Film Forum Director Karen Cooper Exits After 50 Years, Sonya Chung to Take Over

Chung becomes the new director of the Manhattan cinema starting July 1.
Karen Cooper and Sonya Chung
Karen Cooper and Sonya Chung of the Film Forum
Courtesy of Film Forum

Longtime Film Forum director Karen Cooper is parting ways with the nonprofit New York City cinema after half a century in the role.

Cooper will be succeeded by Sonya Chung, whose position goes into effect July 1. Film Forum’s board, headed by Gray Coleman (Partner, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP), unanimously voted on the change in leadership in November 2022. Cooper will remain as an advisor to Chung, with a focus on programming premieres and fundraising.

“Running a business, any business, is about solving problems, and more importantly seeing around corners and solving them before they become problems. I have the highest regard for Sonya,” Cooper said of her successor. “She has superb taste in films and impeccable judgment on a wide range of administrative issues, ranging from finance to personnel. Knowing she was ready and willing to become Director gave me the luxury of stepping down at a time when the theater is financially solid, ceding to a woman who is both intellectually astute and ethically grounded.”

Film Forum board leader Coleman added, “To say this is a transitional moment would be a vast understatement — 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 over as director of the Film Forum in the fall of 1972 when the theater was based in the Upper West Side. Over 50 years, Cooper led Film Forum through three more iterations, including being open 365 days a year with a four-screen cinema, and elevated the theater to a $6 million per year operation. Film Forum employees also unionized in June 2022.

Cooper has programmed the cinema’s premieres since 1972, and with Artistic Director Mike Maggiore since 1996. Repertory Artistic Director Bruce Goldstein founded the repertory program in 1986. Under Goldstein’s direction, it has become the country’s leading showcase for restored films and has presented over 400 carefully curated classics.

Cooper counts the New York openings of hundreds of indie narratives, documentaries, and animated features — many by debut filmmakers — as her greatest accomplishment.

Chung has a 20-year history with Film Forum, having been the Director of Development for five years beginning in 2003. She left film exhibition to write and publish two novels and serve as a staff writer and editor for The Millions since 2009. Chung taught literature and writing for three years at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and for nine years as assistant professor and writer-in-residence at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.

In 2018, she was tapped by Cooper and Maggiore to attend film festivals abroad and make recommendations for new work to screen at the theater. Chung joined the programming team in 2018. In early 2020, she was appointed Deputy Director, after which she helped program and promote Film Forum’s virtual cinema program during the Covid shutdown period. In the last several years, she has been instrumental in developing partnerships with cultural and community-based organizations to allow Film Forum to broaden its outreach to younger and more diverse audiences.

“I count it both a great honor and great responsibility to bring Film Forum into its next stage,” Chung said. “Karen Cooper is an extraordinary leader: she has demonstrated what 50 years of unwavering excellence yields — a rigorously, lovingly curated cultural space that generations of New Yorkers consider indispensable. I am deeply grateful for the board’s vote of confidence, Karen’s counsel, and the staff’s talent and commitment as we work to fortify what makes Film Forum beloved today, and embrace exciting opportunities to evolve going forward.”

Film Forum’s senior staff will continue in their current positions: In addition to Goldstein and Maggiore, Chad Bolton stays on as Managing Director, Adam Walker as Director of Communications, Mary Ellen Obias as Director of Development, and Joe Berger as Theater Operations and Events Manager.

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