What's the Central Arkansas Library System doing opening a state-of-the-art movie theater? Books, long the sole province of the library, continue to be lent as much as ever, CALS director Bobby Roberts reports, but like forward-thinking librarians everywhere, he's long seen the mission of the library as one of broader community outreach. Unlike librarians everywhere, however, Roberts had the foresight and political skill to get legislation passed that tied library funding to voter-approved millages, instead of to the fortunes of local or state government. Where many libraries elsewhere have been hit hard by the recession, on Friday, CALS will celebrate the culmination of a spree of building projects in Little Rock with the opening of one of its most impressive developments, the $2.8 million Ron Robinson Theater in the new Arcade Building in the River Market.
CALS has no interest in running a typical movie theater, according Roberts. Instead, he and CALS aspire for the 315-seat theater to serve as a true community space, with not just movies, but concerts, lectures, conferences, theater and ballet, too. The library will use it to host big names during its annual Arkansas Literary Festival and Arkansas Sounds Music Festival, and it will as serve as the home theater for the Little Rock Film Festival and its offshoot festivals — the Little Rock Horror Picture Show and the Reel Civil Rights Film Festival. During the day, there'll be children's programming and the occasional lecture from the Clinton School and UALR.
The opening week schedule hints at the sort of programming sweet spot library officials say they're going for. The public gets its first look on Friday with a screening "Ain't in It for My Health," an excellent documentary about the late Levon Helm, a Turkey Scratch native. After the movie, Helm's daughter, Amy Helm, will take part in a Q&A and then give a concert with her band, Amy Helm and Handsome Strangers. Skip ahead to next Thursday, Jan. 23, and the day is filled with a lecture on the design of the Arcade Building by UALR professors, a performance by a pair of UALR dancers and a showing of an episode of the acclaimed Sundance series "Rectify," followed by a Q&A with one of the show's writers, Little Rock screenwriter Graham Gordy. See the full schedule in this week's calendar.
By all accounts from those who've watched or heard something in the new theater, it's unmatched in Central Arkansas and maybe even in the region. Craig Renaud, co-founder of the Little Rock Film Festival, an official partner in the theater, said he doesn't know if he's been in a nicer one. The sound is Dolby 7.1 surround sound, and it's a certified digital cinema projector (DCP) theater, which means studios and distributors have the ability to make their films available to the library's system in a matter of minutes. Moreover, it means that the theater is in position to book first-run features, as distributors now often refuse to work with theaters that still exclusively use 35mm film projectors.
Angela Stoffer, the longtime volunteer operations manager for the Little Rock Film Festival, joined CALS to manage the theater (she said she'll continue to volunteer with the festival). She said distributors had responded positively in early conversations. "We're going to do first-run features," she said. "We're not going to do blockbusters. They're not going to be 'Iron Man.' " But, had the theater been ready to open a week earlier, she said they would've pushed to screen the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" or Spike Jonze's "Her." Stoffer said initially she hopes to have regular weekend films, likely with Saturday and Sunday matinees.
Programming may vary a lot in the early days. "We'll gauge what the reactions from audiences are ... and adjust as we're going along," said Craig Renaud. For his part, Roberts hopes to see the theater in steady use. "I'd like to see it going as much as we can. If it's sitting there, it's not doing us any good or the public any good."
Many of the events will be free (all programs through Jan. 25 are free) and those that do cost will be moderately priced. Even concessions will be moderately priced. "We don't want to lose money, but we're not going to be like some of the other locations that have to make their money on concessions," said Stoffer. Expect local coffee; soft drinks made from simple syrups from Pink House Alchemy in Fayetteville; popcorn with spice options dreamed up by Dandelion, an herb and tea shop that's also in the Arcade, and occasionally pastries from Cache Restaurant, another Arcade neighbor.
The library named the theater in honor of longtime adman Ron Robinson, who's donating his vast collection of Arkansas memorabilia to the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. As Robinson Center Music Hall is currently closed for renovations, maybe a nickname will emerge for the new theater to differentiate it from its neighbor down on Broadway. Another potential early stumbling block that's sure to be swiftly overcome: The official address for the theater, One Count Pulaski Way, is impossible to map online. That's because it's a newly created ally between the Arkansas Studies Institute and the Arcade Building. Access to the theater is in the rear of the alley, near the Main Library parking lot.
CALS partnered with private developers to build the 66,000-square-foot Arcade Building. The library owns 52 percent of the building, which includes the theater, office space and storage space for the Arkansas Studies Institute. All told, the library's costs in the project were in the range of $6.6 million, Roberts said. That was paid for out of a bond refinance that voters approved in 2012.
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