Karen Cooper, Longtime Director of Film Forum to Step Down after 50 Years

Karen Cooper, Longtime Director of Film Forum to Step Down after 50 Years
Karen Cooper, left, will step down as director of Film Forum in June. Succeeding her will be Sonya Chung, right.Credit...Left: Henny Garfunkel. Right: Robin Holland.

After exactly half a century (1972-2022) as Director of Film Forum, the nonprofit cinema in Lower Manhattan, Karen Cooper will step down from the position and will be succeeded by Sonya Chung. Film Forum’s board, headed by Gray Coleman (Partner, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP), unanimously voted on the change in leadership this past November. It will take effect on July 1, 2023. Cooper will remain an advisor to Chung, with a focus on programming premieres and fundraising.

Says Coleman, “To say this is a transitional moment would be a vast understatement – for virtually all of its history, Film Forum has been energetically and most ably guided by Karen, not least during the very challenging pandemic period from which we are emerging. My board colleagues and I are extremely grateful for her tenure, and excited that in Sonya we have secured a very talented successor with her own long and productive history with the organization.”

Cooper took over the cinema in the fall of 1972, when it was a 50-seat loft space on the Upper West Side, open weekends only, created in 1970, with a $19,000/year budget, by two young cineastes to show American independent films – movies not playing in commercial cinemas. Over the next 50 years Cooper led Film Forum through three more iterations, building the enterprise to its current level of operation: a $6 million/year, 4-screen cinema, open 365 days a year, with nearly 500 seats and programming that is bifurcated into independent premieres from around the world and classic repertory programs, drawn from the annals of film history. The repertory program was founded by Bruce Goldstein, Repertory Artistic Director, in 1986. Under Goldstein’s direction, it has become the country’s leading showcase for restored films and has presented over 400 carefully-curated classics.

Among her responsibilities as director, Cooper has programmed the cinema’s premieres since 1972, and with Artistic Director Mike Maggiore since 1996. Sonya Chung joined the programming team in 2018. Cooper counts the New York openings of hundreds of indie narratives, documentaries, and animated features – many by debut filmmakers – as her greatest accomplishment.

Among those artists whose early films Cooper championed are: Chantal Akerman, Matthew Barney, Charles Burnett, David Cronenberg, Julie Dash, Terence Davies, Asghar Farhadi, Haile Gerima, Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Mike Leigh, Lucrecia Martel, Mira Nair, László Nemes, Gaspar Noé, Christopher Nolan, François Ozon, Cristi Puiu, Kelly Reichardt, Alexander Sokurov, Andrei Tarkovsky, Agnès Varda, Wong Kar-wai, Chloé Zhao, Andrei Zvyagintsev, and documentarians Patricio Guzmán, Chris Hegedus, Heddy Honigmann, Richard Leacock, Chris Marker, Albert & David Maysles, Errol Morris, D.A. Pennebaker, Kevin Rafferty, Marlon Riggs, Bruce Weber, and Frederick Wiseman. She presented the US theatrical premiere of Michael Apted’s longitudinal “UP” documentary series, showing nearly all its installments (most recently 63 UP in 2019) and was instrumental in premiering key figures in the New German Cinema: R.W. Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Werner Schroeter, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Margarethe von Trotta, and Wim Wenders. Many international animators, including Nick Park, the Brothers Quay, and Jan Švankmajer, also premiered at Film Forum under Cooper.

Cooper notes that much has changed since the 1970s, having once kept the theater’s mailing list on 3×5 index cards and projected the films (sometimes herself) on a single 16mm machine no bigger than a breadbox. Today Film Forum is a major force in international film exhibition. It has won numerous awards given by: Brandeis University, The New School, The NY Film Critics’ Circle, National Board of Review, NY Women in Film and TV, the Municipal Arts Society, and others. Cooper received an honorary doctorate from the American Film Institute in 1995 and was celebrated at the Museum of Modern Art with a program highlighting “40 Years of Documentary Premieres at Film Forum” in 2010.

Sonya Chung has a 20-year history with Film Forum, having been the Director of Development for five years beginning in 2003. She left film exhibition to write and publish two novels: Long for This World (2010, Scribner) and The Loved Ones (2016, Relegation Books). She has been a staff writer and editor for The Millions since 2009, and taught literature and writing for three years at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and for nine years as Assistant Professor and Writer-in-Residence at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. In 2018 she was tapped by Cooper and Maggiore to attend film festivals abroad and make recommendations for new work to be screened at the theater. In early 2020 she was appointed Deputy Director, after which she helped program and promote Film Forum’s virtual cinema program during the Covid shutdown period. In the last several years she has been instrumental in developing partnerships with cultural and community-based organizations to allow Film Forum to broaden its outreach to younger and more diverse audiences.

Says Cooper: “Running a business, any business, is about solving problems, and more importantly seeing around corners and solving them before they become problems. I have the highest regard for Sonya. She has superb taste in films and impeccable judgment on a wide range of administrative issues, ranging from finance to personnel. Knowing she was ready and willing to become Director gave me the luxury of stepping down at a time when the theater is financially solid, ceding to a woman who is both intellectually astute and ethically grounded.”

Says Chung, “I count it both a great honor and great responsibility to bring Film Forum into its next stage. Karen Cooper is an extraordinary leader: she has demonstrated what 50 years of unwavering excellence yields – a rigorously, lovingly curated cultural space that generations of New Yorkers consider indispensable. I am deeply grateful for the board’s vote of confidence, Karen’s counsel, and the staff’s talent and commitment as we work to fortify what makes Film Forum beloved today, and embrace exciting opportunities to evolve going forward.”

Film Forum’s senior staff will continue in their current positions: In addition to Goldstein and Maggiore, Chad Bolton stays on as Managing Director, Adam Walker as Director of Communications, Mary Ellen Obias as Director of Development, and Joe Berger as Theater Operations and Events Manager.

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