Back Talk: Karen Cooper

Back Talk: Karen Cooper

The director of Film Forum reflects on forty years of programming new releases, The Solitude of Prime Numbers and the rewards of being an autodidact.


Forty years ago, Film Forum was founded by Peter Feinstein and Sandy Miller in a tiny loft space on West Eighty-eighth Street in New York City with fifty folding chairs, a 16-millimeter Bell and Howell projector and a coffee machine. Two years later, Karen Cooper, fresh out of college, took over the business. Today Film Forum is a three-screen, 365-day-a-year, 489-seat, $4.1 million operation. Over the years it has premiered films ranging from Paris Is Burning and Let’s Get Lost to The Gleaners and I and I’m Not There. Cooper is director and programmer, with Mike Maggiore, of new releases. Bruce Goldstein is in charge of repertory programming.   —Christine Smallwood

Has your taste significantly changed in the last forty years?

Yes and no. The first film I ever played, in 1972, was a documentary called Asylum by Peter Robinson. It’s a fly-on-the-wall look at R.D. Laing’s therapeutic community in London. Absolutely fascinating. I would show it today. I came to Film Forum as someone who was steeped in ’60s politics: the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, certainly the burgeoning feminist movement. Those kinds of films were appealing to me then, and they are now. I had less of my own voice in the early ’70s, and I was under the sway of people who showed more experimental work, and I realized that, as valuable as that work is, it didn’t really speak to me. Much of the first-run programming we play today is documentary and narrative film.

Do the repertory series, which are extremely popular, offset the cost of the new releases in the way that a publisher’s backlist offsets the cost of new titles?

It doesn’t work that way. Very often the repertory screen does earn more money than the new films, but it is extremely costly to run a repertory program. Hundreds of really heavy 35mm prints in steel cases are shipped to us from all over the world. Bruce brings in films from Europe and Asia. He’ll get new prints from Tokyo. The shipping costs are outrageous.

Can you walk me through a typical day at work?

Let’s start with… today. This morning, Mike and I had a discussion about an animation company that doesn’t want to be bothered sending us a 35mm print of a wonderful short animated film that we want to match to a feature. They want to send us a QuickTime [file]—wait, I’ll show you the e-mail. This is what they want to send us. This is hilarious. “I can deliver the film to you digitally via DigiDelivery in the format of QuickTime uncompressed ten bit. This format is screenable. Is it something you can accept?” Well, “screenable” is not the same thing as the best image and sound! So right now, because we’re not happy with this deal, I’ve just e-mailed a board member asking him, Do you know any archives that specialize in animation? Perhaps with the permission of the production company we could use a 35mm print from an archive and at the very least turn it into an HDCAM, which would be superb quality. That’s unusual. That doesn’t happen every day. No one has ever made me this nutty offer before.

So many people go to professional school these days—curatorial programs, journalism school—but no one taught you how to do this job. You learned by doing.

Bruce didn’t even go to college. We’re basically autodidacts. But I do agree with you that everything’s changed in terms of specialization and overspecialization. I have never understood why you have to go to film school to be a filmmaker. Werner Herzog didn’t. A lot of people didn’t. On the other hand, a lot of people did. There are many ways to learn. I was a good student and I liked school, but I was happy to leave. I’m a generalist. I always thought that was a bad thing to be, until I found out it was a good thing to be. I’m a very passionate dilettante. I’m interested in art and art history and history and literature and architecture and politics and, you know, particular countries are of particular interest. I’m interested in all the Axis powers. There’s no question that Sontag was onto something! “Fascinating fascism”—it was fascinating.

What are you reading these days?

I am reading a very scary novel right now. It’s called The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano. It’s beautifully written, absolutely fascinating, compelling and utterly frightening, about very traumatized characters and how their lives unfold. About six or eight years ago I went back to novels after only reading nonfiction for decades—well, with the occasional Philip Roth thrown in. I felt that there were certain changes that had occurred in my life that led me to feel that I may have missed something about the human condition. I had been so oriented toward reading about political campaigns or, you know, one issue or another—a typical book for me would have been Bowling Alone, or something by Paul Berman or Naomi Klein. I decided not to leave that behind, but also to read Edith Wharton and Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and Middlemarch. It’s very different to read or reread this work as an older person who has seen something of life, and is able, I hope, to absorb some of the wisdom that those novelists bring to their situations and characters. I feel that’s helped enrich my life.

Film Forum seems like it has a mission to provide an education in film, and through films.

Someone once said to me, Who do you think you are, Joan of Arc? And I thought, Yeah! Great! Because I was on my high horse. I do have a tendency toward mission and self-righteousness—”We’re going to right the world with that next damn movie!”—but it’s a tendency that I’m not entirely proud of. It’s a little over-the-top. But I am very excited about the films that I show. And I think Bruce and Mike feel the same way. But you give us too much credit for being concerned with the rest of the world. We’re really doing it almost for ourselves. It’s a little like those awful Oscar speeches, when people say, “Oh my gosh, I love what I do and you people gave me this award!” We really do enjoy doing what we do. It’s a pleasure to be able to show films that you think are important films, and stand in the lobby and watch people pay money to see them.

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