When Karen Cooper took over 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 films. The annual budget was $19,000. Cooper projected the films — sometimes herself — on a single 16-millimeter machine no larger than a microwave.
“I’d say to someone, ‘I show independent films,’ and they’d say, ‘You mean pornography?’” Cooper, 74, recalled with a laugh in a recent conversation at the nonprofit art house cinema’s offices, now located across the street from the theater in Greenwich Village.
But now, Cooper, who has become synonymous with Film Forum — which has grown into a four-screen space with a $6 million-a-year budget and an influence that reaches far beyond New York City — is stepping down from the director role she’s filled for half a century, the organization announced on Monday.
“I’ve thought about this for years,” said Cooper, whose last day will be June 30, though she will remain on staff as an adviser. “I wanted to have a smooth transition.”
Succeeding her will be Sonya Chung, 49, the theater’s deputy director, who began working at Film Forum in 2003 as the director of development. Chung, who has a master’s degree in fiction writing from the University of Washington, in Seattle, left in 2007 to write and publish two novels (she also taught literature and writing for three years at Columbia University and for nine years at Skidmore College, both in New York). She returned in 2018 as a programming consultant and a member of the advisory committee, and was hired as deputy director in February 2020.
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“Sonya has great taste and a way of articulating it,” Cooper said. “It immediately occurred to me when I met her — unbeknownst to Sonya — that she had the ability to be the director of the theater.”
Cooper was a newly minted 23-year-old Smith College graduate when she took over the theater founded by two film buffs, Peter Feinstein and Sandy Miller, in 1970. Over her 50-year tenure, she built a beloved cultural institution that has introduced the work of now-prominent filmmakers to American audiences, earning the affection of critics and patrons alike.
She has led the theater through three relocations — Film Forum moved to its current space on West Houston Street in 1989 — and oversaw a $5 million expansion and renovation in 2018 that upgraded the seating, legroom and sightlines in all screening rooms and added a fourth, which increased the venue’s capacity to nearly 500 seats.
Cooper said she was most proud of working to broaden the scope of Film Forum’s programming, introducing audiences to major German filmmakers of the 1970s like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. She was also honored to have programmed the New York premieres of ambitious documentaries such as “Asylum,” Peter Robinson’s 1972 look inside the psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s therapeutic community of people with schizophrenia living together in a group home in London; and Spike Lee’s “Four Little Girls” (1997), about the children killed in the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala.
It’s the meticulously curated slate of new films — which Cooper, Chung and the artistic director Mike Maggiore map out on a dry erase board in the cinema’s offices as far as six months in advance — that serves as part of the draw for Film Forum’s approximately 200,000 visitors each year, along with a robust lineup of classic films programmed by the repertory artistic director Bruce Goldstein, a concession stand menu of decadent baked goods and a robust lineup of talkbacks with filmmakers.
Chung says the biggest challenge facing Film Forum, which is one of the few theaters regularly to feature independent movies in New York, is competition from streaming services. It can be tough, she said, to convince people who’ve become used to watching at home to bundle up, take the subway to the theater and pay $15 for a night out.
One solution, she said, is creating a memorable experience that people can’t get anywhere else. They recently hosted Q. and A. events with the filmmaker Lizzie Gottlieb, who directed the documentary “Turn Every Page — The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb,” and the film’s subject, the book editor and her father Robert Gottlieb; as well as with the Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, whose dark tale about the life of a donkey, “EO,” has been shortlisted for an Academy Award. Both events sold out, she said.
“Especially post-pandemic, when we have so much streaming overload, younger people are antsy for an IRL experience,” she said, using the acronym for “in real life.”
Chung also wants to cultivate a younger and more diverse audience, with a particular focus on people of color from outside the theater’s white, more affluent neighborhood. For the last several years, she has created a young members program and developed partnerships with cultural and community-based organizations like Girls Write Now, a creative writing and mentoring nonprofit for young people from underserved communities in New York City; and ArteEast, a nonprofit that presents work by contemporary artists from the Middle East, North Africa and their diasporas.
And now, starting this month, the theater’s internship program — which places three college students each semester in roles in the theater’s repertory program, outreach and administration departments — will be paid.
“We decided we should pay them in order to attract a more diverse group of young people to be able to work here,” Chung said.
As for Cooper, a longtime resident of the far West Village who walks to work each day, she will remain an active member of the organization’s programming team. She’ll continue to represent Film Forum at the Berlin and Amsterdam film festivals. She intends to maintain her schedule of watching at least 500 films per year. She’ll continue to focus on fund-raising for the nonprofit, which raises approximately $3 million of its operating budget each year.
“I never thought I’d stay here 50 years,” she said. “But where would I go? What do they say — the hedgehog knows one thing, the fox knows many things?
“I’m a hedgehog,” she said. “I know one thing — how to run a movie theater.”