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In 1972, at the age of 23, Karen Cooper took over the two-year-old Film Forum when, as she recalls, "it was a little hole-in-the wall on West 88th Street." Three moves and 38 years later, Cooper continues to direct one of the city's—if not the nation's—most indispensable movie houses, showcasing both New York City premieres (which Cooper co-programs with Mike Maggiore, who joined the staff in 1994) and exceptional repertory offerings (programmed by Bruce Goldstein, who joined in 1986). On the occasion of MOMA's tribute to the indefatigable director, I met with Cooper, now 61, in Film Forum's Soho office to discuss documentaries—the focus of the MOMA series—changing tastes, and interesting times.
What's been Film Forum's greatest impact on movie culture in New York City? Film Forum doesn't exist separate from the films it's played. [We've shown] many critical, cutting-edge movies on subjects from gay rights to ecological issues to political movements, like The Battle of Chile and Paris Is Burning. We introduced a lot of films and filmmakers who otherwise may not have reached New York audiences and, by and large, American audiences.
How do you see Film Forum's relationship with other cinemas in New York—both venerable institutions, like the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and more recent arrivals, like the IFC Center? It's really [for] the New York Film Festival, which has a 47-year history, that I would use the term "venerable." In fact, we've been premiering films decades before [Lincoln Center's] Walter Reade ever set foot on planet Earth. The same is true for the Angelika and Sunshine and IFC. On a regular basis, since 1975, literally every two weeks we've been opening a new film.
Has your taste changed over time? No. I think I've become less of a monomaniac about what we play. There was a time for maybe, oh, the first couple of decades [laughs], when everything that we played, I thought was terrific. And I was wrong some of the time, inevitably.
How have documentaries changed over the past 40 years? Well, there's certainly more of them. There's more of everything, given that the technology is cheaper and more lightweight, and film schools have proliferated over the past several decades. The percentage of good anything is always going to be small.
So, are too many documentaries being made? No. I don't think there's too many anything being made; I think there's too many of everything being released. When I started in 1972, there were three or four films released weekly. Now there are easily a dozen to 20. It's a tsunami.
Do you think you're drawn more to documentaries than narratives? Personally, yes.
Why? I think it's, to some extent, generational—growing up in the '60s and being energized by the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the antiwar movement. There's an expression: "May you live in interesting times." I grew up in very interesting times. The real world is a lot scarier than Avatar.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to start an independent cinema today? I actually have that question all the time. I get e-mails and calls from people worldwide: "I want to start a theater in Austin. I want to start a theater in Milan." The first thing I ask them is if they have any experience whatsoever: Have they worked under someone else, do they know what's involved, are they aware of the demographic in the area that they're working in, are they planning to be a profit-maker or a nonprofit? There are a lot of questions that come into play today that were less critical in 1972, when I took over Film Forum, because there's so much more money involved in making something work today. In 1972, as a kid, I couldn't have stepped into Film Forum as it is today and run it. What I was doing was running something that was a notch or two above a hobby. And it grew, in time. So people who think, Well, gee, you're doing this. Why can't I do this? Give me five things I need to do in order to know how to run a movie house—it's really a lot more complicated than that and has a lot to do with the location. You can do certain things in New York that you can't do probably anywhere else in the nation. Maybe L.A., maybe Chicago. But probably not, or there'd be more Film Forums elsewhere. I think you need a large, sophisticated, cosmopolitan public to run movies called Dust, even at a loss. [Laughs.]
'Karen Cooper Carte Blanche: 40 Years of Documentary Premieres at Film Forum' runs February 3 through 20 at MOMA