After exactly half a century (1972-2022) as the 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, unanimously voted on the change in leadership this past November. Chung will step into the director role on July 1st, with Cooper remaining an advisor focused on programming premieres and fundraising. Film Forum’s senior staff will continue in their current positions.
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 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 $6M/year, 4-screen cinema, open 365 days a year, with nearly 500 seats and programming that focuses on independent premieres from around the world, as well as classic repertory programs drawn from the annals of film history.
Among her responsibilities as director, Cooper has programmed the cinema’s premieres since 1972, and with artistic director Mike Maggiore since 1996. 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 Charles Burnett, David Cronenberg, Terence Davies, Mike Leigh, Mira Nair, Gaspar Noé, Christopher Nolan, François Ozon, Kelly Reichardt, Agnès Varda, and Chloé Zhao. 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. Cooper received an honorary doctorate from the American Film Institute in 1995 and was celebrated at the Museum of Modern Art 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 and The Loved Ones. 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 integral in developing partnerships with cultural and community-based organizations to allow Film Forum to broaden its outreach to younger and more diverse audiences.
“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.
“Running a business, any business, is about solving problems, and more importantly seeing around corners and solving them before they become problems,” says Cooper, “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.”
Chung shared, “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.”