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The Grandin Theatre:

The Continued Evolution of a Treasured Roanoke Cultural Icon

by Katie Wallace

If there is a lesson to be learned from watching The Grandin Theatre (also known as The Grandin) and its leadership respond to the changing world around it, it is: adapt to succeed.

When COVID-19 first came onto the scene in the spring of 2020, The Grandin Theatre had no choice but to close its doors. While closed, it offered curbside concession sales to satisfy cravings for its delicious buttered popcorn and made virtual movies available for rent on-demand from home. When it became safe to open in a limited capacity over the summer, it screened classic movies like Jaws and Dirty Dancing every Friday night to a theatre capped at just 25% capacity adhering to strict social distancing rules, even selling out a time or two. The theatre also opened up its space to groups of one to 90+ for private rentals and rented space on its classic marquee to the community for proposals to happy birthday wishes.

It’s goal?

Break even so it could continue to serve the community. What would have sent many small theatres under, was met with an adaptive spirit and healthy dose of creativity that allowed the theatre to continue to do what it does best, bring films to movie-goers and keep the community engaged.

While the theatre has now opened up more evenings and even some matinees to screen classic films, it’s also managed to continue some of its community programming, a cornerstone in its role of serving the community and preserving arts and culture in the region.

One example is its Film Lab, a semester-based program that introduces high schoolers to the film industry with hands-on training in film production, lighting, screenwriting, storytelling, acting, sound engineering, and industry acumen. The program restarted again in August to the delight of aspiring filmmakers in the area. The Grandin also partnered with the West End Center, a youth-centered community center providing a safe haven for children in the West End and Mountain View neighborhoods, for the West End Walk this summer for the fifth time. In the West End Walk, expanded to four separate, socially-distanced walks this year, summer campers walked one mile to the Grandin Theatre for a matinee movie.

Although it looks a little bit different, the Grandin Theatre got creative and adapted to the situation at hand, all the while staying true to its values and mission to preserve the historic Grandin Theatre as a cultural and educational resource devoted to film and the cinematic arts. 

An opportunity for rebirth

But COVID-19 is not the first turning point that forced the Grandin to adapt to continue its mission.

As arts and cultural nonprofits struggle to survive in an increasingly complex environment – cuts in local, state, and federal funding programs, competition for donors, donor fatigue, questions of relevancy, ingrained assumptions among staff and boards of directors that shut down enthusiasm for new approaches to old problems – it’s easy to grow weary and more reluctant to open our purses for support, especially when it’s clear there’s a lack of strategic direction to right a sinking ship. But with crisis comes the opportunity to shine light in the dark neglected corners where change is born.

The Grandin found itself in this very crisis a few years ago. With murmurs of closing the doors on one of Roanoke’s most beloved historic landmarks, the local non-profit was desperate for change. Now, more than five years removed from this time of crisis and stronger for it, the Grandin has been able to adapt to the pandemic with relative ease. What brought about such dramatic change? And what can future non-profit and business leaders learn about the remarkable turnaround? Much indeed.

About a year ago, I reached out to Executive Director of The Grandin Theatre, Ian Fortier, then four years into his post, to understand the success and positive buzz he had created for a non-profit that was on the brink of shutting its doors. People I respect not only spoke highly of him, they also seemed incredibly willing to find ways to support his efforts at the Grandin. He’s on to something, I thought.

We stepped out of the way and let the community tell us what they wanted to see.  

~ Ian Fortier, Executive director of The Grandin Theatre

At Wallace360, we believe that by embracing new ways of audience building and community engagement, it is possible for organizations, and businesses, to create the connections needed to garner change in the midst of challenging times. With an open mind and focused intention of fostering collaborative relationships in the community, Fortier and his team have expanded the Grandin’s reach far beyond movies and great popcorn. After almost five years, he has worked tirelessly to reposition the theatre as a community center for Roanoke, utilizing the theatre spaces for gatherings and community discussions, art shows, a hangout to share a beer or glass of wine, weddings, a film lab, birthday parties and more. If you have an idea and need space to do it, talk to Ian. Chances are good something positive will come out of it.

Straightforward questions

Fortier found himself in the right place at the right time to maximize both his vision and the Grandin’s potential. In addition to having all the classic attributes of a successful leader of a non-profit organization – passion, belief, and a lot of faith – he also happens to have keen intuition, common sense, and many years of working in different roles within NPOs. He takes his role of ED very seriously, as if all his previous work experience led him to this new responsibility of managing one of the most unique assets in the city of Roanoke.

When Fortier began his work as Executive Director it was obvious that things needed to be fixed, the challenge lay in where to begin. According to him, the theatre operations were underperforming, and the foundation programs were dormant. Not to mention, many members of the community felt disconnected from what was meant to be a community theatre.

The first step to bring change was to honestly diagnose the problems. “In the beginning it was just about asking straightforward questions and getting answers about where the dysfunction was and what the community’s perspective of the dysfunction was,” he said.

Notice how he approached this question: he was relentlessly committed to learning the Grandin Theatre’s perception among the community. He had a crystal-clear understanding of who the Grandin’s audience was – the community in which it is placed – and a firm commitment to know this audience through and through.

“You have to proactively go seek the people who you want to connect with,” he said “And then on top of that you have to give them a really honest, trustworthy reason [to engage].”

In business and organizational management alike, it is paramount for leaders to identify their audience and know that their success lies in the level of value their product or service brings to their audience. Fortier has provided great insight into the way to improve this value: deeply engage with your audience to identify the things that matter most.

As he put it, “If you’re a community theatre you get out of the way and let the community tell you what they want you to do with that theatre.”

Developing a consistent product

After Fortier executed the difficult task of honestly diagnosing the theatre’s dysfunction, he found that the biggest problems came from a failure in operations. Movies weren’t starting on time, advertisement slides weren’t showing up on the screen, and the staff didn’t have a framework to determine whether venue requests were feasible.

He found that these failures were obstacles to engagement. He knew the theatre had to regain the trust of the community, so he set in motion a series of sweeping changes that established systems for consistently meeting the expectations of visitors to the theatre.

These changes resulted in a consistent, quality product – something that was absolutely necessary to gain the trust of the community. “We had some great movies, and we got a lot of people coming through the doors, and we generated a lot of money, and we ended up with a very big hurrah and bang,” said Fortier. “The product was saved, and the quality and consistency of it became the bedrock for us to go out and [make our appeal to the community].”

As with the first step of asking straightforward questions to their target audience, this second step – implementing standard business practices to maintain a consistent product – was fueled by a dedicated effort to better serve the community audience. The Grandin Theatre was seeking meaningful engagement with the community and Fortier knew the dysfunctions were clear obstacles to their engagement. He brought meaningful change to his organization by prioritizing community engagement and stopping anything that would get in the way of it.

More than just a movie theatre

Perhaps the most important change that came under Fortier’s leadership was a change in the way he spoke about it. “When you look at the Grandin as simply a movie theatre, you box yourself in and you create a very low ceiling for what you’re capable of doing,” he said. “So we started writing down other verbs to describe us. I literally changed my email signature – at the bottom I started writing, ‘More than just a movie theatre!’”

The Grandin is uniquely positioned as the oldest arts and cultural organization in the Roanoke Valley. It can’t be just a movie theatre. Fortier sees the Grandin as a cultural icon, a historic landmark, an economic driver, a community and cultural anchor, and a cultural community center. He has infused this message both in his conversations and in the Grandin Theatre programming.

As a cultural community center, he knows the Grandin is part of a larger system within the community. He has gone about his rebuild of the Grandin Theatre with cultural humility, aware that there is always more to learn from new and different people in the community and confident that more authentic connection will change the community for the better.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grandin would regularly host community conversations immediately after a showing of a relevant film. These conversations allow members of the community a chance to hear from special guests and each other about important topics. The events have centered around topics such as racial injustice, religious persecution, environmental dangers, and the local opioid crisis.

For these events, it was not the inspiring film that takes the lead role and drives the impact of the event – though they certainly have an impact in and of themselves. It was the conversation that followed that spawned meaningful experiences of inspiration and transformation. “I want people coming here to have hard conversations about real issues that affect us in our world,” Fortier said.

He went on to describe his belief in the power of these kinds of experiences: “People always talk about the nonprofit world, especially in the arts and cultural world … that it's about the experience. We want to frame an opportunity for when people come and they spend their money, they're going to have an experience. … It’s not really about having an experience; it's about setting up an experience to be positively transformative to have inspiration. Because inspiration is where the transformative experience happens. That's when somebody leaves the building and goes, ‘The experience I just had was so good that I now see life in a different way or relationships in a different way or myself in a different way.’"

This effort has brought about a rich assortment of experiences for the Roanoke community, and it has successfully built a wider and more engaged audience. The lesson for cultural community centers is simple: if you want to build your audience and increase the impact of the arts, adapt to the needs of your community and create experiences for them by letting meaningful events spring out of authentic engagement, like the African American Film Festival in 2019 that sprung from a showing of Selma to an African American sorority.

Why was this engagement so effective at building and reaching a new audience? Because Fortier and his team approached this community connection with a cultural humility that carried behind it a willingness to learn. Listen to his approach: “One of the biggest problems that we have with building bridges between different segments of our population is that most people come from their perspective instead of reaching out and finding out what the perspective is with the group that you’re trying to build your bridge.”

As Fortier reflected on one of the most moving events at the Grandin he said, “The film is one thing, but creating a place where strangers can gather to create social discourse is the most important thing that we do.”

Enhancing community

The commitment to community engagement has brought about an evolving transformation to the historic landmark of Grandin Village. First, it has ushered in a new and diverse audience, expanding the reach of the Grandin and providing a place for crucial community connection. Such an audience-centered approach to non-profit and business management alike allows organizations to know those they serve and serve them better.

Second, this community engagement has colored the Roanoke community with a place for significant experiences. It isn’t “just a movie theatre.” It is a place that is hugely relevant to the community because it provides vibrancy. With a cultural community center like the Grandin Theatre, this community is enriched with more transformed lives, more inspired people, and a more meaningful connection.

And third, the Grandin continues to inspire in its adaptation to the COVID-19 pandemic, never losing sight of its mission to engage the community and be a source of meaningful entertainment and engagement.

The old brick of the Grandin Theatre establishes its story as one with a long and significant past, but the bustle inside the walls promises an uncommon and eloquent future for the Roanoke community. The real show of the Grandin Theatre can’t be watched on the movie screen, it’s only seen inside the hearts and minds of the people who make up the Roanoke community.

Katie Wallace
Katie is a long-standing force in the marketing industry and the guiding creative voice behind Wallace360. Formally known as The Wallace Agency, she founded Wallace360 in 1990 and over the past 30 years has helped countless non-profit organizations and companies alike ignite and expand the scope of their marketing by bringing the passion and vision behind their brands to life.

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