Since its humble beginnings as a small screening space on the Upper West Side with only a 16mm projector and 50 folding chairs to its name, Film Forum has been one of the leading theaters for outstanding independent cinema in the New York area. Their features screen, programmed jointly by Karen Cooper, the director of Film Forum, and Mike Maggiore, has premiered a wide variety of modern classics over the years, from “The War Room” to “A Grin Without A Cat” to “Wendy and Lucy” and most recently “Amour”. For over 40 years Film Forum has championed what they term a “cinema of ideas”, consistently bringing us new and exciting films that both challenge and entertain.
Mike Maggiore joined Film Forum in 1994, initially doing publicity, but has since expanded his duties to become an integral part of the premieres programming. Double Exposure sat down with Maggiore late last year in the Film Forum office to discuss the inner workings of Film Forum, what it means to be a programmer, and the future of cinema.
Double Exposure: Can you start by telling us a little bit about what you do at Film Forum?
Mike Maggiore: Karen and I are constantly looking for new films. We comb through Variety, Screen, Hollywood Reporter, and Indiewire, and are in touch with other programmers at film festivals around the world who will recommend things to us. We also talk to sales agents who want us to see things for consideration; American distributors who send us films for consideration; and, of course, filmmakers. We try to have as much of an open door policy as possible because what we do is mostly a program of two-week theatrical runs for everything. We’re only selecting about 30 titles a year, so we have to turn down a huge percentage of what actually comes in. I would estimate that we look at approximately 700-800 films a year, between all the festivals we go to, and the DVD screeners we see here. We divide up the main festivals, like Berlin, IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam), Cannes, and Sundance as well as sample other international festivals in different parts of the world. We just finished a travel grant given to us by a foundation that was supportive of the idea of going to non-western festivals, in other words, festivals that have not been curated by western eyes. So we went to festivals in Asia, South America, and Africa – I went to the Durban festival in South Africa – and we’ve been doing that for the last couple of years. It’s been really fantastic because it’s exposed us to films, producers and sales agents who we may not have been in direct contact with before, because these are just smaller and more intimate showcases.
DE: The transfer from film to digital throughout the film industry has been well documented and has already become the new film-making norm. Film Forum itself has adapted, adding the capability to screen DCP films in its theaters. Does the disappearance of film as a medium worry you? Do you forsee a day when Film Forum is a purely digital theater?
MM: It used to be that we only exhibited film and it would have to be in 35mm or 16mm. That was only until about 11-12 years ago, at which timewe started taking submissions in DigiBeta; shortly afterward we upgraded to HDCAM. Obviously the possibilities have widened considerably and most documentary films now are being made digitally and being projected that way. We eventually equipped all three of our screens with DCP, so we can show 2K and 4K, DCP, and HDCAM. We can also still show 35mm and, for some rare, archival prints, 16mm. Unlike many theaters today, we haven’t gotten rid of our 35mm projectors. Given the number of high-profile documentaries we show, the Academy rule that requires either a 35mm print or a DCP presentation in order to qualify for an Oscar was definitely a consideration for us when we were looking at making the leap to DCP. There were a number of great documentaries that we were showing and their runs could only really qualify if they were shown in DCP or if they made a print. And just fewer prints are being made of documentaries these days.
I don’t expect us to EVER “convert” to an all-digital, all-the-time theater – we still have the ability to project 35mm and 16mm in our theaters, so DCP has not replaced film here – but the reality is that almost all new films being made today are shot digitally and finished – that is, in post-production – digitally. I don’t think this is something to be feared; cameras and lenses are constantly being innovated to capture light and image with breathtaking vividness. And as an exhibitor, you’re really showing a film off to its best advantage if you show it in the format in which it was made. Most 35mm prints of digitally shot films will suffer in comparison to a DCP. Though I don’t necessarily want the hyper-real detail one might get from a film being shot and projected at 48 frames per second, for example. I also don’t entirely buy the idea that one day we’re going to wake up and film will have disappeared – just as I didn’t buy that photographic film would disappear, which it hasn’t, or that vinyl LPs would stop being made, which they haven’t – in fact I understand that they’re the one part of the music business that’s going up in sales. There are still filmmakers who prefer the look of film, I believe there will be younger directors who will want to explore the effect you get from 35mm film, and if labs stop making it then other labs somewhere will, let’s hope, pick up the baton.
DE: Focusing in on the specifics of programming, when you watch or send out for a film what kind of criteria do you use to decide whether or not you’re going to pick the film up for theatrical release?
MM: We try to keep our minds open and we try not to come into the viewing of a film with any specific expectations. I’m interested in films that move me, expand my experience, and feel like they’re the work of an artist who really had to make the film and was showing us something that we haven’t seen before – or taking a familiar subject and giving it an unfamiliar, surprising treatment. Karen and I are always looking for a movie that’s going to give us something different and exciting. It’s hard to quantify, but if you look at our calendars I hope that you see that we’re trying to show films that really reflect what’s going on in the world and push the boundaries of what film can do and what film language can convey.
DE: Being a non-profit, Film Forum enjoys some financial independence. Despite this, there is always a need to balance creative autonomy with financial concerns. How much does a film’s marketability affect your decision making process?
MM: I think that the fact that we’re non-profit in some respects can protect the integrity of the programming, but we also have to take into consideration that the kind of programming we’re doing is very different from festival programming or one-off screenings where you can show a film that you think will fill the house for one or two screenings, and that’s it. We have to position a film to draw an audience for two weeks. There are many films that Karen and I have liked, but didn’t feel that they were appropriate for theatrical exposure. So what we’re looking for is a film that may excite us, but we also think is marketable to an audience. And we don’t think of the audience of necessarily being a Film Forum audience. We think that we’re really starting from scratch with each film and tailoring our campaign and press efforts towards generating an audience. We work closely with filmmakers and distributors to find out whom they think should be targeted and coming up with a plan in which, for example, we can do co-sponsored screenings with organizations who may blast their members to come to a specific screening.
Now having said all that, there are definitely films that we’ve shown that maybe drew modest crowds, but we’re very proud to have shown them, because we think that the work is important and may not have had this kind of exposure otherwise. A theatrical run means that you’re getting reviewed in most or all of the major publications in New York, all the dailies and the weeklies. That’s what sets it apart from the festivals, which may only screen a film a few times. You’re giving it a higher profile and with that comes the expectation that an audience is going to follow, based on the coverage, marketing and word of mouth. To us, it’s always interesting to see a film’s life-span – sometimes I’ll see a film in a festival and love it, we’ll program it, it’ll be picked up by a distributor, and then we’ll open it. To see the opening received as rapturously as the screening I saw at the festival is exciting, but it often doesn’t work out that way. You come to theatrical and it’s real world, real people, general public, box office opens at 12:15, tickets are on sale, and the film has to demonstrate that it can find an audience.
DE: In that vein, are there any films that you thought would be a great success and flopped or films that you thought were great but you wouldn’t think would attract an audience and ended up doing quite well?
MM: I think that we had high expectations for Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters. First of all, we just loved his photography. He does these incredibly detailed photographs that are mostly taken in small, depressed towns and he has a movie crew-style setup. He shoots with a large format camera, on film, so the detail is incredible. He’s got this thing going where it’s kind of like David Lynch meets Steven Spielberg. So there’s a new documentary about him by Ben Shapiro, who does a great job pulling the curtain back on Crewdson’s production process. It got decent reviews, but we thought it deserved to do much better. Obviously part of that problem was that it opened right after Hurricane Sandy, so I don’t know if it really recovered from that, but that was a bit of a disappointment. A good example of the second part of your question is a documentary about the German artist Anselm Kiefer, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow. Karen and I thought it was a brilliant film, but we didn’t know how many New Yorkers were familiar with his work. He doesn’t really like to talk about himself very much and the film itself is really an unconventional, borderline experimental documentary. As you probably notice, we show a lot of documentaries on artists and that’s something we have a strong tradition of in our programming, but for that one, we really didn’t know how it would do. It ended up being a box office hit and we held it over for a couple weeks. It’s always gratifying when things surprise you.
DE: While we are talking about documentaries, there seems to be a growing trend of portrait films, in which the filmmaker follows a day, month, or year in the life of a person or institution, while more experimental and personal documentaries aren’t as common. Do you wish that more experimental films could attract the sort of audience you need to be able to show them at Film Forum?
MM: I don’t think that most of what we show you could necessarily call portraits. I agree with you in terms of the films about artists, but there’s also a lot of films that we show about political situations. We’ve seen a number of experimental documentaries that we’ve passed on because we didn’t feel strongly about them as documentaries, rather than thinking that they were so experimental that we couldn’t show them. A couple years ago we showed Into Eternity, a conceptual documentary questioning what our civilization is going to do with all this nuclear waste. It was just mind-blowing, because this is one of the most important issues facing us as a planet and nobody wants to think about it and nobody wants to deal with it. That’s certainly an adventurous topic to grapple with. The other thing I should mention is that we’ve premiered many of the films of Chris Marker. We’re very big fans of his essay documentaries. And we’ve shown a lot of essay films by other directors as well – we’ve also shown Tom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself. It’s essentially about Los Angeles as seen in the movies – how Los Angeles as a city has been identified in films throughout history, how its locations have created an array of identities in our collective consciousness.
DE: From your explanations, it feels like you show documentaries in order to allow people look at an issue that their not familiar with or confront reality in some way. Is this the driving force behind Film Forum’s focus on documentary film-making?
MM: I think it’s intellectual curiosity. I think that Film Forum has a demonstrated history of being a cinema of ideas and documentaries are perhaps the most obvious example of that. I’ve learned a huge amount in this job about different subjects and places around the world and what’s happening around the world through the great documentary filmmakers who are working now, not all of whom we have shown, but whom I’ve had a chance to see through this job, about which I feel very fortunate. I hope that people who follow our programming think of us as being a place where there is an interest in ideas, politics, the creative process and an interest in widening your knowledge – and doing it in an exciting way.. There are many films that we’ve watched that are edifying but are done in such a dry, unexciting, and flat way that we don’t want to show them. I’m glad I saw them, but they’re not something that we can sell to the public.
DE: There’s obviously a lot of care done to selecting the new releases that you screen at Film Forum, but there also seems to be a strong sense of cohesion between the premieres and the repertory films. Is that coincidental or do you work together with Bruce Goldstein to make the schedule?
MM: It’s funny, we don’t consult each other at all. I don’t know what Bruce is showing until he sends me the first round of galleys and then of course I’m desperately excited, because one of the biggest perks of this job is that I get to watch Bruce’s programming and I can see as many as these films that I can. But it’s rare – there have been a few cases when we have coordinated something. For example, when we showed Agnès Varda‘s The Gleaners and I – that’s another essay documentary about gleaning, basically finding objects, and also a personal documentary – and that was timed with a retrospective of her work on Bruce’s screen. And it’s something that it may seem that it’s kind of an easy idea, but we usually don’t do it. The timing for that was right because there were some new prints being made by her company and we did the same thing with Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese filmmaker, with his film Faat Kiné. Bruce did a retrospective of his work around the same time. But it’s pretty rare. There was one serendipitous coincidence between the premiere screen showing Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse,about the Paris Opera Ballet, and the same week Bruce was showing a newly restored print of The Red Shoes. We did not consult each other about that. Everybody told us that is was so brilliant that we had all these dance people coming to New York to the theater. If one film sells out, the audience will buy tickets to the other film. . It wasn’t something that we planned. I wish we could say we did, but it just happened to work that way.
DE: Do you see yourself as part of a community of programmers, either globally in New York, and do you work with other programmers to coordinate scheduling?
MM: Generally speaking, for the premieres, no. Karen and I really are on our own and we’re trying to get all the best films that we’ve seen at festivals or otherwise. We’re trying to book them for a run here and that’s our agenda and that’s what excites us about programming. To me it doesn’t matter what’s happening outside of New York City. Karen and I are programming for people to come to Film Forum, not to show or demonstrate to some programmer somewhere else that we got to it before them. We don’t negotiate with other theaters, because on our premieres screen we’re doing New York premieres of everything. We rely on the reviews, so if we were to take a move over from another theater we would lose all the press coverage. Film Forum used to do only exclusive runs of the premieres; we wouldn’t share the movie with another theater. That’s something we have changed our tune about over the years because we found that we were having opportunities to book films that were perfect for the theater and were great and we’d be kind of crazy not to, but we had this policy in place. I think one of the first films that we shared with Lincoln Plaza was the Todd Haynes film I’m Not There, which seemed so perfect for us and was a huge success. I’m glad that we did it, but we try to only do it with films that we think have the audience to sustain that kind of a split. We can understand with something like Amour, The White Ribbon or A Separation, where a distributor would open uptown and downtown and we’re cool with that, but it’s not going to work for every film. So there is some negotiating there with distributors about whether we would take something as an exclusive or we would be willing to share it.
DE: Recently you shared Holy Motors with Lincoln Center in a similar sort of arrangement. Can you describe from start to finish what the process was to screen the film at Film Forum?
MM: Well you picked a really good example. I saw Holy Motors in Cannes and was totally blown away and wanted to show it immediately. If I see something at a festival I’m really excited about I’ll immediately contact the sales agent, find out if they are selling it to a distributor, and try to talk to the distributors and let them know that we’re interested – with the caveat that Karen will need to see it ASAP and be on the same page I discovered that Indomina had picked it up just after Cannes and we talked to them early in the summer. I think it must have been June when we were talking about opening dates. Indomina wanted to open in October, which I admit we were ambivalent about; the problem, in our opinion, with opening something in October is that it’s a bit of a bloodbath for arthouse films. It’s a very competitive time and it’s a roll of the dice, because you may be up against the new Almodóvar or Lars von Trier film – big name art-house directors are often opening between October and November. Holy Motors, is beautiful, strange, and funny – it’s got a little something for everybody – but it’s not what you would call an easy sell. Carax’s name is known to us, and we know how rarely he works, but we thought the marketing would need more of a lead time and a less competitive opening frame. We thought it was a bit dangerous in October. Due, I think, to some rapturous reviews and strong word of mouth, the film actually wound up doing very well for us and we held it over. I think it’s still playing elsewhere in New York..
DE: Does being a film programmer change the way that you view films in your everyday life?
MM: I know it does. I’m not sure exactly how, because I still watch a lot of films, I still go out to the movies, and I try to keep as much of an open mind as possible. I’m still excited by movies, so it’s not that it’s dulled my appreciation of the form, it’s just that it has meant that much of my spare time is spent watching DVDs under the guise. I really don’t think it’s changed my enthusiasm for great films, though – when they come along they really pop off the screen and I feel fortunate to discover them. . I hope and I think that my senses have been sharpened from watching movies “professionally” and I can still look at something like Skyfall and be excited by the things that made by excited by James Bond movies when I was growing up but I can also see the things that are gratuitous and dumb and not be bothered as much as I might be if I’m watching something for Film Forum.
DE: What would you like to see develop more in film? Are there any contemporary directors or movements that you are particularly interested in?
MM: I’m interested in discovering films wherever the good work takes us. I think it’s no longer a secret that for some time now, there’s been a surfeit of strong work coming out of Romania, Chile, Argentina, and Mexico especially. And the Germans are making great documentaries right now. But I’m more interested in following the work of individual directors rather than countries or movements; for example, Kelly Reichardt, So Yong Kim, Andrew Bujalski and Craig Zobel in the U.S; Clio Barnard, Andrea Arnold, and Chris Morris in the U.K.; Andrey Zvyagintsev and Alexander Sokurov in Russia; Hirokazu Kore-eda and Takeshi Miike in Japan; Michael Haneke in Austria; Jafar Panahi in Iran; Lars von Trier in Denmark; Roy Andersson and Jan Troell in Sweden; Mahamat Saleh Haroun of Chad; Leos Carax in France; Apichatpong Weerasethakul of Thailand, to name a paltry few examples. We’ve shown films by many of these filmmakers. Sometimes there are producers we watch – Min-Chul Kim, for example, a South Korean producer who has made two fascinating films, Iron Crows, about ship-breakers in Bangladesh, and Planet of Snail, which was my favorite documentary last year. If he was able to produce these two remarkable films, made by two different directors, I want to see every film he produces from now on!
DE: You’ve been at Film Forum for almost 20 years. Has Film Forum changed? And if so, how has it changed during your tenure here?
MM: I think it definitely has changed in that one respect in terms of booking. It’s also harder to quantify the difference in terms of the audiences, because for premieres, as I said, we’re trying to create an audience for every film. If you look at the landscape of art-house movie-going, it’s definitely been tougher for everyone all over. If you look at the number of people who are coming through the doors, as an average it’s lower now that I was when I started in ’94. There’s just more options for entertainment. People have access to films in so many different ways. Streaming/VOD/Netflix/Hulu has changed the ways in which films reach audiences. The result is that, generally speaking, films are getting to audiences more quickly and we have to be nimble enough to show what we want to show while maintaining, for the most part, our 3-month window between theatrical run and any kind of DVD/streaming exposure. It means that we have to be more aggressive about seeing work as early as possible, pushing for dates with distributors and whenever possible, asking that this window be maintained. People also hear about films in a different way. Email was not widely used when I started. There was no web. We sent out the printed calendar and post cards. People would open up the Village Voice and see our big ad. All of those things have changed. One thing that has been a constant is the importance of the New York Times as a place where people learn about films and where critics still have the capability of driving an audience to a movie that they’re enthusiastic about. Manohla Dargis wrote a fantastic review of Once Upon A Time in Anatolia last January. That was hugely important to us, because it’s a great film, but a difficult one to market and I think that it needed that kind of boost from a name critic.
DE: How do you think the landscape of film as a medium has changed in your lifetime? Do you believe these changes are good?
MM: Obviously the shift away from film towards digital has been steady since the 1990s, but affected us most sharply by the early 2000s. Almost all documentary filmmakers were shooting digitally by that time and – because we like to show films in the format in which they were shot – we needed to open up to the idea of digital projection. I grew up watching film prints, and I remember when I first saw digital projection in the mid-1990s at a demonstration at a film festival – which at the time was derided as “video projection”—and I thought it looked just awful. Way too bright, like you had turned up the brightness and contrast controls on your TV. The level of control over the image is vastly different now and DCP marks a hyperspace jump from the crude digital projection of the ‘90s.
Digital opens doors to filmmakers who may not have been as technically proficient as their film-only forebears. It allows more different kinds of stories to be told, from filmmakers of diverse backgrounds, and a freedom that I think can only be characterized as “good.” But if you’re asking if I think film or digital is superior visually, I still prefer film.