Renovated Film Forum to feature same sharp focus

Each of Film Forum’s four screens will be outfitted with chairs from Figueras, and have an accent color: red, turquoise, yellow, or green. | Photo by Peter Aaron/OTTO

BY SEAN EGAN | “You know, we wanted to update the theater, we wanted to make it more comfortable, and certainly more modern,” said Karen Cooper, the Director of Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.). “But we didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I mean, a lot of what Film Forum looks like and is has a certain iconic feel to it these days.”

If anything, iconic is an understatement for an institution so beloved by cinephiles. Since first opening as a two-screen theater in 1970, Film Forum has remained a mecca for independent film premieres and repertory screenings in New York City, a pioneer in the indie film landscape for nearly 50 years. Though the nonprofit theater has stayed at its current three-screen facility since 1990, the idea of a major renovation to the intrepid movie house had been percolating for years. Now, after years of planning, construction, and a three-month shutdown, Film Forum is finally ready to reopen on Wed., Aug. 1.

“There’s been a certain frustration on our part about not having enough screen time for the films that we play,” Cooper revealed, noting, “On the one hand, we needed more screens, but we didn’t exactly need the number of seats we had.” Eventually, after analyzing their operations and the results of a 2016 survey, it was decided it would be best to add a fourth screen to the theater and redistribute the number of seats within, in order to better serve its programming. To do this would require lots of capital though, and Cooper set to fundraising soon thereafter.

However, “No man is an island,” noted Cooper, who has been with the theater since 1972. “A lot of people have been critical to Film Forum’s success.” Chief among them include general manager Chad Bolton, director of development Denyse Reed, Alan Klein of the board of directors, co-programmer of premieres Mike Maggiore, and Bruce Goldstein, the theater’s director of repertory programming since 1987. Working together, the team was able to raise nearly $5 million. This includes a million-dollar contribution from the Thompson Family Foundation (which the new screen will be named after), and over $200,000 in city funding from sources such as the offices of the mayor, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

With this funding, Cooper and company were able to pay not only for a screen, but all sorts of minor modern comforts, including new paint, carpets, and an HVAC system. “When this theater was built for us in 1990, stadium seating was not something that was a going design option,” she explained, confirming that three screens now boast such an arrangement, with more-comfortable seating and better sight lines. Furthermore, the lobby experience will also be changing: “We’ve added a gorgeous, state-of-the-art digital screen above the theater entrance on the wall that faces you as you enter the lobby,” Cooper elaborated. She has already commissioned a number of filmmakers to create original four-minute silent films to play exclusively on the screen, including work from Ken Kobland, Cindy Sherman, George Griffin, and David Byrne.

Director of Film Forum Karen Cooper has been working hard for months on the theater’s renovation and prepping a solid lineup for relaunch. | Photo by Henny Garfunkel

Despite the exciting cosmetic changes, as always at Film Forum, it comes down to the movies themselves. For the reopening, Maggiore and Cooper (who also co-programs premieres) have assembled a characteristically formidable lineup. Kicking things off on Aug. 1 is “Nico, 1988,” a dramatization of the late career of Velvet Underground alum and struggling addict, Nico. Also opening Aug. 1 is “No Date, No Signature,” which Cooper describes as “an exploration of personal ethics” from Iranian filmmaker Vahid Jallivand. “While it’s a film from Iran, a country that obviously is a very different culture than our own, it really brings to the fore a sense that human beings share values,” Cooper asserted. “I think there could be no better time to be discussing values than today.” Other interesting films on the horizon include a documentary on Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (Sept. 7).

The repertory side of things looks equally interesting. On Aug. 1, Bruce Goldstein will introduce a screening of 1928’s “Show People,” the first in a series of silent films accompanied by live piano. Over the next two weeks, a retrospective of filmmaker Jaques Becker will play; later in the month a new restoration of “Chinatown” will get a run. And of course, the for-the-kids weekend series — Film Forum Jr. — will return.

“Not only is [Film Forum Jr.] coming back, it’s doubling its presence by having Saturday and Sunday shows at 11am,” Cooper said, noting upcoming series highlights “Yellow Submarine” (Aug. 11 and 12), and Disney’s “Pinocchio.” Cooper is also excited about a rerelease of “The Atomic Cafe,” a film she opened in the 1980s that “collages educational and military and TV footage all about the new atomic age” in a way both ridiculous and “very politically astute.”

Iranian filmmaker Vahid Jallivand’s “No Date, No Signature” will be one of the first films to play at the reopened theater on Aug. 1. | Photo courtesy of Distrib Films US

“I think the key to being a good programmer is not to have preconceived notions,” Cooper mused, assessing her methods. “I really try to approach everything we look at with fresh eyes. Look at it critically, but consider what the filmmaker’s point of view was. I don’t have one concept of what it is I want to show at Film Forum. I want to show the most exciting, most effective, intellectually provocative, and emotionally moving films I can find.”

She also had kind words for her repertory colleague, commenting, “I think unquestionably Bruce Goldstein is the greatest repertory programmer in America. I’m not exaggerating, Bruce has an encyclopedic knowledge that he brings to bear,” particularly when securing old, difficult-to-find 35mm prints from sources abroad. It’s a commitment to quality and diversity of films that Cooper cites as the reason for Film Forum’s longevity — as well as its recipe for success moving forward.

“I think it comes down to what you put on the screen… I think the caliber of the programming and the relationship between new and old makes us a dynamic and exciting place, and a reason the people have continued to come to Film Forum for all these decades,” Cooper said. “I think watching [these films], experiencing them with other people in a darkened theater, in the comfort that we will be able to give you — more so than ever before — I think it’s a superior experience.”

Film Forum is located at 209 W. Houston St. (btw. Varick St. & Sixth Ave.). Call 212-727-8110 or visit On Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram: filmforumnyc.

“Nico, 1988,” opening Aug. 1, dramatizes the turbulent late career of the iconic Velvet Underground singer. | Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

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