Any day of the year, New Yorkers can catch foreign films, indies or classics at Film Forum, the art house and repertory cinema in Lower Manhattan.
“Three hundred sixty-five days a year,” said Karen Cooper, the director of Film Forum. “We’re worse than the post office.”
But for the last three months, the space has been shut down for a $5 million expansion and renovation. It reopens Wednesday with a fourth screen, new seating and more. Some of the improvements, like better sightlines, were responses to persistent complaints from moviegoers. Then again, the changes have been a long time coming.
Film Forum opened as a haven for independent and documentary filmmakers in 1970 and moved to its current space, on West Houston Street, in 1989. Since then, only the restrooms, concession area and box office have been updated.
When patrons responded to a survey in 2016, “‘Love the movies, hate the seats’ was the basic message,” Ms. Cooper said.
“That kind of leads into the 800-pound gorilla, which is how much easier it is for audiences to stay home and watch Netflix, Hulu, HBO,” Ms. Cooper said. “We really feel to stay competitive, we have to offer people the best possible experience with both the comfort level and the caliber of film.”
Film Forum has helped put many directors on the map. Some have returned to screen more work over the years. Others have come back to see a retrospective or a restored classic.
To get a better sense of the theater’s reputation, we asked 10 filmmakers to share their favorite memories of the space. Here are edited excerpts from the conversations.
Christopher Nolan Film Forum was the first commercial theater that ever played one of my films. It was a thrill to go back there in 2015 to premiere my short film “Quay.”
John Turturro I’ve seen a lot of great films there. They had a whole Fellini festival in the early ’90s. [Martin] Scorsese introduced me to that stuff. My mother was there, his mother was there, and they were sitting next to each other. Marty’s mother was sort of narrating the film like: “Hold on, there’s a good part that’s coming up now. Watch this!” It was really funny.
Agnès Varda I feel I have known Karen Cooper and Film Forum for ages. Film Forum was the theater where cinephiles would meet. Karen was daring in her choices. In 1986, she showed one of my shorts, “Ulysse,” and later in 2001, “The Gleaners and I,” with a special deal: If the numbers were O.K., the film would stay, and it screened 17 weeks!
Stanley Nelson We screened “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” there. That was a huge deal for us. They gave us a two-week run — that was our premiere — and we ended up being held over for eight weeks. I think that it meant that other theaters around the country looked at the film differently: “Oh, you had two weeks at the Film Forum and you were held over? O.K., we’ll book you here.” So it was a great launching pad for us.
Chris Hegedus I kind of met Penny [her husband and filmmaking partner, the documentarian D.A. Pennebaker] through my viewing of a film at Film Forum. I think it was 1975 or ’76. [Karen] was screening a film that Penny directed and Bob Drew produced. I needed to get my hands on equipment, so I went to Bob to see if he had a job after that, and he didn’t have anything available but he actually sent me to Pennebaker. That kind of was the beginning of our long collaboration.
D.A. Pennebaker We had a struggle getting “Monterey Pop” distributed because the theaters weren’t sure how to distribute a music film of that sort. Later we did a film about Jimi Hendrix, and the only theater that was willing and eager to run it was the Forum. The Forum was one of the first places that actually took documentaries seriously as feature films and ran them and advertised them. So that was a big break for us as filmmakers.
Raoul Peck Premiering at Film Forum was to get the attention of people who were important for how you saw your art (and your life). You felt welcome. You felt that these people knew what cinema was all about. I remember the critical success of “Lumumba” in 2001. And “I Am Not Your Negro” was sold out for several months and was also attracting an audience (blacks, Caribbean, African) that didn’t traditionally come to the Forum.
Kelly Reichardt We premiered “Wendy and Lucy” at Film Forum and “Meek’s Cutoff” as well. I think my beloved dog Lucy lives on in the Film Forum opening reel. I hope they keep that same reel when they reopen!
A good Film Forum memory was the summer of 1996 when [they] screened something like 52 films from the Hollywood new wave. The filmmaker Ira Sachs and I went every day. This must have involved a lot of finagling because I was penniless at the time — I’m not sure how I pulled it off. I have a feeling Ira treated me to a lot of movies.
Ira Sachs Karen let me shoot a scene for “Keep the Lights On” outside the theater and in the lobby. Each period of my life in New York can be defined by different experiences at the Film Forum, from the opening of “Paris Is Burning” with lines around the block, in 1991, to regular attendance with my family to Film Forum Jr. [programming intended for children] on Sunday mornings. I feel at home there. I feel confident in the taste of the curators. I know the popcorn is good, and I know I’m going to see something that stretches my understanding of both cinema and the world.
Ramin Bahrani As I had been going to Film Forum since my college days in the mid-90s, I was proud when they premiered my second film, “Chop Shop,” in 2008. I have seen and discovered some of my favorite films and directors there. I have never sat with a more ebullient crowd than at a screening of “Modern Times” one weekend.
Their renovations sound wonderful, because, yes, we all know, their seats were a little uncomfortable and the sightlines were not ideal — but their programing was so impeccable that we went anyway.