Karen Cooper, who for half a century served as the director of Film Forum, New York’s internationally known independent cinema, will leave her role at the downtown nonprofit this summer. Sonya Chung, who has a twenty-year history with the theater and who since 2020 has been its deputy director, will succeed her in the role, effective July 1. Cooper will remain at the theater as an advisor to Chung, centering her attention on programming and fundraising. The change in leadership was unanimously approved by Film Forum’s board this past November.
“To say this is a transitional moment would be a vast understatement,” said board chair Gray Coleman in a statement. “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.”
Cooper took the reins at Film Forum in 1972, when the then two-year-old theater occupied a fifty-seat loft space on the city’s Upper West Side that was only open on weekends. In the ensuing fifty years, she took the cinema from a shoestring operation where films were beamed, sometimes by Cooper herself from a 16-mm projector the size of a breadbox to a four-screen, five-hundred-seat theater raking in $6 million annually. Film Forum is globally known for its independent premieres—encompassing documentary, animation, and feature films from around the world—and its repertory program, the latter founded by repertory artistic director Bruce Goldstein in 1986.
Among the artists whose early films Cooper championed are 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. Under her leadership, Film Forum presented the US theatrical premiere of Michael Apted’s noted “UP” documentary series and was instrumental in introducing US audiences to key figures in the New German Cinema, among them Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Werner Schroeter, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Margarethe von Trotta, and Wim Wenders. Numerous international animators, including Nick Park, the Brothers Quay, and Jan Švankmajer, also debuted their work at Film Forum under Cooper.
Cooper was awarded an honorary doctorate from the American Film Institute in 1995 and in 2010 was fêted at the Museum of Modern Art with a program highlighting “40 Years of Documentary Premieres at Film Forum.”