In a major shift one of the nation’s premier arthouses, Karen Cooper will be exiting as director on June 30 after 50 years running the Film Forum in New York City. Deputy Director Sonya Chung will assume the role.
Cooper has led the nonprofit cinema since its first iteration in 1972 as a 50-seat loft space on the Upper West Side open only weekends, to a multi-million dollar operation with four screens and 500 seats in lower Manhattan. She’ll remain an advisor to Chung with a focus on programming premieres and fundraising
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“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,” said Gray Coleman, chair of the Film Forum board.
The Film Forum was created in 1970 with a $19,000 annual budget to show American independent films not playing in commercial cinemas. Cooper led it through three expansions building it to a $6 million business and a range of programming and premieres from around the world. It is also one of the nation’s leading showcases for restored films. Bruce Goldstein, Repertory Artistic Director, created a repertory program in 1986.
Cooper had programmed the cinema’s premieres solo since 1972, and with Artistic Director Mike Maggiore since 1996.
Chung has a 20-year history with Film Forum, having been 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. She was tapped by Cooper and Maggiore in 2018 to attend film festivals abroad and recommend new work for screenings, then named deputy director in 2020.
She helped to program and promote Film Forum’s virtual cinema program during Covid, and has worked on developing partnerships with cultural and community-based organizations to broaden the theater’s outreach to younger and more diverse audiences
“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,” Cooper said.
Cooper counts the New York openings of hundreds of indie narratives, documentaries, and animated features – many by debut filmmakers – as her greatest accomplishment.
The list of artists whose early films she championed is long and includes 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 U.S. theatrical premiere of Michael Apted’s UP documentary series — most recently 63 UP in 2019 — and premiered key figures of New German Cinema from R.W. Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Werner Schroeter and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, to 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.
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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