Karen Cooper

“At this moment, my biggest dream is
to find the source of our HVAC leak without having to shut theaters and tear into walls,” says Karen Cooper, executive director of New York City’s Film Forum. “There’s nothing less glamorous than a broken machine.”

A prosaic goal for the woman responsible for presenting work to over a quarter of a million viewers each year. But a faulty air conditioner disrupts the inconspicuous clockwork of spooling out work and turning over audiences. As Cooper points out, the Film Forum operation is “really just a big factory, full of machines.” Some machinery is obvious, such as the array of projectors that serve the three auditoriums. Other is less apparent: the finely tuned system that identifies good work and makes sure that audiences know how to find it.

“Just staying in business is goal enough,” Cooper continues. “Keeping our enthusiasm is a goal. We’re fortunate that a group of people that are obsessive about these things have come together to make this place work.”

The Film Forum was created in 1970, and Cooper has been in charge of this machine for the past thirty years. From the early days, when the staff consisted of herself and a part-time projectionist, to today, with close to fifty employees and two distinct calendars (Repertory, programmed by Bruce Goldstein assisted by Harris Dew; and Premieres, programmed by Cooper assisted by Mike Maggiore), Cooper has managed to sustain a nationally recognized resource while maintaining its personality and independence.

“When I took over, Peter Feinstein handed me a valise of carbon copies of his correspondence with filmmakers. That was it. We didn’t even have letterhead, we had a rubber stamp. I asked, ‘How do we know I’m in charge? What if you decide to come back?’ And Peter said, ‘Karen: you’ve got the rubber stamp.’”

New York in the seventies was a fertile place for underground film, with programs including Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, Millennium Film, and MOMA’s Cineprobe series. Cooper immediately expanded the Film Forum programming to include more foreign and documentary work. Along with seeking out new artists and their works, she began to market the work to larger audiences.

Just about every week Cooper receives a call from someone who wants advice about starting a program like the Film Forum. It’s not so easy. Besides the talented (and obsessive) staff, New York City offers particular benefits for filmmakers. Films that open in New York benefit from Academy rules and the concentration of film critics. And the Film Forum has a secret advantage: the no-miss press release.

“What Henry James is to the novel, I am to the press release,” quips Cooper. The results are impressive, displayed in a wall of clippings binders: slender in the seventies, thickening through the eighties, now requiring several volumes each year. The Film Forum continues to do all its own publicity work, and maintains contact with over 700 writers and editors. The mailing list for programming calendars has topped 22,000—each a person who has requested materials. “These are valuable contacts. And even more so is a story in The New York Times, with its 1.2 million readers. All the papers: It all contributes.”

The Film Forum staff prides itself on remaining consistent in its standards and accurate in its information, thereby earning the trust of both critics and audiences. And concurrently they have earned the loyalty of a body of filmmakers, partly through working with them to determine the best ways to promote their work. Besides generating press and presenting work, the Film Forum helps filmmakers in less obvious ways, such as sharing directories of print source and distribution companies, providing fiscal sponsorship for projects, and arranging occasions for filmmakers to present their work in person. “But this is not what we are really about,” explains Cooper. “We’re like an old-fashioned grindhouse. It’s our job to churn out the shows and move the audiences through.”

Under the leadership of board chair Ned Lord, the Film Forum is mid-way through a $4 million dollar endowment campaign, and fundraising duties presently takes up half of Cooper’s time. But programming is her first love. Of the nine independent premieres programmed this fall, seven are documentaries, profiling subjects as diverse as philosopher Jacques Derrida (Amy Ziering Kofman’s Derrida), General Augusto Pinochet (Patricio Guzmán’s The Pinochet Case), and mail-artist Ray Johnson (John Walters’ How to Draw a Bunny). “The quality of what I am seeing has never been better,” says Cooper. When asked if she can identify trends in documentary over the years, she demurs. “Every film is its own universe. It’s like poetry—every good film finds its own form.”

And for Cooper, this is what makes the burden of running a nonprofit theater seem a little lighter. “The other day I was watching a pile of tapes, and I put in Mark Moskowitz’s Stone Reader. It was an original, compelling story,” she says. “And I can’t even begin to describe the satisfaction of being in a position where I can bring this film to an audience.”

For more info, see www.filmforum.com.

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