Q: Has the Ron Robinson Theater stopped showing films?
A: Few cultural institutions open with the kind of goodwill and high expectations that the Ron Robinson Theater had leading into its official unveiling in January. Touted as the state’s new premiere cinema venue, with 315 seats, a state-of-the-art digital projector and Dolby 7.1 surround sound – not to mention its promising affiliation with the Little Rock Film Festival – the theater looked like nothing less than the future of local film culture. “I’d like to see it going as much as we can,” Central Arkansas Library System Director Bobby Roberts told the Arkansas Times before its opening. “If it’s sitting there, it’s not doing us any good or the public any good.”
Today, though, it seems to be just sitting there. The once-crowded calendars on its Facebook page and website have been emptied, and the theater has remained largely dormant on the film front since the festival ended in mid-May. So what happened?
“We didn’t get off to as good a start as we should have, but we’re learning a lot as we go on,” Roberts told the Times last week. “We want to get back in the film business.”
According to Roberts, the bumpy rollout can be partly attributed to the fact that the theater opened several months earlier than initially planned. “Part of that was to dedicate the theater to Ron Robinson,” he said, “and Ron had been ill. We wanted to make sure he was feeling good when we got the thing up and running. The day we dedicated it, they were still painting part of the building. So we started up, did a few things and then shut back down and restarted in March.”
He said that the Little Rock Film Festival staff was given specific days on which they could program films, but because the festival was approaching, itself a massive logistical endeavor, “that was hard for them to do.” The theater was understaffed as well, Roberts said: “I don’t think we had enough staff there to start out with, because I didn’t really understand how complicated it was.”
There are now two full-time staff members, with a new manager, Trey Woodruff (formerly of the Verizon Arena and the Argenta Community Theater), set to start in early July, replacing Angela Stoffer. Roberts declined to comment on the personnel change, but Stoffer remains operations director for the film festival, the offices of which are located in the Ron Robinson Theater.
The exact nature of the relationship between the theater and the film festival hasn’t been entirely clear from the beginning, but according to CALS spokeswoman Susan Gele, the LRFF doesn’t make programming decisions. “They have space in the theater, and we were a sponsor for the festival,” Gele said. “They can help us with some of the film questions we have and make suggestions about programming, but they do not plan our programming for us. It’s always been like that.”
The difficulties facing the theater, Roberts said, are to be expected for any new institution of its size: “When we started up the Children’s Library, I thought, ‘This won’t be hard,” Roberts said. “But it turned out to be a slippery deal to get it going in the direction we wanted. I think this thing, Ron Robinson, is the same way. I think it’s going to fall into place, but the piece we haven’t gotten where we want yet is the films. Which ironically is the piece I thought we’d get together first. It’s just going to take much more time than I thought.”
As for the turnout, back when the theater was regularly screening films? “It was inconsistent,” Roberts said. “We’d have some films where there’d be a huge turnout, and then the next one would be really low. So we decided that until we get the internal policies right, get the documents written that tell you how to book films and get a few bugs out of the building (which is going to be true in any building), let’s just not book anything.”
“We have about 80 percent of it running like we want,” Roberts said, referring to forthcoming plans to host Ballet Arkansas (in August), live music and lectures. “The film part of it will be our next initiative.”