June 15, 2005 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Little Theatre, big changes 

It’s a wrap as founder Bill Coppard moves on

I started scooping popcorn at the Little Theatre in the fall of 1994, and my first encounter with Bill Coppard was completely underwhelming. The whisperings I had heard about the cofounder of the Little suddenly made sense: crabby, humorless, blunt.

But he was running one of the most profitable arthouse theaters in the United States, and he was in the midst of readying two new screens (and a café) that would make it one of the largest. Just four years later he would devise a radical plan to go nonprofit and save the theater, which had been financially devastated by the influx of suburban multiplexes. Despite very few successful models of nonprofit theaters showing first-run films, Coppard believed the only way to keep the Little open would be to enlist the help of its loyal audience. Love him or hate him, he's obviously done something right.

After more than two decades that saw the Little go from former porn theater to exhibition juggernaut to member-supported institution, Bill Coppard is now ready to move on. On July 1 he hands the executive director reins over to Dick Garth, real-estate broker and former president of the Board of Directors of the Little Theatre Film Society. "Dick inherits the Little at another critical point in its juncture," says new Board president Tom Proietti. "He'll have to muster the support of the entire community and put the Little on the arts-cultural map as a worthy recipient of the community's generosity."

Coppard, who turns 60 in October, is arguably the individual most closely associated with movies in the city where motion picture film was unveiled. His position in the arts community has allowed his voice to be heard, and he's been vocal in his opposition to or support of various issues facing Rochester. He's taken an interest in downtown in general and the East End in particular, sitting on the Cultural Commission and the Board of Assessment Review. And he's butted heads with the city on several occasions --- over things like the East End Festivals (which he dislikes) and parking for his patrons (which he wants more of).

So on the eve of his retirement, I sat down with my former boss to talk about the state of independent film, downtown parking, and if he really is a jerk.

City: So why are you leaving the Little now?

Coppard: Well, it's been 23 years, and I think that basically I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. The theater is well established locally and it's respected by the film community. The not-for-profit is in place, membership is in place. Certainly we could be in a better financial position. We're not in a bad financial position. So I think that if I'm going to do something else in my life, probably now is the time to do it, whatever that is.

City: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Coppard: Not really, you know, and I'm not trying to be egotistical in saying that I did everything right. I don't think that managing people was ever my forte. Motivating people is not one of my fortes. I can motivate myself --- I have no problem doing that --- but getting other people to see how important the theater is, really, to the community I think has always been difficult.

City: Where would you like to see the Little go?

Coppard: I think the important thing now is that the whole industry has changed dramatically. I think that even commercial theaters are finding a falling-off of their audience. There's competition with more home-theater systems. What's going to have to happen with the Little and where I'd like to see it go is there's a real concentrated effort to expand the audience and bring new people in to see the kind of films that the Little shows.

City: But the phrase "independent film" doesn't have too much of a meaning anymore; it's more of a marketing term. And the multiplexes have screens to fill.

Coppard: Well, that's it, but I think what you're doing is blurring the line, which everybody does, between a true independent and something that they call "independent" that's really "a division of." And that's been a real problem in the industry now, that 60 or 70 percent --- or whatever the percentage is of the box office --- of films that show at the Little Theatre are controlled by companies that are controlled by somebody else. So there's very, very few independent distributors left with any real clout.

You don't have that kind of chummy relationship in the industry that you used to have, where you could get philosophical about a film, you could choose the release date, work it around an event going on in Rochester that you feel is going to hurt the film's opening week so you push it off so you can get better coverage in the paper. You don't have a say when those decisions are being made by the West Coast.

City: But before you were the main outlet in town for those types of films. Now distributors have other options.

Coppard: They'll say, "We feel we've got a big film here so let's open it on 800 screens nationwide." Well, probably two or three of them will be in Rochester. So they say to their sales division, "Listen, we need three screens in Rochester." Now, that person may have a long-term working relationship with us and think it's best to open it exclusive and let it build maybe for a couple weeks, but they don't make those decisions. And I can't be offended by that. I can't go to my salesperson and be argumentative; I'm only going to destroy a relationship, because they have no control.

City: You also make a decision about how long a film sticks around. Like the Todd Solondz film "Palindromes": I'm surprised it only lasted a week. It might have caught on with some word of mouth. It wasn't a bad film, it was just difficult.

Coppard: Well, it got a very bad review in Gannett; that hurt a lot. There's got to be a range where "poor" still has a ray of hope, and that didn't.

City: So you have to be able to look at the numbers and forecast whether it will pick up the following weekend.

Coppard: That film would not have done better the following weekend. And there is a perfect example of a film that should have been seen by a younger audience, people who are considered hip and into independent film.

City: How do you get those people into the theater?

Coppard: That's, I think, a real, real challenge now. The major distributors get them in by extensive marketing. They spend a lot of money and they build that into the film's opening: X number of millions of dollars in national publicity.

City: And that's the kind of film the studios would put on more screens, to make back their money, because the studio gets a higher percentage of the gross the earlier it is in the run.

Coppard: Exactly. It goes on a number of screens as opposed to just one screen. But for the smaller films like Palindromes... they do what's called a "35 percent/no co-op" deal; the distributor gets only 35 percent of the gross but gives no advertising support whatsoever. Which is realistic, it's understandable. So it's really up to you, the theater owner, to devise your own marketing plan.

And that's the key to the success of the Little Theatre in the coming years: Is somebody going to be on site who's going to market the films? Because you can't rely on paid advertising. You have to reach out, determine what your market is for one particular film, find out the most effective way of communicating with that market, and understanding that, you know, many of the films you're going to show are going to be failures.

But you can't base your whole marketing plan on the fact that you had three failures. Like, "It's failed three times, it's never going to work, I'm never going to reach an audience by doing this grassroots marketing." You're going to catch on. Some film is going to catch on.

There's this new film coming out from Warner Independent called March of the Penguins. If they let it be like Winged Migration where we got an exclusive --- there's a perfect example of a film you could take and work it and work it and find an audience and word of mouth is going to build. What you don't want to happen is all of a sudden you do one fabulous week and they go, "Oh, this deserves three more runs in Rochester," they put it on more screens, and after two weeks it's gone.

City: So there's a very fine line between how much money it can make to generate word of mouth and justify its continued presence at the Little versus making too much money and enabling its expansion to additional screens.

Coppard: Yeah. The thing, I think, that hurts a theater like the Little is when you do the grassroots marketing, you've got to have an exclusive. I mean, realistically, are you going to be out there, sending all these groups direct mail, couponing, and doing all sorts of stuff just so they can go to Tinseltown or Pittsford to see it? It doesn't make any sense. You can't do it. Because you want to get a film that can build. Winged Migration was here for eight to 10 weeks. And you can always just leave it in for matinees.

City: Right. And that's another reason why a company, though, would want to put the film at additional theaters, because they can do more matinees and they can get more kids and parents in there.

Coppard: But we'll do matinees on weekends and we'll do really well. In the long run, are we going to do as well as they? I don't know, but I think what's happening is our advertising costs are substantially lower because you're building on word of mouth; you're not building on a 10-inch ad every Friday. So that eats away your gross pretty quickly. You can give it to the Little and put in a two-inch ad that gives a little recognition to the film but build it on word of mouth; it's far more cost-effective.

City: The Little has used the grassroots marketing approach for quite some time. Is there another way to reach audiences that you haven't tried in the past? Or do you just keep plugging away at it?

Coppard: I think one tends to become lazy when you're getting good grosses. You got films like Sideways that really don't need a lot of promotion, although we did promote that; we sent flyers to liquor stores.

City: Did you have "Sideways" exclusive?

Coppard: For the first two weeks we did, yeah. But actually Sideways was one of those films that took a while to catch on. It had stars in it they never heard of before.

City: That's still a problem? People think films that play at the Little are too challenging or weird?

Coppard: Yeah, unfortunately.

City: And there's all these other options; if they don't mind waiting they can sit there and put the movie on their Netflix list and never even leave the house. And it's more cost-effective for them, too. You have to rely on the public's need for instant gratification and fear of being out of the loop.

Coppard: And also the social environment. What's so important at the Little is to be able to make it an event. There's the music and the good food and the art. It's not just about the movie. And for a significant number of people, that's important; it's a night out. Get away from the kids. There's not a lot of kids there.

And the younger people that are there are generally really orderly, and it's not as if they're hanging out in the lobby playing video games with their hats on backwards, intimidating people. Let's face it; some of the theaters have to have security guards now. We never had those kinds of problems.

City: Conversely, though, the survival of the Little hinges on the ability to reach the younger audience. How can you appeal to them?

Coppard: We're trying to do it with the Emerging Filmmakers Series [monthly screenings of new, short films].

City: How's that doing?

Coppard: It's doing okay, but it needs a lot more promotion. We just got a nice grant from Eastman Kodak. We got a grant going to the New York State Council on the Arts; we already did the preliminary work. I've outlined for Dick what the program needs, in writing, and I told him, "We got an obligation to Kodak to fulfill these certain parts of the grant application. They gave us money based on these certain things. Here is what you have to do."

Dick has to build up his reputation, create his own successes, you know? I said, "You are the creative force behind the Little Theatre right now. I was for 23 years. I did this. I created this. Now it's your responsibility to create new things, to continue to make it a special place."

City: It always seemed to me, watching you in action, that the most distasteful part of the job for you was being the figurehead, the face of the Little. I think people have a perception of you as being gruff, not easy to get along with. I thought so, too, at first. But it's just more the fact that you don't seem to have the capacity for bullshit.

Coppard: I don't.

City: And most people are used to schmoozing and small talk. It was always kind of funny to watch you try to do that.

Coppard: I'm not too good at it.

City: Are there other nonprofit first-run theaters that are doing well?

Coppard: I don't really track what other theaters do, but when the industry is in a funk, all of us are in a funk. There's a theater in Westchester County that does really well. They're in an affluent community and they have a huge membership. And their close proximity to New York allows them to bring in stars and directors real easily.

We purposely do not want to compete with the Dryden. We have a very good, symbiotic relationship, sharing information. But they bring in films and they attach directors or stars, and it works because they put it on a calendar and they got 500 seats. They make an event out of it. It's much harder for us to do those kinds of things.

City: And they do their calendars pretty far in advance. So if there was a film that you wanted to bring in, the Dryden might already have it scheduled. Do they check with you about that sort of thing?

Coppard: Occasionally. I mean, most films, they're going to go into wide release; they won't do the Dryden until the film has made the rounds. The Dryden will show the more esoteric films, documentaries, things like that. And that's fine.

City: Those films don't usually have a weeklong run in them, but a 500-person night.

Coppard: They'd do more in one day than we'd probably do in a week.

City: So how do you feel the parking issue shook out?

Coppard: Well... good question. I guess that's one of my biggest disappointments. The city says there's nothing they can do about it. Forget about the fact that the East End Garage is not that far away from the Little. What you want to do is increase the options for people. If people perceive parking is a problem and they don't come downtown, it's a problem. Parking here is relatively available and it's inexpensive. But it's not as available as people want it to be.

City: Right. Like it is at a multiplex.

Coppard: Yeah. So it's a problem. Max Farash has a garage across the street from the Little [behind the East Avenue M&T branch]. Holds over 600 cars.

City: You've been trying to get at that for a while.

Coppard: Twenty years. I recently wrote [County Executive] Maggie Brooks about whether we could use it. She followed through on it and basically said the arrangement with COMIDA was such that there was never any requirement that it be open to the public in the evening. OK, that said, the problem still exists, and the solution is the garage. How do you make it happen?

Now, that garage is tax-exempt; it was built with COMIDA bonds, it was built on public land. It's not as if this developer went out, found the land, built the garage, is paying taxes. There's really a moral responsibility to the community. You're taking something from the community and you have to give something back to the community.

Next week: Coppard talks about the changes he thinks are needed at City Hall, consolidation of government, what brings people downtown, Renaissance Square, and the importance of following through on your vision.

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