The Ohio native, 27, says as much as she likes to watch and talk about film, her interest is in curating instead of making movies. “I don’t want to add more content to the glut,” says new NWFF director Courtney Sheehan.
People always ask Courtney Sheehan the same question: What’s your favorite film?
Please don’t. Sheehan doesn’t have a set answer.
Right now, it’s “Kaili Blues,” the feature debut of a 26-year-old Chinese director with a 41-minute steadicam shot that includes a car ride and a river crossing.
“Simply one of the most stunning films I’ve seen this year,” Sheehan said the other morning.
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When she was younger, it was Hal Ashby’s classic “Being There.”
“That was a fundamentally important film to me,” she said. “I identified with the absurdist outlook on the world, that strain of humor.”
Tomorrow, who knows?
But as the new executive director of the Northwest Film Forum (NWFF), Sheehan will have plenty of options to not only watch films but gather community around them in all kinds of ways: panel discussions, themed weeks, educational outreach and support for local filmmakers.
“This isn’t like a regular movie theater,” Sheehan said of the Forum, tucked along 12th Avenue in the heart of Capitol Hill.
For starters, it’s a nonprofit, which means that it is supported by membership and donations. And its mission of exhibiting and supporting the production of independent films isn’t a guaranteed, moneymaking endeavor.
“But the fact that we’re small,” said Sheehan, “means we have the flexibility and adaptability to be able to be responsive.”
So, for example, when Prince died, Sheehan licensed a one-time screening of his 1986 cult classic “Under the Cherry Moon” and booked musicians to perform a live score underneath. She called it “Puget Soundtrack” — a name invented by her husband, Anand Balasubrahmanyan, a project manager at Pyramid Communications.
The theater will also serve as a community meeting place, as when Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society” was chosen to open the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). Sheehan hosted a panel discussion with Reel Grrls executive director Nancy Chang and “Night Stalker” director Megan Griffiths about whether Allen’s personal controversies would draw or repel audiences.
Sheehan also has invited the nonprofit Path with Art, for people coming out of homelessness, addiction and other traumas and who seek to create. NWFF not only donates its space but provides a film instructor to work with participants.
The job of executive director was last held by Lyall Bush, who left a year ago to head the Film+Media program at Cornish College of the Arts.
For a while, NWFF filled that opening by making Sheehan artistic director and Line Sandsmark managing director. When Sandsmark left in March, Sheehan was handling programming, youth education and community partnerships.
The board promoted her to executive director May 23.
Much as she likes to watch and talk about film, Sheehan has no interest in making them. (“I don’t want to add more content to the glut,” she said.)
Her interest is curating. Streaming video is popular and convenient, but there’s no one guiding you through the titles.
“There’s a distinctive need to have more curators connect people with art, and cut through the noise,” Sheehan said. “No one is satisfied with their Netflix algorithm. They’re not placing an emphasis on the curatorial sensibility.”
Sheehan, 27, grew up in Canal Fulton, Ohio, where the biggest attraction is the St. Helena III, a boat on the Erie Canal manned by people in period costume and pulled by horses walking alongside. (“I’ve never been on it,” she said.)
She is the middle of five children. Her father is a middle-school band director and her mother an oboe teacher. Movies became a big deal for her, and early on.
“It was an escapist route out of Ohio,” she said.
Still, it was a 20-minute drive to the nearest movieplex, and there was no Netflix. So her father recorded the movies that played during free HBO weekends.
Still transfixed by movies — and especially alternative films — Sheehan attended Grinnell College in Iowa, where she designed her own major: visual culture, a mix of film theory and philosophy.
Sheehan first saw Seattle during a summer internship at the NWFF, where she discovered there was such a thing as a film programmer.
When she returned to school for her senior year, Sheehan programmed the campus movie theater and put together events at the local movie house. Midnight screenings. Harry Potter-themed events. You get the drift.
After graduating, Sheehan won a fellowship that required she live abroad for one year, not be attached to any academic institution and travel alone — unless she was married.
So she and her then-boyfriend, Balasubrahmanyan, got hitched and set off, attending 20 film festivals in eight countries.
They lived in Minnesota before coming to Seattle for her first job at NWFF.
Not long after this appointment, Sheehan held an open house to get feedback from everyone with an interest in the place.
“I ask for advice constantly,” she said. “It’s critical. Not just the film-forum community that comes here for screenings or classes, but filmmakers.
“For a nonprofit, there’s no reason to exist if you’re not responsive to and engaged with the community you serve,” she said.
That belief seems to be serving Sheehan well. Admissions are up, memberships are selling at $50 a year (members pay just $6 per screening, and can take classes and rent gear or even the venue). And popular events like the Children’s Film Festival Seattle continue to build community.
“Get ’em while they’re young!” Sheehan cracked.
Sheehan is young, too, and up for the challenges ahead.
“I want to reinvent the role of the movie theater and the role that it plays in people’s nightlife choices, and the way they engage with art.
“That’s what drove me into programming,” she said. “I want to share films with other people.”