10 Questions With Tampa Theatre CEO John Bell

Team NLC Stories

At the Nonprofit Leadership Center, we believe the best lessons in nonprofit leadership come from nonprofit leaders themselves. Our 10 Questions With Series celebrates and elevates nonprofit and business leaders across the Tampa Bay region each month who are making an enduring impact on our communities. Today, we’re thrilled to introduce you to John Bell, CEO of the Tampa Theatre.

John Bell is an experienced arts and historic preservation leader who began his career in arts administration in North Carolina. After assuming management responsibilities at the Tampa Theatre in 1985, John has helped the Theatre become one of the busiest venues of its kind in the country. Today, with 535 film events, 10 concerts, 30 educational field trips, four weeks of summer camp and scores of corporate and community events each year, the Theatre averages an annual attendance of 140,000.

Grab some popcorn, kick up your feet and get excited to hear from this dynamic and innovative nonprofit leader who has been helping enhance Tampa Bay for more than 30 years.

Q1: As the CEO of Tampa Theatre, tell us about your organization and what drew you to serve this nonprofit. 

John: Tampa Theatre is a spectacular historic movie palace built in the 1920s that was rescued from demolition by the community in the 1970s. Like most patrons, I was first attracted to the Theatre by its over-the-top architecture. But what’s most fascinating about the Theatre is what happens inside it — the programming and events that keep it vibrant and relevant to new audiences and generations. The work here is intensely interesting because while we celebrate and honor history, we’re actually focused more on the future and how we can continue to weave the Theatre into the changing social fabric of our community.

Q2: In our digital era where capturing people’s attention is harder than ever, what strategies have you found most successful in reaching your audiences to attend your events and stay engaged? 

John: I think people — especially young people — are attracted to organizations that are authentic and speak with a compelling voice. The starting point for our authenticity is our building itself, and that’s why we took such pains to make sure the recent restoration work was faithfully executed. We had to get that right or nothing else mattered. 

But to get people engaged with our programming and events, focusing on developing a voice and tone that is consistent, a bit off-beat and straight to the point has helped us gain a lot of traction. That voice and tone is consistent across all the digital platforms we utilize.

Q3. Having been at the helm of the Tampa Theatre for 33+ years, what’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to new professionals or emerging leaders based on the many lessons you’ve learned along your own journey? 

John: That’s easy: Hire and surround yourself with brilliant people who share your passion. Oh, and if anyone ever offers you a breath mint … well, you should take it.  

Q4: At NLC, we’re huge advocates of lifelong learning. What’s the one area you still want to hone or learn more about? 

John: Although I think I’ve gotten better at it, I’m always looking to improve my strategic planning skills. Specifically, I mean the process of building consensus among our many stakeholders about our direction and priorities. I can certainly write a plan, but that means nothing. I think it was Dwight Eisenhower who said, “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.”

Q5: What’s the best book on leadership or professional development you’ve read that you think every nonprofit leader should read? 

John: “Our Iceberg is Melting” by John Kotter. It’s a great quick read on managing change. It has lessons for everyone in an organization. When it first came out, I distributed it to our staff.

Q6. What’s something interesting about you that most people don’t know? 

John: I managed another historic theater in North Carolina (The Carolina Theatre in Greensboro) before coming to Tampa. Our programming there was almost entirely live performing arts. Here, for a variety of reasons, film is the centerpiece of Tampa Theatre’s programming. While we do love to host concerts and community events at Tampa Theatre, film is the building’s heritage and is what the building still does best. Because of our film programming, many people perceive me as a film expert, but I’m not. If anything, I’m just good at figuring out the optimum programming mix for a facility.

Q7. What’s the one snack or treat you never pass up at the movies?

John: Popcorn, of course. 

Q8. What’s your favorite movie of all time? 

John: I love different types of films that are satisfying for different reasons, but the films that stay with me the most are those that have a genuine emotional payoff at the end. I love well-made films that succeed at pulling at the heart strings or that make me laugh unexpectedly. So, to “sort of” answer your question, here are a few that I’ll watch again and again: Cinema Paradiso, The General (Buster Keaton), The Shawshank Redemption, It’s a Wonderful Life and Saving Private Ryan. But that list is subject to change.

Q9. What events are happening at the Tampa Theatre that our community shouldn’t miss?  

John: There are so many! October at Tampa Theatre is always fun with the Tampa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival followed by our wonderfully creepy Halloween series, A Nightmare on Franklin Street with scores of live and film events. Tampa Theatre’s a great hall for comedians, and we have Nate Bargatze coming in on October 17, Eric Andre on November 9, Chris D’Elia on November 21 and Demetri Martin on January 18. The Florida Orchestra sounds glorious in the Tampa Theatre, and the Orchestra’s Holiday Brass Concert will be here on December 19. And of course, we’ll be announcing our annual holiday classic movie series very soon. We’re constantly adding films, concerts and special events to the calendar on our website. 

Q10. What’s the most important way people can support your organization?  

John: It seems so obvious, but I like to remind people that the best way to support Tampa Theatre — or any arts organization — is to become a member and/or buy tickets and attend events. While charitable contributions and event sponsorships are always important and cheerfully accepted, we measure our success largely by attendance. When you buy a ticket and attend an event, you’re not only helping Tampa Theatre achieve our goals, but there’s a really good chance you’ll have a great time. That’s a win-win.

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