When Karen Cooper took over the Film Forum in 1972, the theater was a projector and 50 folding chairs in a loft on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, showing what were then known as underground movies. The annual budget was $19,000. Cooper projected films—sometimes himself—on a single 16-millimeter machine no bigger than a microwave.
“I’d say to someone, ‘I’m showing independent films,’ and they’d say, ‘You mean pornography?’ Opposite the theater in Greenwich Village.
But now Cooper is stepping down from his role as director, which has become synonymous with the Film Forum, which has grown into a four-screen space on a $6 million annual budget and whose influence reaches far beyond New York City. The organization announced on Monday that it has been full for half a century.
“I’ve been thinking about this for years,” said Cooper, whose deadline will be June 30, although he will remain on the roster as a consultant. “I wanted it to be a smooth transition.”
He will be replaced by Sonya Chung, 49, the theater’s deputy director, who began working as director of development at the Film Forum in 2003. With a master’s degree in fiction writing from the University of Washington in Seattle, Chung left in 2007 to write and publish two novels (she also taught literature and writing for three years at Columbia University and nine years at Skidmore College in New York City). in ). She returned in 2018 as a programming consultant and advisory board member and was hired as assistant director in February 2020, she.
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“Sonya has great taste and a way of expressing it,” Cooper said. “When I met him – without Sonya knowing – it immediately occurred to me that he had the talent to become a theater director.”
Cooper was a 23-year-old Smith College graduate when he took over the theater founded in 1970 by two film buffs, Peter Feinstein and Sandy Miller. now the work of leading filmmakers appeals to American audiences and wins the love of critics and patrons alike.
He oversaw the theater through three relocations—the Film Forum moved to its current location on West Houston Street in 1989—and oversaw a $5 million expansion and renovation in 2018 that added a fourth, improving seating, legroom, and line-of-sight in all screening rooms. this increased the capacity of the venue to approximately 500 seats.
Cooper said he was proud to work to broaden the scope of Film Forum’s programs and introduce audiences to the great German filmmakers of the 1970s such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. Peter Robinson’s 1972 view of psychiatrist RD Laing’s therapeutic community of schizophrenic patients living together in a group home in London; and Spike Lee’s “Four Little Girls” (1997) about children who died in a church bombing in Birmingham, Ala in 1963.
Serving as part of the Film Forum’s draw of nearly 200,000 people, is a handpicked list of new films that Cooper, Chung and art director Mike Maggiore mapped six months in advance to the dry erase board in their movie theaters. A strong lineup of classic films programmed by repertory art director Bruce Goldstein, along with a concession stand menu of decadent baked goods, and a robust talkback sequence with filmmakers, visitors annually.
Chung says that the biggest challenge facing Film Forum, one of the few theaters in New York that regularly shows independent films, is competition from streaming services. He said it can be difficult to persuade people accustomed to watching at home to pack up and take the subway to the theater and pay $15 for a night out.
One solution, he said, is to create an unforgettable experience that people can’t find anywhere else. They recently hosted Q. and A. events with Lizzie Gottlieb, the director of the documentary “Turn Every Page — The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb” and the film’s subject, book editor and filmmaker whose father is Robert Gottlieb; as well as with Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, whose dark story about the life of a donkey was shortlisted for the “EO” Academy Award. Both events are sold out, he said.
“In real life,” he said, using the acronym, “Young people are craving an IRL experience, especially post-pandemic, when we have so many streaming overloads.”
Chung also wants to cultivate a younger and more diverse audience, with a particular focus on people of color from outside the white, more affluent neighborhood of the theatre. Over the last few years, she’s created a youth members program and Girls Write Now, a nonprofit creative writing and mentoring for young people from underserved communities in New York City; and ArteEast, a nonprofit that presents the work of contemporary artists from the Middle East, North Africa and the diaspora.
And now, starting this month, the theater’s internship program, which places three college students each semester into roles in the theater’s repertory program, outreach and management departments, will be payable.
“We decided that we should pay them so that a more diverse group of young people could work here,” Chung said.
As for Cooper, a long-time resident of the remote West Village and walking to work every day, he will continue to be an active member of that organization’s programming team. He will continue to represent the Film Forum at the Berlin and Amsterdam film festivals. It plans to maintain its program of viewing at least 500 movies per year. It will continue to focus on fundraising for the nonprofit, which raises nearly $3 million of its operating budget each year.
“I never thought I would stay here for 50 years,” he said. “But where would I go? What do they say – the hedgehog knows something, the fox knows a lot?
“I am a hedgehog,” he said. “I know one thing – how to run a movie theater.”