In the last few months, two of New York City’s oldest independent movie theaters shut their doors and closed down. In January alone, Lincoln Plaza on the Upper West Side announced it would close after 37 years of showing films and, after 18 years in business, Sunshine Cinema of the Lower East Side also screened its final feature.
Despite the ever growing appearance that art-house movie theaters are struggling for survival, the West Village’s Film Forum stands out as an exception—this year it celebrated its 48th year of operation—and instead of shutting down, it is expanding. The cinema is opening a fourth screen in July, and recently renewed the lease at its 209 West Houston Street location until 2035.
“We’re kind of a New York institution,” says Adam Walker, 36, director of communications for the theatre.
According to Mike Maggiore, the theatre’s premieres programmer, the success of Film Forum results from a combination of four factors: the steady, long-term leadership of Karen Cooper, director of the institution; the carefully chosen films curated by Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming; the theatre’s status as a non-profit in comparison to other independent venues; and a loyal, discerning audience who understands and appreciates the Forum’s movie choices, which are mainly classics, rediscoveries, new art-house releases.
“They have films nobody else has,” says Bonnie Berman, 71, who says she has been a regular at the cinema for the last 25 years.
Everything at Film Forum begins with Karen Cooper, a born-and-raised New Yorker who has been with the theatre since its humble beginnings. Film Forum was founded in 1970 by two men, Peter Feinstein and Sandy Miller, who set up 50 folding chairs and one projector at a little loft space on West 88th Street to play movies that were not in theaters. Cooper, who was working for a magazine at the time, became a regular at the screenings and eventually took over the business.
“It was a question of putting one foot in front of the other,” says Cooper, 69, by phone from her apartment. “It was a different environment economically and culturally in the early ‘70s. Audiences in my generation were more open to the notion of movies being an important art form in people’s everyday lives.”
Over a span of five decades, Cooper has grown Film Forum from a $19,000 folding-chair operation into a 365-day-a-year three-screen cinema with a $5-million-dollar budget. Through it all she has navigated complex business arrangements and used innovative advertising techniques, namely her detailed promotional booklets and sprawling film festival calendars which are made by Goldstein.
In 1975, she opened the theatre downtown on Vandam Street, with screenings four days per week, beginning on Thursday into order to have the theatre’s movie reviews make the Saturday New York Times. With the help of a $400,000 loan from the Ford Foundation, the theatre moved in 1980 into a larger, two screen cinema in a Watts Street parking garage and started playing films seven days a week.
During the mid-1980s, when the advent of VHS home-video threatened to reduce ticket revenues, Cooper acquired 35 mm technology to offer movie-goers an opportunity to view films in their original format. In 1989, Film Forum closed down when the Watts location was demolished to make way for an office tower. But Cooper regrouped, turned her direction to non-profit facilities funds, and re-opened a year to the day after the closing in its current location on West Houston Street. She cultivated a long-term relationship with the location’s landlord, Newmark, who has approved the theatre’s expansion project to proceed this summer.
“Frankly, Karen’s leadership has been a huge part, as she’s been very shrewd in the decisions she’s made and how we’ve been able to balance showing challenging work that is utterly non-commercial and finding innovative ways of reaching audiences and selling tickets,” says Maggiore, premieres programmer at Film Forum.
Film Forum offers two types of programming. There are the new release feature films and documentaries that come mainly from foreign directors. Cooper and Maggiore go to film festivals several times per year and stay in close contact with American distributors and international sales agents to target both respectable and unknown directors. Then there is the repertory programming, thousands of classic films from America, Europe, and Asia that are selected, managed, and premiered at week-long to month-long film festivals by one man, curator Goldstein.
“Bruce didn’t go to college,” says Cooper. “He went to the movies.”
Goldstein has been with Film Forum since 1987. Colleagues laud his encyclopedic knowledge of films and use words like “awe,” “extraordinary,” “ambitious,” and “showmanship” to describe his contributions to the theatre. Goldstein takes a more modest approach.
“I loved classic movies as a kid but I realized they were being cut for television, very crudely, very badly, and I realized I wanted to see Casablanca without the cuts,” Goldstein, 65, says by phone. “It was a thrilling experience to see them in the theatre.”
Goldstein nurtures his relationships with private collectors, universities, academic institutions, and the Library of Congress to acquire 20th century films from all over the world. He specializes in pre-Hays Code American films, an era before the introduction of a strict moral film code in 1934, French New Wave (1950-1970), and Japanese wide-screen cinema (post-1945).
Film Forum’s status as a non-profit also contributes to the theater’s ongoing success. Upon its re-opening in 1990, Film Forum became one of the few, autonomous non-profit cinemas in the United States, allowing it to apply for public and private donations, which account for 37 percent of its operating income. The theatre has also relied on an endowment program that began in 2000, which has raised $3.2 million thus far.
“Our fundraising, our donors give us the ability to take risks on more unknown films so we don’t rely solely on box office,” says Denyse Reed, 39, director of development.
Admissions and concessions make up only half of the theatre’s budget, with the rest coming from contributions and donors. Members pay $75 or $125 for the year and receive discounted tickets, reservation privileges, and invites to special events.
“A lot of people call up and say, ‘I want to donate,’ because they support what we do and our reputation is so strong,” says Reed from the theatre’s lobby.
Cooper is more succinct.
“I would be closed too without their support,” she states.
Finally, what separates Film Forum from other independent theatres is the relationship it has with its audience members. With 250,000 annual admissions, 489 seats, 40 employees (20 of which are full-time), and over 7,000 members, Film Forum has a strong business model. But the theater’s day-to-day programming and experience keeps individuals returning again and again.
Watching a film here is unique. During showings of silent films like Sunrise or The General, live piano music accompanies the feature, sometimes even played by composer Steve Sterner. During film festivals, audiences often engage in a Q & A sessions with directors and actors—Liv Ullmann, Christopher Plummer, and the Cohen brothers are just a few of the celebrities to have appeared. Film Forum Jr., a family friendly series, was established in 2013 and has quickly become one of the most popular programs with its features every Sunday at 11 a.m., introducing Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges, and the Marx Brothers to a new generation.
“I show kids the same classics I grew up with,” says Goldstein, “You think kids only want super heroes and video games but when you expose them to something like Buster Keaton with live piano they absolutely love it.”
“I think it’s really an art-house and not so much a cinema,” says Donna Mahana, 63, who has been coming back for 15 years.
And now that so many of the city’s other independent cinemas have faded away, movie-lovers cling to Film Forum even more than before.
“It’s a great movie theatre,” says Eric Sommers, 27. “There aren’t a lot of good movie theaters like this anymore. There just aren’t that many left.”
In an earlier addition of this article our description of the Motion Picture Production Code and the period that it was in effect were inaccurate. We have amended to article to include the proper information.