August 23, 2006 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Growing the Little 

Bob Russell leaves Geva and sports for the movies

Bob Russell is enthusiastic and persuasive, two traits he'll need in his new position as executive director of the Little Theatre Film Society. He faces the challenge of expanding the fledgling nonprofit's role in the community without interrupting the steady supply of eye candy and brain food that local moviegoers have come to expect.

In June, Russell assumed responsibility for the Little, an organization needing strong and secure leadership after a shaky transitional year that followed the retirement of founder Bill Coppard. Russell's professional experience includes a stint as Geva Theatre's director of marketing, which familiarized him with the workings of a nonprofit. And as the Rhinos' VP of operations, he helped to create a rabid local fan base for a sport Americans aren't even supposed to like.

Now Russell is readying the Little Theatre for a traditionally busy season that will showcase the usual Oscar contenders --- plus, this year, a traveling Pedro Almodovar retrospective. In a recent interview, he discussed the Little's place in the Rochester cultural scene, the lingering misconceptions about the downtown institution, and why the New York Giants' loss might be Rochester's gain. The following is an edited version of that interview.

City: This is a broad question, but how's it going?

Bob Russell: It's going really well. The biggest thing is coming in and trying to learn the culture of the Little. One of the things that helps is I've spent so much time here as a moviegoer that I had my own ideas of what the Little is about. Coming from a nonprofit background and looking to see where we are currently as a nonprofit organization and what we need to start doing to grow: that's the biggest part of my reason to be here, to help the Little grow beyond where it's been for the last six years as a nonprofit.

What made you want to work here?

My passion for the Little. I joked with the people at Geva that two things would have taken me away from there: this or being made president of the New York Giants. The first time I came here, a friend brought me and we saw The Gods Must Be Crazy. I was like, "The Little? That's not for us. We're sports guys." And it just blew me away --- the atmosphere, the comfort zone that I found here --- and it really started to create a passion in me, a love for not just independent films, but foreign films. To have the opportunity to lead an organization that I've been so invested in and that had such an impact on me for so many years really was a dream job.

Has it been what you expected?

Yes and no. Some of the organizational structure was a little less than what I thought it was going to be. What I found is that this is a small organization running on a small group of people, and there are certain things that just physically weren't able to be done. We've readjusted staffing a little bit so that we could address those things.

One of the major areas is working with donations. We haven't been able to do that much, because the experience level of people wasn't there: working with foundations and grants, working with the government, working with corporate sponsors and corporate donors in Rochester and individual donors.

The people that support the Little are mad-crazy about the Little, and that's why they're involved. I think there are more people out there, but we've just never had the opportunity to ask them or to tell the story. We want to tell people why we're not just any other movie house and what they can experience here. I want the Little to be the worst-kept secret in Rochester. Right now, I think people still feel you've got to be part of some club to come here.

But you're trying to convince people to pay extra for some things that they can get somewhere else --- like Little Miss Sunshine, which has expanded to other screens.

A casual moviegoer can just buy a ticket and get the cheapest popcorn in town. We have among the lowest concession prices. That's available to anyone. We don't expect everybody to be a member. But I think once they come in and they make that investment emotionally to the Little, then we're able to ask for the financial support.

People like feeling that they're invested in something, and if you can do that without breaking the bank, that's when more people get involved. That's where memberships are so important; working with the grants and the foundations, letting them know here's what we are, here's what we want to happen, and here's the level of support we have.

Do you have a marketing plan in mind to increase membership?

We're working on that now. What we're trying to do is look at the groups of people that haven't been in here yet and how to we reach them. How can we tie into local civic organizations and bring them in as a group to view a film? A big growth area is special events, working with a lot of companies and organizations that want to host meetings here or do different events during the day when we're not showing films. That all brings new people through the door.

It's long been a challenge to get younger people to the Little. What sort of outreach are you envisioning to appeal to them?

One of the areas we're looking at is our student memberships, so we're starting to work with the colleges to get that information out to the students. We're starting to work with the city schools to do daytime showings. We may bring back An Inconvenient Truth. We're trying to find those types of films so that we can open them up for school groups and work with educators to find out what part of their curriculum they could enhance with something like a film and a talkback afterwards.

We're also looking into putting together an event on Saturday and Sunday morning that would be for children, so that we can start reaching families who may not have the opportunity with our regular films to bring their children in. Part of that is being the dad of a 10-year-old who loves this place but doesn't have a lot of opportunity to come see films here.

I think kids today are a lot smarter than when I was in school. We wanted to see Rocky XV; we weren't worried about the political issues. I think as kids are learning more and are more attuned to what's going on in the world, they want to be involved. They want to see films that are going to touch them and help them understand more. So when we're doing our programming, that's another thing we're looking at: not just entertaining people, but educating people.

You're the first Executive Director at the Little who didn't learn the ropes from founder Bill Coppard, whose blood and brains are all over this theater. Do you think that's a help or a hindrance?

That's a tough question. I mean, Bill Coppard was the Little. Being from Rochester and having come here for so many years, I fell in love with the place that Bill Coppard designed and that he nurtured. So having had that chance as a patron to see it is a real benefit. It's not just stepping in and saying, "Okay, I want to make this my place now, so let's do this."

I believe very much in always remembering where you come from. Looking at accepting the position, it was Am I going to be able to live up to the expectations of the Little from the board, the community, the staff, but am I also going to be able to carry on the mission that was set by Bill?

The people who come here are the same as I was; they've been coming here for years, and they fell in love with the Little for their own reasons, and I didn't want to do anything that would take away from that.

I want this to be a place that Bill can look at and say, "You know what? I'm still really proud of the Little and what's going on."

What's the biggest surprise for you since you've been here?

I would have to say the staff. They really love and care about this place. They take this place personally; it's not just a job to them. We have some people who have been here for 10 years. And they may work one or two shifts a week, but they're here three nights a week watching films. It's a part of their lifestyle. It's not just coming in, punching the clock, getting their paycheck.

The other thing is the involvement they want to have in the growth of the Little. I made it very clear that I may be here to lead the Little, but is it my theater? Yes. Is it your theater? Absolutely. Is it our patrons' theater? Yes. It's gonna take all of us. So I think the biggest surprise for me was the dedication and also the willingness to be a part of something and not be afraid of change.

You spend your days in the business office, but are you able to get to the theater at night?

The only way to know what the audience is thinking is to sit in with the audience. I want to be out there, and I want to let people know who I am, so that if they have a question or a problem or a comment, they'll know who to talk to.

I've been very fortunate that through the news media and the newsletters people have seen my face --- and mostly they recognize my glasses. The first couple of weeks I was here, people would come up to me and say, "You're the new director. I just wanted to introduce myself." It was great that that comfort zone was there.

How do you foresee the Little evolving under your auspices?

The biggest thing is that people will know the Little exists: growing what our expectations are of the theater, growing the programs beyond what they are now. As a nonprofit, if we're expecting to get support from foundations and from the government, we have to show we're a center for all of Rochester. And these different opportunities, whether it's filmmaker discussions, school programs, things that make us more of a center for film. Seeing the Little as a strong partner within the nonprofit cultural arts scene is another thing; co-promotions, working more strongly the Visitors' Association and with the different organizations in town, having more visibility.

Do you believe other nonprofits think of the Little as a nonprofit?

I don't think they do. And I say that because I came from a nonprofit, and the feeling was that the Little is a filmhouse. We're just a baby in nonprofit terms. I mean, we're crawling now; we're crawling fast and we're standing on our feet. We gotta get to that point where we're walking on our own. And the growth is going to have to come on a financial basis.

The Little has been very strong financially, showing a modest surplus each year, but I think we have more opportunity with that. It's in the growth of the audience --- not just the numbers, but who is coming to the Little. Making ourselves available, knocking down those walls where people think, "Oh, I have to be a certain type of person to go see a film at the Little."

As we're telling our story more and letting people understand who we are and where we're going, we want people to be a part of that. We know what we're about. We're not about showing Pirates of the Caribbean or some of the larger films. We're okay with that.

Right now we have the opportunity to tell people what we're about, and that's getting us into the forefront. It's letting people know that this is a nonprofit organization and even though we've only been nonprofit for six years, films have been shown in this building since 1929. Not too many other cities have that.

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