Northwest Film Forum's Courtney Sheehan Promoted to Executive Director

Yesterday morning the Northwest Film Forum announced that artistic director Courtney Sheehan has been promoted to executive director. Since her arrival as program director in 2013, Sheehan has nudged the longstanding Capitol Hill institution toward more eclectic, inclusive programming, not just on the screen but in front of it. In the last year, Sheehan introduced the live-music series Puget Soundtracks and paved the way for events that use the big screen, like Brett Hamil’s variety show The Seattle Process and Minh Nguyen’s multi-media forum Chat Room. Sheehan—one of City Arts' 2015 Artists of the Year—is an intellectual dynamo, invested as much in social justice and equitable representation as experimental intersections across artistic disciplines. We spoke with her by phone on Tuesday afternoon.

Congratulations! How did this promotion come to be?
Courtney Sheehan: Following Line’s [Sandsmark, NWFF's previous managing director] departure at the end of March, the board and I were discussing different options—and I’d refer to you to the board for more on their decision in this process—but it was definitely a natural evolution in my role as program director and then artistic director taking on more and different responsibilities. And this spring we created a new position that the Film Forum has never had—Director of Operations, which is Chris Day, who was our house manager. He took on a lot of admin roles as well. It’s a new paradigm! In some sense were using the existing model that this sort of organization has used before, but it’s a fresh take for the Film Forum.

So it’s a different look for you guys, structurally.
And we're also doing something really different—especially for art-house theaters everywhere—because what I’m doing with programming is splitting between the two strands or categories: film screenings in a traditional sense, showing great new indie cinema; and live events, community partnerships, the live multidisciplinary shows we put on. I’m focusing more on the latter strand, the things we’ve continued to ramp up in quantity and quality in recent months. And for the summer I’ve hired a contract programmer based in San Francisco. Her name is Gina Basso and she works as public programs curator at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She’s got a terrific sensibility for film. And because she’s in this different, museum world and connected to the Bay Area film community, we’ll have visiting artists we otherwise wouldn’t. And she has her own taste so there will be more horror films at Film Forum this summer.

Great to get another point of view into the theater. 
She’s basically doing a season of film and then we’ll move on and continually open the door for other programmers. So much of the programming already comes from the community—a lot of times it’s great ideas people have that they bring to us. It’s a big priority for me to continue to open the space in that way, to create a real forum where people can plug in and bring the events and partnerships that speak the most to them. There’s a way in which it’s already happened with our most successful programing. Puget Soundtrack films are entirely selected by bands and we provide the space. Seattle Process is totally produced by Brett Hamil. And we give our space to other groups, like Social Justice Fund, who had an event here recently. We’re happy to literally open our doors for that kind of thing. It’s a continued balance and combination of all these different usages. Film is at the core but there’s so many ways to connect people around it and to imagine how a really big screen fits in people’s lives.

That’s an interesting way of perceiving what Film Forum does.
Screens are increasingly integrated into the fabric of our daily lives and the Film Forum has two really big ones. They have this critical core function around film but we’ve had so much success and stimulation from exploring different ways of using them. Minh Nguyen’s new event Chat Room is another way we’re using that screen for a different purpose.

I haven’t been to Chat Room. What’s it like?
It’s a range of things. Last edition was Net art. That’s something talk about typically as video or other forms of art produced and shown online. So we’re bringing those types of art offline and presenting them in a space traditionally reserved for one specific medium. It’s more relevant and topical to the way people are engaging in media.

I've found that mix of live events and more traditional screenings really compelling. 
A lot of it too has to do with a healthy mix of the things we do here. Our calendar on any night, most likely we’re showing a movie in addition to probably hosting a workshop on editing film or writing a screenplay or using a green screen. This is definitely crucial to our mission, being a center for local film production and exhibition. And we pride ourselves on the rarity of nearly every single film we show, especially when it comes to new releases. We’re talking about films screened in five or 10 other markets in the country. The opportunity to screen these films is really special. And in addition to that we’re exploring how to incorporate a wider range of programming that toys with how the screen can be used but are also attentive to the things people wanna talk about in their lives today. Whether that’s a conversation about affordable housing or a multidisciplinary performance that combines dance and poetry and film. Because of the artists that are bringing it to light, that’s what we wanna open the space to. And we’re lucky to have a space to do that.

This all seems very optimistic about the Film Forum’s continued presence in the community.
I don’t see any reason not to be optimistic about our role in the community but also the role of film. This is a time where there’s commentary in national arenas about cinema as a physical space that matters to people, whether that’s a given. And the future of film criticism—what’s the role of the critic when everyone has an opinion and the platform to show it publically? What gets left out is the way you can totally keep alive the spirit of film and cinema as an art form and way of connecting audiences with art and at the same time be open to its evolution and embrace the ability to experiment and play and be responsive to changes in the industry and the economy and the cultural ways people receive media. I’m not interested in sticking my head in the sand about any of that and I don’t need to. Film is a lot of things to a lot of people and we’re just trying to create a space to access all of that.

And it’s certainly demonstrated in quantifiable ways—we have more people coming than a couple years ago. Admission increased by 10 percent between our last two fiscal years. Attendance is increasing. The diversity of our audience is increasing—and that has to do with being less formal and traditional in the structure of our programming and allowing it to be community-driven and diverse in the very mediums and forms we’re presenting here.

As executive director, will you be taking a greater role in fundraising? 
I’ll be overseeing fundraising activities. This is something I’d say has been a natural progression, because the last several months I’ve been working on it already, organizing our gala, our biggest fundraising event of the year, which went really well. As a small organization everyone wears a lot of hats and carries the load. I’ve been fundraising in various ways since I joined the team. I’m excited about that part of it because I’m proud of what we’re doing here and excited about the potnential to do more and better and new and different things as well. And I’m exited to go out and gather support for that.

Will there be new positions to fill as the organization restructures?
We’ll be announcing new hires shortly but we’re looking to bolster those development and fundraising efforts with staff.

Programming-wise, what’s coming up that you’re excited about?
There are two live shows in June and July. The first is called The Long Haul Live. It’s a documentary screening plus live interactive performance about a group, a male revue called the Buckaroos. Have you heard of them? They perform regularly at the Can Can and Triple Door and they’re a group of regular, everyday guys who also perform in this male revue group on the side. They come from all different walks of life and different jobs and this great local documentary maker, Amy Enser, who’s also an editor, is directing the film. On June 18 we’re gonna show the film with live performance from the Buckaroos and it’ll involve all sorts of extra flair, let’s say, and it’ll be a singular experience and really fun, combining a screening and a performance. I don’t wanna ruin any surprises, but there will be some.

Does this show stem from your affection for Magic Mike?
It’s wonderful serendipity. The origins of this was at our last holiday party, which was a great time, and late in to the night Amy came up and said, “I’ve got an idea. It involves male strippers in your theater.” That was the beginning. I’m looking forward to hosting that.

On a more serious note, we’re also going to have the world premiere of a live show we commissioned called PALMS by Paige Barnes, who’s a choreographer and dancer and she’s bringing together a bunch of great local artists. Vanessa DeWolf is her dramaturg who did a lot of the writing, and Paurl Walshis the sound artist. It’s a live show that combines dance and poetry and sound and light and architectural installations. We’re in the process of building a massive three-story set that goes to the full height of the main cinema, like 23 feet, and the dancers will be performing on all levels of this stage. That’s July 7–9. Page wanted to do a show here and so we commissioned her to fully develop and bring into being that idea.

Something pop-y and fun and something arty and esoteric.
Exactly. They’re both quality work, that’s something well always emphasize. I don’t think a singular, homogenous set of tastes is interesting to anybody.

Also we’re gonna have an open house where people can tell me how to do my job next Tuesday at 6 p.m. Come have a drink, have free popcorn and I’ll share about my vision and ideas for the future. And I’m inviting the community to share their feedback and ideas for the future. We’re looking for filmmakers to tell us what kind classes they want and audiences to tell us what kind of films and other programming they wanna see and for community partners to tell us how they want us to plug into broader things happening in our city.

Asking people to tell you how to do your job is risky but in this context it makes sense.
Especially in a time where the role of the movie theater in people’s entertainment or nightlife is shifting as they can watch so much of what they want at home. We’ve got go to people and see what’s gonna be the most valuable community programming for them. And we’re circulating a survey in advance to get people’s feedback as well. 

Photo by Julio Ramirez

This article has been updated to reflect Chris Day's correct title, which is Director of Operations. 

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