In the nearly 50 years that she has served as the director of Film Forum, Karen Cooper has seen more than a few threats to the future of the moviegoing experience. “The fact that you could take the damn box home and watch the movie was a real sea change,” Cooper said in an interview this week, remembering the mid-’80s rise of the VHS. “Our numbers went down terribly for a couple of years. Then the newness of it wore off and the public became sensitized to that experience being entirely different to sitting in a theater. It’s just not the same thing as your own living room. People said that was the death of cinema.”
Still, those challenges pale in comparison to the past 12 months. On Monday, it will be exactly once year since New York’s venerated arthouse closed its doors as pandemic shutdowns took hold. Since then, the theater has weathered $3 million in costs and released over 100 films as virtual cinema rentals through its website.
Now, Film Forum is approaching a new phase with plans to reopen the theater April 2 at 25 percent capacity in each of its four screening rooms, in accordance with current New York City regulations. Its plans follow the March 5 reopening of the IFC Center, which became one of the first independent arthouses to open its doors. Similar to IFC, Film Forum will forgo concessions and have a mask mandate in place at all times. Hand-sanitizing stations will be available in all public areas; socially distant ticket lines and seatings will be enforced.
On February 22, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo approved the reopening of New York City theaters for March 5. Film Forum chose to wait a beat to gather its bearings.
“It’s been one of those wait-wait-wait, rush-rush-rush situations,” Cooper said. “It’s a different kettle of fish if you’re part of a chain. They’re on automatic pilot. We’re a different animal.” Prior to the pandemic, the theater employed more than 50 staffers to maintain its operations, including 20 full-timers. “We had to track people down to make sure they were ready to work,” Cooper said.
Prior to shutdowns, Film Forum was in a major growth period. In 2018, the theater saw a $5 million expansion in the West Houston Street location that it has occupied since 1989. Last year, the theater — originally located in Greenwich Village — celebrated its 50th anniversary. The tide changed fast. Major retrospectives, including a robust summer series on Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, had to be canceled. For reopening, its initial slate is a slimmed-down but familiar variation of Film Forum’s usual curatorial blend, with a combination of acclaimed international titles and repertory classics.
The April 2 offerings include Pedro Almodóvar’s Oscar-shortlisted “The Human Voice,” the 30-minute Tilda Swinton showcase based on a Jean Cocteau play that marks the Spanish auteur’s first English-language effort. Distributor Sony Pictures Classics paired “The Human Voice” with Almodóvar’s international breakout, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” inspired by the same material.
The company is also opening Oscar-shortlisted documentary “The Truffle Hunters,” directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s poetic look at elderly mushroom scavengers in Piedmont, Italy. (Sony Pictures Classics is also releasing the movie in Los Angeles; it had a previous qualifying run in the New York metro area, but grosses were not reported.) The theater will also devote one screen to a new 4K restoration of Federico Fellini’s gothic 1954 circus drama “La Strada,” one of many titles available over the past year as an online rental from the theater’s site.
Film Forum’s director of repertory programming Bruce Goldstein said Film Forum would refrain from large-scale repertory series or festivals until at least June, when more archival resources around the world reopen. “[‘La Strada’] is the kind of film I want to open for now,” Goldstein said. “It’s what I call comfort movies — the familiar classics.”
On April 16, the theater will open the documentary “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” as well as two other Oscar-shortlisted films, the Norwegian international entry “Hope” and “Gunda,” the black-and-white ode to the life of a pig that doubles as animal-rights activism. Repertory programming during that time will include 1949 Alec Guinness drama “Kind Hearts & Coronets.”
April 23 will see the release of avant-garde artist Ulrike Ottinger’s “Paris Calligrammes” as well as Vittoria Di Sica’s “Il Boom.” Magnolia Pictures’ “About Endlessness,” the latest slice of deadpan absurdism from Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, follows on April 30. May offerings will include Kino Lorber’s “There Is No Evil,” Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s anthology film, which won the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival shortly before the pandemic spread to the U.S. On the repertory side, Melvin Van Peebles’ “Story of a 3-Day Pass” will open May 7 and also be available for rental through Film Forum’s website.
Cooper said Film Forum benefited from distributors like Sony Pictures Classics and Neon that chose to hold back many of their marquee titles rather than release them digitally. “We have a backlog of many, many films we want to get onscreen,” she said. “It’s not as if we’re suffering from a creative desert.”
They’re also not expecting sellouts. “I will happy when people walk through the door,” Cooper said. “I don’t have any fixed notion of what’s going to happen. My personal tendency is to be optimistic-slash-realistic. I think it’s crazy to think that people will come back in hordes.”
Ticket prices remain fixed at $9 for members and $15 for non-members. The 25 percent reduction for each of Film Forum’s four screens means that its largest theater will hold 38 people while its smallest can host up to 20. “We’re operating at a loss. Everyone agrees on that,” Cooper said. “We want people to get used to coming back to the movies, but it’s going to be kind of a slow crawl.”
Goldstein said the family-friendly “Film Forum Jr.” weekend series could resume around Labor Day. He’s waiting to see when the theater can continue showing silent films with live accompaniment, since indoor musical performances are still prohibited.
Film Forum was halfway through a series called “The Women Behind Hitchcock” when the theater closed, and several 35mm prints shipped to the theater from the British Film Institute stayed put. “So we already have some rare films in-house,” he said. “But we don’t want to do a festival at 25 percent capacity. Eventually we’ll have to return those prints, but first, we’ll do the rest of the series,” possibly in early summer.
Virtual cinema options will remain part of the theater’s program as it reopens, but Cooper said the theater saw no revenue opportunities in the model. “Financially, it’s a disaster. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not being candid,” she said. “It’s really a pittance. But it has been important on another level. Many people have watched films from us this way, including a lot who have never walked through our doors before.”
For now, the theater staff hopes for the return of its most dedicated patrons, including a group of friends who met at the theater over 15 years ago and usually congregated close to the screen. Goldstein called them “The Front Row Club”; if they come back next month, they may have to space out.
“I hope they’re OK,” Goldstein said. “It’ll be nice to see some of our regulars.”