When New Yorkers are in the mood for non-Hollywood fare, they’re likely to head for the West Village temple of foreign-language and hard-to-find pics known as Film Forum.
For 37 years the nonprofit arthouse has offered theatrical life to movies that otherwise might never have been seen on the bigscreen. It’s also become a springboard for films that go on to receive Academy Awards or nominations, including “Downfall,” “Spellbound” and “My Architect.”
“It’s really the premier, and maybe only, venue for showcasing nonpandering intellectual fare,” says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia.
Magnolia brought Sundance fave “No End in Sight” to Film Forum this year.
“I’m sure its regular audience has the highest IQ of any in the country,” says Bowles. “The imprimatur that playing there gives a film — it’s an acknowledgement that it’s a serious, rigorous work.”
“Spellbound” helmer Jeffrey Blitz says he knew he wanted his doc at Film Forum before ThinkFilm picked up the film for distribution.
“A film that screens at Film Forum instantly gains a certain kind of street credibility,” Blitz says. “Before (‘Spellbound’) got distribution, we tried to submit it directly but we were turned down. It’s funny, in retrospect, because when ThinkFilm got them to agree to show it, it did fantastically well. So I kind of came to believe that it was just meant to start its theatrical life there.”
Film Forum pics are handpicked by director of repertory programming Bruce Goldstein, programmer and publicist Michael Maggiore and director Karen Cooper.
Cooper, who has been with Film Forum since 1972, took it from an alternative screening space for indie films, with 50 folding chairs, one projector and a $19,000 annual budget, to a three-screen cinema open 365 days a year, with 250,000 annual admissions, 472 seats, 59 employees, 4,500 members and a $4.1 million operating budget.
“For the most part, Karen doesn’t play what doesn’t appeal to her,” says Bowles. “She’s often passing on films with good grossing potential because they just don’t cut it with her. That consistency is what has made the theater into a brand.”
Cooper says that to maintain that brand she views between 500 and a 1,000 films a year, some at festivals around the world, some sent directly to Film Forum.
She has no set criteria for what she picks. Instead, she prefers “being open to work that is interesting and challenging and breaks rules. What makes any film valuable to me is the signature of the artist. The unique movie only one person could have made.”
Besides “No End in Sight,” Cooper and Maggiore’s selections for 2007 include recent hits “Live-In Maid” and “Into Great Silence.”
Next month the venue will preem helmer Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There.”
“If you look at all of Todd Haynes’ work, you could argue that ‘I’m Not There’ is actually the most experimental film he has made,” Maggiore says. “It is not a conventional biopic with A to B to C to D storyline, he really splinters the life of Bob Dylan in an edgy way. It’s the kind of film that is going to deserve some tender loving care.”
That care included the unusual step of opening advance sales for “I’m Not There” on Aug. 21, well before its Nov. 21 bow. Advance ticket sales exceeded $12,000 by the second week of October.
Despite being a nonprofit that receives some private funding, box office revenue is a vital component to Film Forum’s operation. Cooper says that some years, box office sales makes up 50% or more of org’s $4.1 million operating budget.
“We solicit funds from individuals, foundations and corporations because we need to have a financial buffer that will allow us to take risks,” Cooper says. “Of course we always want the films to make money as well as be appreciated critically and by the public. But we also want to have the option to show films short of the mark financially because we feel they are worthwhile on another level.”