone interview. “We always considered ourselves to be presenting each of our 25 films on a velvet cushion, as opposed to showing more than 350 films, which is what a lot of other festivals do.”

Sometimes those decisions came at considerable risk. For example, Ms. Koch and the rest of the society found themselves in a face-off with federal authorities in 1976 when the festival scheduled the North American premiere of Nagisa Oshima’s “In The Realm of the Senses,” an unflinchingly graphic tale of sexual obsession set in Tokyo in 1936. (“‘Senses’ does not show anything that has not been available in hard-core porn houses around Manhattan,” Richard Eder of The New York Times wrote in 1977.)

That notorious film created a buzz in New York cultural circles, Ms. Keys recalled, with notables like John Lennon and Yoko Ono scheduled to attend the premiere at Alice Tully Hall. But then federal customs and Treasury officials, after seeing the film at a press screening, threatened seizure and legal action if the film society showed it.

The film was cleared in court, and Ms. Koch invited the original audience, which had been turned away, to a screening at the Museum of Modern Art a few months later. “She thought that nothing should be avoided, whether it was too violent or explicitly sexual or anti-religious,” Ms. Keys said. “That was very deep to her core. She was a provocateur.”

The firestorm was far greater in 1985, when the festival scheduled a premiere of “Hail Mary,” a film by Jean-Luc Godard that imagined the Virgin Mary as a modern-day young woman who worked at a gas station. More than 5,000 protesters, some toting candles, turned out at the screening, according to an essay by the philosopher Stanley Cavell in the 1993 anthology “Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary: Women and the Sacred in Film.” The rector of a seminary in Connecticut warned, “When the bombs fall on Manhattan, one will especially fall on the cinema where this film is being shown.”

“The film is not anti-Catholic,” Mr. Cavell quoted Ms. Koch as saying. “We don’t mean to offend — certainly that was not our intent — but we feel strongly that art has to be respected as art.”

Picketers again swarmed Lincoln Center for the festival’s premiere of “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film portraying Jesus as a man caught in a struggle between the earthly and the divine.

Joanne Rose Obermaier was born on Oct. 7, 1929, in Brooklyn, the only child of John Obermaier, an electrical engineer, and Blanche (Ashman) Obermaier, a professor of elementary education at New York University. As a teenager at Midwood High School, she “used to sneak into the Loew’s Kings movie theater on Flatbush Avenue through a side door for matinees,” Ms. Godbout, her daughter, said.

She graduated from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., with a degree in political science, and in 1950 she took a job in the film department of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, eventually becoming a technical director working on film preservation.

In 1949 she married Oscar A. Godbout, a journalist who covered Hollywood for The New York Times in the 1950s and later wrote about the outdoors as the newspaper’s “Wood, Field, and Stream” columnist. The couple divorced in 1967, and later that year she married Richard A. Koch, the director of administration for MoMA.

Mr. Koch died in 2009. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by three stepsons, Stephen Jeremy and Chapin Koch, and two grandsons.

In 1971, Ms. Koch took a job at the Lincoln Center Film Society, where she ran a program called “Movies in the Parks.” She ascended to the society’s top post six years later.

Not all her battles there amounted to artistic crusades. In 1987 she found herself embroiled in a different sort of controversy when she and Alfred Stern, the society’s president, were reported to have led a campaign to oust Richard Roud, a respected cinephile and the longtime director of the festival, in a dispute that erupted after Ms. Koch overruled the festival’s selection committee to include two films by Federico Fellini.

“I think Joanne wanted more power,” David Denby, then the film critic for New York magazine and a member of the selection committee, was quoted as saying in The Times. “It became obvious this summer when she started strong-arming the committee on the selections.”

Ms. Koch told The Times that the move “had nothing to do with film selection,” but rather involved longstanding administrative differences.

Even so, it was a difficult chapter. “It was horrible,” Ms. Koch recalled in a 1992 oral history. “I was put on the cover of The Village Voice as ‘The Terminator.’”

But she was unrepentant. “It really did change the way I look at myself professionally,” she said. “Realistically, I’m not such a nice person all the time. You can’t be, in this kind of a job.”

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