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REX NELSON: The film lovers

by Rex Nelson | December 19, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

With the election of a new mayor, there has been a great deal of media attention paid to Little Rock in recent weeks. This column has been no exception. Last Sunday, I wrote about the so-called doughnut hole--neighborhoods in the historic core of the city that are filled with vacant homes and empty lots.

Amid the various issues facing the state's largest city, one area shouldn't be forgotten. That's the need for Little Rock to remain the entertainment center of the state. This designation involves sports events, cultural activities, the quality of restaurants, etc. Not only does upping its game in this sector ensure that visitors (and their dollars) will continue flowing into Little Rock, it's also a proven way to keep educated, talented people from moving away.

When it comes to attracting and keeping bright employees, business owners will tell you that tasting rooms, hiking and biking trails, a live music scene and live theater matter. The growth during the past decade of independent restaurants and craft breweries has been important. The addition of an upscale bowling alley downtown was another positive development. These are the kinds of amenities that attract talent.

One of the biggest stories in Little Rock in 2018, in fact, was the heroic effort by Ruth Shepherd, Bill Rector and a small group of other Little Rock residents to save the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. Little Rock without The Rep is a city diminished.

Another encouraging development has been the growth of the Arkansas Cinema Society. Full disclosure: I'm on the ACS board. As I near age 60, I've tried to cut back on the number of boards on which I serve. I still love entities such as the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, the Oxford American literary magazine and the Political Animals Club. But I left those boards in order to devote more time to traveling Arkansas, writing and speaking. ACS, however, is something I want to see take flight. An enhanced film scene will improve the quality of life in Arkansas.

Kathryn Tucker, the ACS executive director, describes 2018 (the organization's first full year) as one in which it "threw an epic four-day celebration of cinema, began to help kids find their voice through the power of storytelling. and launched a travel stipend to help send Arkansas filmmakers to festivals around the country."

The four-day annual event known as Filmland was hosted in August by the Central Arkansas Library System in its 315-seat Ron Robinson Theater. Celia Anderson and Gretchen Hall included Filmland in their book 100 Things To Do In Little Rock Before You Die.

"Filmland is a curated celebration of cinema," they wrote. "Filmland hosts producers, writers, actors, directors, production designers, cinematographers, etc., to help showcase their work. Screenings are followed by in-depth conversations led by ACS founder and filmmaker Jeff Nichols."

ACS is about more than Filmland. Its Young Storytellers program began with a nine-week session at Jefferson Elementary School in Little Rock with 10 fifth-grade students. The program was founded by Los Angeles film students in 1997 after the public schools there cut funding for performing arts programs.

"Young Storytellers encourages creativity through the art of storytelling," Tucker says. "Using the timeless techniques of mentoring, collaboration and performance, we provide public school students with an opportunity to write stories and see them brought to life. The mission is to inspire young people to discover the power of their own voice. Led by Graham Gordy, the program at Jefferson Elementary is one of only a few outside the Los Angeles area to pilot the program. Each Thursday, local artists mentor a student one-on-one to help craft a five-page script that's then performed by professional actors. ACS hopes to expand this program to other schools."

There also are ACS-sponsored screenings throughout the year. There were 23 ACS-related events in 2018 with 40 filmmaker guests. A total of 3,347 tickets were sold.

"Our mission is simple," Tucker says. "We're here to support the filmmakers, film lovers and film efforts already in our state and grow their numbers. We believe that art is the heart of every thriving city and state. Filmmaking is unique in the arts. It not only improves the quality of life for residents and attracts visitors, it can also be a significant economic development tool when filmmakers receive the support they need locally and stay home to make their movies.

"The ongoing support of community advocates and film lovers across Arkansas reinforced our belief in our mission and gave us confidence that the ACS will have the resources we need to continue to make a real difference in our community. We're beginning to discover the unheard voices and untold stories of Arkansas outside of the major media centers in New York and Los Angeles. We can make Arkansas a stopover state instead of a flyover state. We're excited about our plans for 2019."

As someone who works in the neighborhood, I'm bullish on the future of downtown Little Rock. The new lease on life that the Arkansas Repertory Theatre has in its Main Street location and the events being sponsored by the Arkansas Cinema Society in the nearby River Market District have a lot to do with my bullishness.

These are the types of attractions that attract talent. And economic development in the knowledge-based economy is all about attracting talent.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

Editorial on 12/19/2018

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