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.