Lights, Camera, Action: Film Forum, the Elder Statesman of New York Cinema, Reopens

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On a sweltering morning in early July, just outside Film Forum’s iconic neon blue marquee on West Houston Street, director Karen Cooper and general manager Chad Bolton stood like two beaming homeowners. Which, in a sense, they are. For countless New York cinephiles and artistic luminaries—including Patti Smith, Greta Gerwig, Matthew Broderick, RuPaul, Frances McDormand, and Ethan Hawke—Film Forum has long served as a beloved home away from home where films are not simply screened, but unabashedly celebrated.

Now, nearly 50 years since its humble beginnings, the theater has received a long-awaited $5 million facelift and expansion—courtesy of public funding, three new named funds, and a capital campaign led by Cooper and director of development Denyse Reed.

Over the decades, Film Forum has attracted a who’s-who of notable regulars—like Hawke, who also serves on the board of directors. “When I first arrived to New York, there were, I don’t know, five or six movie places that were always having retrospectives and showing old movies,” he said in a phone interview. “Basically curating a film education for the community. You could go to a Cassavetes film festival, you could go to a Fassbinder festival, and over the course of a couple years, if you loved movies, you could figure out what you liked. Those experiences are less and less, and for young people, it’s a small tragedy. More and more, all these great films are available for young people, but they’re not called to reach out and find them.”

That’s where Film Forum comes in. Long respected for its “adventurous programming and a willingness to live with the consequences,” as William Grimes wrote in The New York Times in 1992, Film Forum has a reputation as one of the country’s most ambitious, yet still accessible, polestars for foreign, repertory, and independent films—a mission it only plans to build on once its doors reopen on August 1.

And Hawke’s call to action, at this significant juncture in its history, is simple: “If the Film Forum went out of business or closed up shop, some part of New York would just die. So we just have to protect it.”

Some well-worn elements of the theater will remain the same, like the hefty red columns and teal blue concessions stand with salt containers ripe for DIY popcorn seasoning. But the team (led by Cooper and Mike Maggiore, who oversee the theater’s New York premieres and first-run films, and Bruce Goldstein, who oversees retrospective selections) hopes that the new additions—a spiffy fourth screen; exceedingly more comfortable seats, handmade by Figueras in Barcelona; stadium-style seating for enhanced sight lines; a digital screen in the lobby slated to show specially commissioned shorts by the likes of Cindy Sherman and Kelly Reichardt—make clear that Film Forum is much more than a movie theater.

Film Forum has little trouble attracting ticket buyers with cultural cache—or employees, for that matter. Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright had a brief stint as an usher; “Occasionally we check the system and see, ‘Oh there’s Madonna, she’s bringing her daughter. Oh, gee, David Byrne comes here a lot. Matt Dillon used to come all the time. John Leguizamo. RuPaul. John Waters.’ The list goes on,” Cooper said. “We even had Valentino come to his own movie. We heard that there was a man speaking during the movie, translating the subtitles back into Italian, and someone turned around to say, ‘Please be quiet,’ and it was Valentino talking to a friend during the movie.”

Matthew Broderick, who once lived a stone’s throw from the theater, has sat in its cool darkness countless times, often alongside his wife, Sarah Jessica Parker. In the process, he developed a fondness for silent film. “You hear people actually laughing, and you realize it’s not so weird and old. It actually still communicates very well, it’s exciting,” he said. “One of my daughters said, ‘Why do you always watch “grey movies”?’ To her, it must look like I’m watching the most awful, dead-looking thing.”

Natasha Lyonne shares Broderick’s long history with the theater. The actress, known for her role on Orange Is the New Black, dropped out of the film program at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts on account of its high tuition; she thought those funds would be put to far better use as a self-admitted student of Film Forum. “I sat in a class with these teenagers and this place wanted, like, six grand to watch Apocalypse Now in a group. And I thought, I already live at the Film Forum. What if I just cut out out the middleman?” she said in a phone interview while on vacation in Budapest—with, as fate would have it, “one of [Film Forum’s] great ticket checkers.” Instead of staying in school, Lyonne bought a small apartment (using her “child-acting showbiz money”) and gained an education of her own volition.

Lyonne fondly recalled spending many a late New York night at downtown bars, armed with a pick-up technique centered around her film-going obsession: “Around 4 A.M. I would pull out my [Film Forum] calendar at the bar to attractive people and say, ‘Which show do you want? Write your phone number here and I’ll meet you there.’”

The Film Forum was founded in 1970 by two cinema buffs, Peter Feinstein and Sandy Miller, who screened what were then considered niche independent films in an Upper West Side loft outfitted with little more than a projector and several folding chairs. Two years later, Cooper inherited the “operation” (it was little more than a rubber stamp, a 16mm projector, and letters to filmmakers) from Feinstein. Armed with her voracious curiosity and critical eye, she turned out to be just the woman for the job.

In 1975, amidst SoHo’s heyday as an arts epicenter, Cooped relocated Film Forum to the Vandam Theater downtown—and, much like an infamous social network, promptly dropped the “the.” Film Forum soon outgrew the SoHo space, and eventually moved to its current location, housed on the ground floor of an old printing building on Houston and Varick Streets.

During her decades at the helm, Cooper has seen several art-house theaters shutter: Bleecker Street Cinema. Art Greenwich. The 8th St. Playhouse. Sunshine Cinema. To mark its 40th anniversary as a rare survivor, Cooper even printed detailed Film Forum fund-raising brochures featuring photos of those theaters’ depressing transformations into Duane Reades and Equinox gyms. “The city is a poorer place, culturally, without the arts. And we’re all endangered,” Cooper said.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Between Film Forum reopening, the Lower East Side’s Metrograph, the renovated Quad Cinema, Brooklyn’s BAM Rose Cinemas, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, among others, the state of non-mainstream cinema offerings in New York is looking up, even as rising rents and other threats to funding continue to loom.

Given the immense challenge of keeping the lights on, Cooper cited her meticulous attention to detail as one of the reasons for the theater’s longevity: “I pick the quality of toilet paper. The flowers are fresh. I hated the chocolate we were selling eight months ago; we changed the chocolate. We spell Ecuador wrong, we change it immediately.”

Frances McDormand, in an outtake from a video series produced ahead of the theater’s 50th anniversary in 2020—and provided exclusively to V.F.—said that she finds the space’s consistency comforting: “Film Forum has been a constant for me for 35 years. . . . It’s not that I don’t like change, it’s that I don’t like haphazard change. I don’t like things being changed to the point of not being recognizable. There’s something really comforting knowing that as a population, the Manhattan population, we will not let Film Forum go. We won’t let it happen.”

Film Forum has also “lit the way” for Criterion Collection president Peter Becker, he said in an interview at Criterion’s office in July. He considers the growth and expansion of Film Forum for future generations to be vital: “Right now we’re in a very exciting, very cool place, where there is a very explicit voyage of discovery happening. But that’s a voyage of discovery that’s been being led in its own low-key way for a long time at Film Forum.”

From Nico, 1988, a biopic about the self-destructive singer in her post–Velvet Underground years, to a retrospective of French auteur Jacques Becker; The Smallest Show on Earth, a British comedy starring Peter Sellers and Margaret Rutherford; an Iranian thriller from Vahid Jalilvand, No Date, No Signature; and the 1928 silent film Show People, Film Forum’s August lineup encapsulates the wide-ranging sensibilities of its programming braintrust.

Goldstein, who joined Film Forum in 1986, is the engine behind many of the theater’s enduring contributions to classic-film culture. Sitting behind his desk, surrounded by towering shelves of books on silent cinema and Old Hollywood, he remembered one of the initial challenges facing him at the start of his gig: a case of bad prints. “There were a lot of [them] circulating, even of classics like Casablanca,” he said. In response, Goldstein enacted a policy in 1987 to entice the studios to make new prints—a boon for other theaters, which would later book them, too. “We were a pioneer in this. We put over 1,000 prints in circulation, I think, and these are still being used today by all the theaters that do this around the country—even around the world.”

Despite its current focus on modernization, an old-school tactility permeates throughout Film Forum’s King Street office. Cooper proudly pointed to a filing cabinet overflowing with 3×5 index cards in the mini–screening room—their system for tracking films under consideration for future programming. The team’s devotion to the analog above all is further proof that, even now, the theater is a relatively small operation, faced with fighting rising rents, dwindling attention spans, and the ever-increasing lure of streaming platforms.

Yet according to Goldstein, who grew up on a steady diet of 35mm films in now-shuttered theaters like the Upper West Side’s Thalia, revival and art house theaters not only survive, but thrive, when the people running the show are involved for the right reasons. “You have to stick to your guns,” he said. “A repertory theater can never be about making money all the time. If you do that, you’re never gonna succeed.”

Bringing in prints from overseas, making subtitles, paying rights to a foreign producer: these parts of the process do not come cheap. Still, Goldstein emphasized, they’re absolutely necessary: “It says to people, this is a special place. They’re not just showing the stuff playing everywhere else. The audience recognizes it.”

Ideally, at least as Hawke sees it, the time-consuming, rigorous work that goes into each screening should not take away from the festive atmosphere of cinema-going. “It opens up doors in your brain. And it does it while being fun. It’s like going to a party. . . . That’s my favorite part,” he said.

So while the theater has no plans to host a blow-out party for the public upon reopening, it feels fitting that Film Forum’s celebration on Wednesday will assume a comfortingly familiar shape: a line out the door of longtime patrons and first-time visitors, all eager to purchase a popcorn, take their seats, and wait for the opening credits to roll.

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