TSB interview: Northwest Film Forum’s new executive director, Courtney Sheehan

When I met Northwest Film Forum’s new-ish Executive Director Courtney Sheehan for an interview earlier this month, I told her that among the collection of film and arts nerds I call friends, her promotion from artistic director was greeted with the kind of excitement you’d see around town if Seattle had finally gotten an In and Out Burger. Not only did it bring stability to the important film organization by promoting someone who already was working for the NWFF, but she’s a big thinker with a lot of ideas on how to guide the Northwest Film Forum into the next generation while the expectations for a movie theater are quickly changing as the ways people watch and make films is also changing.

She said her goal is “reinvent the role of the movie theater” and the Northwest Film Forum appears to be a perfect vehicle for Sheehan to implement her ideas because the space allows for different interpretations, and it does far more than acting as a film theater, including helping filmmakers in almost all aspects of filmmaking. When we met for our interview, it was on the eve of PALMS, the dance performance from choreographer Paige Barnes. It used elements of poetry and electronic music to transform the space. It’s projects like PALMS, or the Puget Soundtrack series, which has a local band score a film soundtrack as the movie plays. This weekend the NWFF is showing the acclaimed Ondi Timoner-directed rock doc Dig! and a performance from Liz Harris, of the indie band Grouper, to accompany super-8 and 16mm films from director Paul Clipson.

Below is a lightly-edited transcript of our wide-ranging conversation about the Northwest Film Forum, Seattle as a film center, and how she wants to “reinvent” what a movie theater is in the twenty-first century.

Let’s talk about how you’re involved with the Film Forum first.

Sure, so I actually started as an intern back when I was in college and I worked on the Children’s Film Festival Seattle, which is the biggest program that we do every year, and it actually travels nationally. Also I worked with my predecessor, the last program director, Adam Sekuler, and sort of discovered film programming as a line of work, because I didn’t know that that was a thing that you could do for a living. I loved it and I loved the organization, and I stayed in touch with it over the years, and took on programming gigs, and did a lot of international research at different festivals. Not long after I came back from that experience, the job opened up and that’s how I first joined the staff.

What led you to becoming her job, is executive director your title now?

Yeah, so I’m sort of a natural evolution and progression of things: just getting to know the organization better and taking on more responsibilities. First, primarily the artistic programming but then so much of working in a small organization is everyone wearing a lot of hats, so everyone getting more involved with fundraising and administration and management was a natural progression of events. It has felt like a trajectory, internally.

What do you have in mind for the future? Or how do you see the direction it might take?

I’ve been pretty unapologetic about saying that my goal is to help reinvent the role of the movie theater in arts and culture in the city and specifically Seattle. I say that for a few reasons. One, the traditional modes of theatrical exhibition are really not sustainable I think, especially on the scale of what we’re doing with the level of independent film that we’re showing. We’re really not interested in exhibiting commercial product. Independent film is our mission, and is part of what makes us distinct as an organization. Increasingly, films are, of course, being readily available online. Beyond that, and beyond the specific titles we’re showing, people need to be given more of a reason to come out to the movie theater than simply showing a film.

You could bemoan that fact, but I think it’s a cultural impetus to simply adapt and update and re-imagine the possibilities of what the space can do and be, and that’s in the DNA of the Film Forum having always done these live show commissions, always having really great music film programming, and always being more than a movie theater because we’re also this artist support center. We’re involved in producing films, we teach year round to adults and kids, how to make films, we provide arts support services like fiscal sponsorship for films like Big Sonia is our most popular and most useful service that we provide to filmmakers, having work in progress screenings. So just really embracing the multi-faceted nature and potential of this space is really important to me. There’s so much room for play within that, because you can try one thing, you can try another thing, there are certain ways in which as a small nonprofit we can be nimble and flexible and adaptive and creative in ways that [larger organizations cannot].

If we’re talking about a startup, think like a startup, like fail quick and cheap and fast and easy. We can try new ideas and experiment with new business models too, in a way that larger institutions or more bureaucratic infrastructure doesn’t always allow. That’s something that’s really unique about the Film Forum nationally, is that there are very few organizations that are doing what we’re doing, and are also completely independent and not tied to a museum or a university or a larger festival organization. That creative freedom is really what invigorates me on a daily basis.

The other main reason why I say we need to reinvent the movie theater is that the role that it plays in people’s lives in this city, I think, needs to be more focused, at least from the perspective of what the nonprofit center like ours is doing on, working towards social equity. I just see how affordable housing and affordable space for art is one of the most critical issues in the city right now. As a small nonprofit that doesn’t have a lot of resources, one of the best and most valuable resources and assets that we do have is our physical space. Making that accessible, truly accessible, to as many community groups that need it is key for me. I think it’s what’s going to help ensure that the organization remain relevant and meaningful going forward.

Of course that makes sense to the degree that it makes sense for people to want to be in Capitol Hill, so that’s it’s own very interesting and complicated set of questions. Increasingly over the past year, we’ve done what we can to donate the space to find ways of subsidizing donating space, to work with people where they’re at in terms of putting together programs that really foreground the work of a social group or a fellow organization. It’s less and less important to have our own curatorial stamp on every night of the week, and much more important to facilitate access to…

I was just thinking about all the things that I’ve seen here that, a small percentage of them are just seeing films. I’ve seen a lot of great films here, but I think I’ve seen a fringe festival opera show for beer drinkers in here, and I saw Lauren Weedman make a presentation several years ago…

That really hits on a lot of what we try to encapsulate which is supporting local film production and local filmmakers and artists and also showcasing great performances. If you can do that in the space of one evening in one room and also have a conversation between the artist and the audience, that’s really special.

I really like the idea that you said you’re trying to reinvent the movie theater because it seems like that’s something that really needs to be done because everyone I know has a Netflix account. It seems like you’re competing with that for what’s available on Netflix or any streaming service or what’s in the multiplexes.

Yeah, I definitely see what we’re doing as contributing to this larger collective critical thinking exercise among exhibitors in the US around what is the point anymore. What is the case that we’re making for why we exist, and I don’t say that to say that movie theaters should need, especially nonprofit film organizations, should need to justify their existence because I think people will always as many others believe want to gather together and see a movie on a big screen. But scaffolding an entire traditional model on that no longer works, and what I see is a lack of nuance in the larger cultural conversation about what’s happening to the movie theater. Is it going extinct?

[We can program] around food and drink in the theater, or singalongs and quote-a-longs and things like that. Is it always necessarily a matter of competition between the streaming service and the movie theater, or is there more potential integration, cross-pollination, the idea of playing with these ways that how people watch stuff is evolving? I think it’s more a matter of not dropping the movie theater out of that conversation. Okay, there’s this great new Netflix show so that means therefore that nobody needs movie theaters anymore. That seems to be leapfrogging a bit, and it’s just an unimaginative way of thinking to me. There’s really interesting ways to connect these worlds, and a lot of what I try to think about when I build new programs is building a bridge between online and offline experiences.

Last year we partnered with Fandor which is this streaming subscription service that’s like Netflix but more for independent and foreign films. We played a film in the theater the same time that it was debuting on the service and encouraged an online conversation that fed into the Q&A with Lynn Shelton, because it was her first film in the theater.

We Go Way Back?

Yeah. That represents this type of experimentation and I’m really excited to see new initiatives like Filmstruck, it’s a partnership between Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection. That’s another place where as an exhibitor I could look to that and shiver in my boots about, what does this mean, if I’m going to be able to continue to draw audience for classic films. Instead I see it as these are peers in the larger endeavor of connecting audiences with films and I want to be a part of it, and that there are ways of building those connections. It’s not something that I would propose to have the solution for, but I like working on problems and it’s a very fascinating, stimulating, problem solving activity.

It’s always been a difficult business, especially independent film in a whole host of ways. I feel like I’m living a particular zeitgeist and it’s really nice to see actually the amount of larger industry conversation happening around it, because I think we have to confront reality and think together about what we want to do to change or not change.

Does that make things different with how you program movies and projects?

Yeah, if you look over the past few years you’ll see that we’ve really moved away from structuring our calendar based on week-long runs and shifting more and more towards what I call eventizing with substance, so building out an event experience around a screening. Whether that’s because it’s in partnership with another organization and we’re having a conversation around the film, or if that is a performance, or whether it’s having the director in attendance and treating it more like a one off event. That has been more successful for sure. We’ve started new series, like Puget Soundtrack, which is incredibly successful in that we’re commissioning musicians to choose a film that they want to do a live score for and create it and perform it and they’ve all been so radically different from each other. Not just the film selections, but the approaches. And not just the type of music, but the approaches to what it means to do a live score and that’s been fascinating to see.

One we have is this group Fungal Abyss is doing Ken Russell’s The Devils, which is a really out-there horror film. The range of creativity there I think is really unique. Again, it’s kind of like giving up the curatorial power of saying, I have this film will you do a score for it, and more tapping into the existing artistic energies in our community. The Seattle Process is a successful and popular talk show, hosted by Brett Hamil, that doesn’t have anything to do with film. Film has been a part of it for sure, but what I’m even more intrigued by is how the use of the movie theater screen is evolving so that it becomes this canvas for photography, video, social media, these kinds of visual accompaniment to a live experience. It’s also really heartening to see how many people turn out for local politics, conversation, the topicality and the fact that it’s about issues that matter to people today, where they live. The fact that that draws a crowd is really encouraging.

We could go on and on and name the performances and the events and the partner based events, but that’s really the model that I’m shifting to. At the same time, always continuing to show great new classic independent films. It’s about striking that balance and reshaping the proportions of what the different strands of programming are to make up the whole of the calendar. It’s a complicated formula, and it’s definitely a work in progress, but that’s the other thing about this line of work is that anything that you figure out that works for a while is only going to work for a while. Five years from now a lot of my great ideas from today are not going to be applicable anymore. Just embracing that constant flux and making sure that first and foremost we’re attending to what the community that we exist to serve wants is really key.

I’m really fascinated by the process and the evolution of what we expect from movie theaters, and how they’re evolving. One of the reasons why I really wanted to talk to you was just because I wanted to learn more about this. I feel like you’re someone that thinks outside the box and not just resigning yourself to saying, “oh well this is outside of my hands because these are the movies that we’re sent every week.”

People send us movies but for the most part we’re going out and getting what we want. There’s also this distinction that is tied to our other areas of work that aren’t being a movie theater, because again this is a unique thing about the film forum and it was founded as a post production filmmaker collective, and later acquired a movie theater. For example, in one of the additions to the Seattle Process, we showed a short video that we produced, it’s part of the Citizens Minutes program that we do, where we make videos with local filmmakers and local community groups and organizations about local current events. So this was just a fun video of Nick Licata playing ping pong on his way out from ending his tenure on City Council, and so the integration of the artistic creation that we’re supporting within the program too, is something that as far as original content goes and the huge cache put on that, not every place has the ability to do that. That’s the other layer of experimenting with changing the program, its like how do we further incorporate what we’re making and what we’re showing and what other people are showing.

There’s a really great example of this as well with something we’re doing called Cue Northwest, which is a partnership with Brick Lane Records, where this record label is supporting the production of a short film that we selected the filmmaker for using music from across the entire record for the score. So it’s not a music video and the filmmaker had creative freedom to roam across the record and find different parts of songs that they wanted to use, and right now that film is being made, it’s actually going to be an animated film by this great local animator Neely Goniodsky. It will premiere in Local Sightings film festival which is our big annual showcase of Pacific Northwest films and filmmakers in the fall, so that’s another example of, we’re finding project-specific ways to support artists making new work and then we’re showing it. More and more it’s about looking outward and to what our other companies doing that’s cool out in the world, like brick lane records is a terrific place. Linking up with them to find the resources to give to artists to make it work.

It also sounds like you’re really trying to not be depending on film and seeking out a broader range of programs than just letting films find their audience.

I think the place has to mean something to all kinds of different people for all kinds of different reasons. The door has to feel truly open and it’s going to do that best if the variety of programming reflects the variety of people that we’re actively inviting to participate in this space. I love art house cinema and I love classic cinephilia, and I also just see the cinematic as a mode that exists across a range of media than I do see cinema as a fixed noun, as the thing that we do here. I think we create a platform for the cinematic.

One thing, I wonder if you agree, I see a lot of films you see crowd funding campaigns, and it seems like more and more people are making smaller films and telling their own stories and doing it DIY. You talked about how the Film Forum operates, how you’re integrated with a lot of local filmmakers, and I wonder if you see that as changing over the past few years on your end.

It’s about adapting what services you provide to artists based on what their needs are. We recently did a survey and found that of all the art services that we offer, the number one most useful is work-in-progress screenings. Just the opportunity to share your rough cut in a space with other people where you can get feedback, and it’s professional quality projection so you can actually see the thing, because it’s really important in the editing process and before it’s picture locked and before it’s color corrected and sound graded to be able to assess those needs, and for fellow filmmakers and/or blind audience, whatever way you want to approach it, to give that input. That’s something we’re emphasizing more and more, and we have a regular relationship with the Seattle Documentary Association.

Work in progress screenings happen here regularly. Similarly with fiscal sponsorship, that’s something that is super valuable to filmmakers. We’re taking more and more of those projects on and thinking of ways to build out more of a package of services for that, which includes using the space, whether that’s hosting a fundraiser, or work in progress screening we’ve done both. Beyond that, we’ve also done several editions of something called Join the Crowd, which is an offline crowd funding event. People are always like, can you share my Kickstarter on your Facebook, and it’s like, we can, but I guarantee it’s not going to generate much support for you.

One of the things about crowd funding is that it’s this self perpetuating cycle where people give to each other in a community, and also build audience through it. So I thought what if we hosted an event where multiple filmmakers presented their crowd funding campaigns on screen, talked to the audience about it for the filmmakers who are in the audience, workshop, “why did you pick that goal, how did you get those rewards?” and just go through the process of crowd funding. That’s had some success for people raise money through it, then we softly require if you come to the event you have to give to a campaign. If you’re associated with the campaign you have to give to somebody else’s campaign.

It’s facilitating what’s already happening online in a real space, encouraging filmmakers to meet each other, and the number one thing we hear that people want to see more of from the filmmaker base is opportunities to meet and to network and to be part of the sense of making an industry or community. That’s an opportunity for the space itself to be super valuable.

[We have a] dance film residency that we’re partnering with Velocity in the Value Village space or V2, the new building that both of us were instrumental in getting off the ground. We’re basically going to give access to this really cool loading dock area in the building to two different teams of dancers and filmmakers to make a film. We’ll have a screening event during Local Sightings where we select the filmmaking teams, and then the films themselves will premiere at Next Dance Cinema, which is a festival that Velocity runs and hosts at the Film Forum. It’s all these ways of tying together what’s literally on our block, how can we use what’s on our block to help make art, and tonight we’re having this happy hour so that filmmakers and dancers can meet each other and pair up and make these teams to submit their ideas for the residency. It will as much as anything serve as an opportunity to be like, yo, dance people, film people, hang out.

I think that’s something I’ve found embedded in Seattle’s arts culture. I started out as a music blogger and I see that there’s not a lot of comingling of arts genres on their own happening; you have to force the integration with different artistic mediums. I could hardly get any of my peers to care about going to see a play or a movie or a book reading because they’re all at concerts every night. There would be interest when those art forms overlapped…

Totally, and that was also part of the inspiration for the Cue Northwest project with Brick Lane Records. It was really important to Brick Lane Records to be a project that helped build community between film and music in Seattle.

I’m wondering, how do you think Seattle has changed as a film city over the past however many years? Have you seen any evolution or changes?

I have a very limited vantage point from which to answer that question, not only because I’ve been here for less than three years but because I’m not a filmmaker so I see it from the perspective of a programmer, administrator, and friend to filmmakers and sometimes producer, but I don’t have boots on the ground. Certainly I think the new initiative for, which is in some ways reviving a former initiative, to turn this building at San Point Way into a sound stage represents a shift of focus from the tax incentive that was the last major thing that people as a community were asked to rally around and support. These are endeavors and efforts to build the industry infrastructure that is sorely lacking. That from what I see is an ongoing process.

I also just hear more and more freelance filmmakers say that the amount of work this past winter, which is supposed to be the dry season for that kind of commercial work that there was way more opportunities. I think a lot of individuals are finding ways of blending commercial work, whether that’s literally making commercials or working in gaming. Obviously there’s a couple of major employers in town for that, with their artistic practice, and that’s something that’s always been true but it does seem that there’s more gigs to me. That’s a somewhat refracted lens from where I am in my position.

I would just love, and this is the thing that the Film Forum needs to do, and that other institutions that support film in this region need to do, figure out a better, more cohesive way of supporting artists on a larger scale. I would love to feel like organizationally we’re contributing to an effort to connect filmmakers with opportunities and with resources to make their art that goes beyond being like, hey I heard that commercial shoot needed a PA. Something larger and more infrastructural, and that’s what things like this sound stage represent as an idea. So I’m really interested in those kinds of ideas.

You mentioned the tax incentive, that being the last thing that was asked of the community to rally around, which I think is super important and now you have the sound stage, is there something else coming up after that, or is it one thing at a time, or is there anything else that people can do to help it grow?

Those are the main conversation points that I hear, and personally the next step that I think makes sense is, and this is just a lot of the work that’s been happening around creating the proposal for the sound stage. I would love to see in another room at another table a conversation about how to address equity issues in the film industry here, because it’s very diverse in terms of gender, but it’s not in terms of race. Whether there is a commonly shared agenda or goal that can stimulate a more collective effort to make an overture to the tech industry.

I don’t know what that looks like, obviously that’s a very broad way of putting it, and I think that the sound stage represents one idea for doing that because it would be a mix of public private use. If there’s other ways that we can be less diffuse about, I just look at this sector of filmmakers and the ways that they’re creating livings, and it’s very diffuse and individualistic, for the most part, then there are these larger entities that help in the way that they can, and connecting more of those dots, and because those individual filmmakers are already on their own making these kinds of various inroads and working in tech, by doing videography for Amazon, I would think it would make sense for these larger institutions and entities to come together and see how we can facilitate that more efficiently and effectively for everybody in a way that brings it back to supporting filmmakers as artists.

I think that’s really interesting because I feel like those two groups are almost adversarial in a lot of ways. I don’t think it should be, but I think that often you see the arts world is pitted against the tech sector in a way that I don’t think it is very healthy.

You know, I feel like at least, maybe it’s just fallen off my radar, but the number of public conversations and events specifically around that issue, of which there have been many, I’ve seen fewer and fewer in recent months. Hopefully that indicates a development in the area, and part of it does just have to do with the media representation of the …

Oh, absolutely.

It’s the headlines as much as the quotes and selection of the quotes. So many people, as you know, in this city, and this is not something that’s unique to either of these sectors, but they’re working on their own thing. I have to assume, and I guess I have seen plenty of examples of people working on their own things to connect art and tech. It’s really hard to have the highest level of conversation about that because of how complicated it is.

I understand, and I’m sure I’m guilty for being in the media too, but I just haven’t liked how it’s been pitted as, especially here in Capitol Hill. I live in Belltown so I see that too. I think that certain news sources really play that up a lot, and I think it’s unfortunate, I think they tell people over and over that they’re not welcome in this neighborhood.

Maybe one of the reasons that I’ve seen a little, because I just attended and saw multiple public conversations in various arenas in various ways about this issue, and maybe one of the reasons that I’m tuning it out or I’m seeing less of it is because ultimately it’s a pretty boring way of thinking and talking about change, and it’s reductive, and it’s overgeneralizing. Hopefully there’s going to be less and less of that viewpoint circulated because of how it only has so much traction because it only has so much substance to it. It’s almost like, if we want to keep talking about it, we’re going to have to talk about it in different ways, because we already did, we got through that, us versus them, what’s next.

What’s coming up at the Film Forum that you’re really excited about?

At the end of the month, this guy Paul Clipson is coming up from San Francisco. He does these really interesting 16mm films with double exposure, and there’s going to be a live performance by Liz Harris from Grouper, who’s doing the show with Elevator that same weekend.

I’ll just ask one last thing, is there anything that people should know about that I didn’t ask about?

Thank you for asking that. Yeah, the 19th edition of the Local Sightings film festival is September 22 to October 1, it’s going to be another amazing year, we’ve got more submissions than we’ve ever received and a couple of really special events in the works, so I’ll be really excited to share more information about that stuff soon.