Film Forum’s Karen Cooper

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By PENNY GREY

DIRECTOR, FILM FORUM

Film Forum (209 W. Houston St., between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street) is the only autonomous, full-time nonprofit cinema in New York City and is a stronghold of Downtown culture. Karen Cooper, director of the theater since 1972, reflects on Film Forum and the importance of independent cinema to New York and New Yorkers.

You’ve been with Film Forum for 39 years; that’s a long time.

Yes, it certainly is. I became the director of Film Forum in 1972, back when we had just 50 folding chairs in a space uptown. We’ve been in a total of four different locations over the years. We moved into our space on West Houston in 1990.

Have you seen your demographic change as you’ve moved around Manhattan?

Certainly. Movie houses are all parts of a community, so neighborhoods definitely affect the demographic. Where we are now we tend to attract people from the nearby neighborhoods—SoHo, The Village, Tribeca. That said, we are a destination theater. Sooner or later, you find your way to West Houston.

How have you seen audiences change over your 39 years at Film Forum?

Like every audience based in the arts, it’s harder to draw folks into the cinema now. It’s a matter of fact that moviegoing has gone down, even though revenue has gone up. The revenue is only going up because ticket prices do.

People have many, many more ways to invest their time than they did 20 years ago. Computers have had a profound impact on our society. These days, people can download and stream most films onto their computers. They can sit at home checking email after work instead of going to the movies.

So why go to the cinema?

Oh, there’s a huge difference in terms of experience. To be in a social setting like that, surrounded by people, and to be in a dark room without interruption—there’s a great deal of concentration to that, to the experience of being in a movie house. But beyond that, the films we premiere at Film Forum are not films you can download. They’re films that you haven’t seen and can’t see anywhere else. Your only option is Film Forum, really; we premiere films exclusively, for the most part.

What do you look for when you’re selecting films to premiere?

Well, I try not to look for anything in a film. I think that’s dangerous. There are so many ways that a film can be good—if it has something new or something old, it doesn’t really matter. If it touches you, moves you, entertains you, then it does what it’s supposed to do.

I think, in general, entertainment is much more complicated than the way Hollywood sees it. People don’t just want car chases and girls and explosions. I believe entertainment is much more oblique and complex than that. We want to see something much closer to the way we live our own lives. New Yorkers do, at least.

Could this explain why documentaries have been such a passion for you?

Probably. They really show us to ourselves. Since the early ’70s, I have been focused on politically and socially vital issues. Right now, through October 18, we’re screening a wonderful documentary called Hell and Back Again, about a young marine returning home to North Carolina after being seriously wounded in Afghanistan. It’s an incredible achievement in cinema verité filmmaking and it’s a film that can’t be seen anywhere else.

What do you love most about your job?

Discovering new work, most definitely. That’s the best moment. I would say that my colleague Mike Maggiore [co-programmer of premieres] and I see nine films that don’t work theatrically for every one that does work theatrically. So when you see that one film that grabs you, it’s like winning a treasure hunt. It’s incredibly exciting.

And what do you love least about your job?

Raising money is a constant challenge. I probably like that least. Showing movies is an expensive business, particularly as an independent movie house. It’s sort of like the difference between being the mom-and-pop shop and the supermarket. The basics can always be had at the supermarket, but if you’re the specialty store, you have the best or you have nothing at all. And we do have the best—the best films and the best service—but there’s a lot of cost involved in having the best. We’ve got 22 full-time employees and more than 40 part-time employees.

As a nonprofit organization, we’re always looking for corporate, private and individual donors. We raise approximately 37 percent of our operating income from public and private sources, which allows us to take risks on emerging filmmakers and challenging films.

Really? Film Forum is a 501(c)3 nonprofit?

Yes—to my knowledge, we’re the only free-standing nonprofit movie house in New York City. It’s probably my fault that more people don’t know that. In the early days, I didn’t really emphasize it because it seemed so important to be a lovely, comfortable and professionally run movie house, and I didn’t want to undermine that with focus on being a nonprofit. But now there are so many for-profit independent movie houses looking like nonprofits that are definitely for profit that it seems we should really let people know that we’re a dyed-in-the-wool nonprofit, the real thing.

So, after 39 years, what’s next for you and Film Forum?

Keeping up with the technology, most definitely. We’ve always prided ourselves on keeping up with that. We’ve just invested $70,000 in a DCT digital projection system. Now we need to raise another $140,000 to get another two systems for the other two theaters. So, what’s next? Raising money to keep the theater on the cutting edge, that’s what!

For current and upcoming Film Forum premieres, visit www.filmforum.org.

PHOTO COURTESY OF FILM FORUM

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