Ridgefield's Prospector Theater celebrates 5 years

At the Prospector Theater's fifth anniversary party, Prospects Rachel Wise, Thomas DiVittorio, and lead guitarist Ryan Carnage, from left to right, wore pink along with theater owner and founder Valerie Jensen, second from right.

At the Prospector Theater’s fifth anniversary party, Prospects Rachel Wise, Thomas DiVittorio, and lead guitarist Ryan Carnage, from left to right, wore pink along with theater owner and founder Valerie Jensen, second from right.

Contributed photo

Two hundred fifty-two jobs, 585,000 hours of meaningful employments, 600,000 tickets sold.

A lot has been accomplished at Ridgefield’s Prospector Theater since its grand opening ceremony in November 2014, and the numbers only tell part of the story.

“The number of tickets sold, the number of Prospects hired — we’ve shattered all our expectations,” said Mike Santini, the theater’s director of development. “We’ve been in business more than 1,800 days and we’ve never been closed once. It’s a testament to our employees. They want to work and they can work and they’ve shown the world that.”

The theater celebrated its fifth anniversary at a party back in November. The event feature a montage video of the staff’s different productions and commercials — all shot and edited by Prospects at the theater — and an award ceremony that was based on peer votes.

“Every Prospect voted on the award show,” Santini said. “We had a Rookie of the Year award, a Sparkle Star award for the person who dazzled us the most, and there was even award for Best Hustle given to the person who everyone thought had the best sale skills.”

There was also a Behind the Scenes award and an MVP (Most Value Prospect) award given out.

“Laurence was voted our MVP for 2019 and in his speech he talked about his personal journey and how the theater helped shape him,” Santini said. “He told us that he found success in other people’s success and that really stood out because that’s the quintessential part of this theater. Yes, we need to sell tickets and popcorn but what’s most important about the Prospector is that teacher-trainer dynamic. Having someone learn to pop popcorn and then teach that skill to someone else. Then we have two people with that skill set and we have two people who can teach two more people how to do it.”

The goal of nonprofit theater was always to be a vocational school for people with disabilities, and the model applied was fairly basic: learn a skill, perform it in real time, teach and train somebody else how to do it.

“Our Prospects are adding new skills constantly,” said Santini, “whether it be in marketing, concessions, production, projection work, program development, event planning, facilities and maintenance — there are so many jobs to learn when it comes to operating a movie theater and that’s why we chose this business model.”

Higher education

While the Prospector Theater has had no shortage of success applying its model in Ridgefield, the real joy for Santini is watching employees spread their wings and begin to fly away.

“Six of our employees right now are pursuing higher education and thanks to our inaugural Sparkle Scholarship that we started at our fifth birthday part all six of them are getting $1,000 a year towards furthering their education,” he said. “That’s always been the goal for us: Learn all that you can here and then go out into the world and make a positive impact.”

One former Prospect is currently studying for her master’s in hospice and palliative care at the University of Southern California. Another has made her way to the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland this fall, and as a college freshman has already founded the school’s first-ever Inclusive Group.

“We want to invest in our people and their education and have them keep adding valuable skills and life experiences,” Santini said. “Some of them have even come back to work with us. We had one Ridgefield High School graduate who worked here during her breaks from Eastern [Connecticut State University] and she’s came back this past spring to work with us a full-time Prospect. She has a marketing degree now and is helping lead our development team.”

Paying it forward

The theater’s generosity doesn’t stop with its employees.

Since opening, the Prospector has hosted more than 10,000 students from both private and public schools in Fairfield, New Haven, and Westchester counties.

“We’ve screen 25 Prospect Street, the documentary that was made about the theater; we’ve screened the film Wonder,” Santini said. “We’re constantly looking at the calendar and looking at what’s coming out and what kids are reading or learning about in school and trying to make that connection.”

Bringing students in is an essential part of the theater as it gives them the opportunity to meet with Prospects, learn about the theater’s mission, and spread the message to others that they know.

“One of the things we’re really excited about is that we’ve developed learning programs here in Ridgefield with all six elementary schools,” Santini said. “We’ve long wanted to be able to do that and now that it’s coming together we couldn’t be more happy. Yes, these are kids who come here to see Star Wars on a regular basis but now they can learn more about or mission and how it’s made possible. We want to be integrated in this community and there’s no better way than having students come in and learn our Prospects’ names and their respective stories so when they come back with their families they can say hi and tell their family about what they’ve learned.”

The goal is to teach inclusivity at an early age.

“There’s so much more to be done in service learning but we feel that these are the future change-makers of our society and creating this for memory for them at a young age is important for our message to carry on and grow,” Santini said.

Let’s go to the movies!

There’s no doubt about it: Disney and Pixar help sell a lot of those tickets.

Looking over The Prospector’s top five films in terms of ticket sales since its inception in 2014, there isn’t a single movie that’s not from one of those two distributors.

The top seller was Star Wars: Force Awakens — the 2015 film that kick started the most recent trilogy in a galaxy far, far away. Coming in second was another Star Wars spin-off, Rouge One, followed by Pixar’s Finding Dory and Incredibles 2.

Rounding out the top five is, you guess it: another Star Wars movie — the sequel to Force Awakens, 2017’s The Last Jedi.

“Finding Dory was huge for us because it’s lead character and hero had a disability which was groundbreaking not just here but for the industry as a whole,” said Santini. “Prior to that movie, people with disabilities were almost always portrayed through a sympathetic lens or were left powerless. We’re supposed to feel pity for them, and that’s just not the right message to convey to a young audience. ... We wrote a blog about our experience teaching the film’s lessons and sent it to Pixar and they responded, which was very nice.”

Original vision

Hosting schools of students and writing movie studios has become routine for The Prospector Theater but for those who started the nonprofit five years ago, this level of success wasn’t imagined — at least not at this rate of speed.

“The original plan was to employee 40 Prospects,” Santini said. “40 became 60 and 60 became 80 and before we knew it we were crossing the 100-employee plateau. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.”

As of January 2020, the theater employees 127 Prospects and averages six applications a week.

“I think that’s one thing we didn’t totally see coming back when this was just an idea — the sheer amount of people who want to work,” he said. “And it’s not just the desire to work that really moves us, it’s the talent that some of these individuals have. There are so many resumes that we’ve looked at over the years that we’ve just looked at each other and asked, ‘How does this person not have a job?’”

One thing that became pretty evident in year one was that the theater had to shift its focus to adjust to the talent pool in the surrounding area.

“That meant increasing the number of jobs,” Santini said. “So we came up with our landscaping team. We came up with an embroidery team. ... We have a band, we have a video team, there’s the Bars and Beats rap crew. All of this was because we wanted to have more Prospects here and so we creted more jobs outside of the traditional theater model. We had to adapt on the fly and we’re so much better for it now in year five.”

If you build it ...

Almost 60% of the theater’s employees are Ridgefield residents. A majority of others come from Redding, Wilton, South Salem, and North Salem, with a select few making longer hauls from places like Stratford and Scarsdale, N.Y.

“There are so few opportunities for people with disabilities to work and have meaningful employment,” Santini said. “It’s nice being so unique that you draw talent from all over, but it’s also a huge disadvantage for us because we’re the only ones in the area.”

The theater’s reach is probably one of the more wilder parts of its success stories.

From moviegoers driving up all the way from Greenwich to see a show, to receiving letters from all over the country, to having international visitors from countries like South Korea, The Prospector has certainly attracted a wide variety of folks since opening its doors on Prospect Street half a decade ago.

“We’ve had letters come in from Omaha and all sorts of places,” Santini said. “We had a lady come fly in from Los Angeles to see Knives Out earlier this month. She came here for the experience and to learn more about our model. Her son has a disability and he just graduated and she’s facing that question that looms over all parents of children with disabilities: What comes next? Schools provide great transition programs but what happens at 18 or at 21 when those programs end?”

Copy cats

The visitor from L.A. wanted to see how the business works because she’d like to start a similar type of business — not a movie theater though — in her neighborhood.

“We’ve become a sparkly beacon of hope for other change-makers and that’s been fun to watch happen,” Santini said. “This building is now becoming a symbol for the very thing we practice every day: train someone to do something so they can teach it to someone else. We love passing along everything we’ve learned to others. We don’t view them as competition. It’s quite the opposite actually: We want more businesses like ours to exist. It’s going to take more than us, we need other people.”

The gentlemen from South Korea visited for somewhat similar yet nationalistic reasons: to curb unemployment.

“They work in the government over there and it’s an epidemic,” Santini said. “They came here to the United States to learn from us about creating businesses that can expand by creating and add different jobs and teaching new skills all the time.”

In addition to prospective business owners and government officials, the theater has also reached academics at Dartmouth, Columbia, Yale, and the University of Texas.

“The beauty of the model is that it’s applicable to so many different industries,” Santini said. “We love sharing our successes and our failures. ... If we’re going to be a leader, then we’re going to need other allies in this fight. We cannot do it alone. There are 47 million Americans with disabilities and 80% of them are without jobs. And that other 20% is mostly full of part-time, lower-level jobs — jobs that don’t look at the talent that’s in front of them ... We need to take advantage of this enormous talent pool.”

Let’s talk scalability

The phrase “dream come true” has been uttered a few times within the walls of the Prospector Theater but Santini hopes that the Ridgefield nonprofit has the rest of the world dreaming larger.

“It’s so flattering to hear that people are floored by what we’re doing but it’s also sad when we have parents of children with disabilities tell us ‘one day he’ll work here’ and that’s sad because we hope we’re not the only option by then,” Santini explained. “We want to help people create meaningful employment in their own backyards.”

He has one suggestion for those who would like to replicate the model: Do it with something you’re passionate about.

“It took a bunch of people who love movies to build this and if you want to duplicate it, you need that same level of passion,” Santini said. “... We’d love to see people take our model and apply it to where there’s a need in a given community. You have to ask yourself though: What am I passionate about? And what makes sense?”

Some examples of sister businesses include Rising Tide Car Wash, which has two locations in Florida.

“They have employees there who are on the autism spectrum and they have plenty of talent and sparkle and are putting it to good use,” Santini said. “But it’s important to remember the business fits the community: They’re in Florida near the beach. Lots of sand and water to clean off, and it’s never ending. It makes sense for that area.”

The industry is watching

The Prospector’s leadership team isn’t the only group that’s had its expectations shattered repeatedly over the first five years.

In an industry that has been losing to streaming giants like Amazon and Netflix, the theater stands out as a success story in its own industry — not just for the number of people it employees with disabilities, but just on the raw number of tickets and concessions sold.

“The national occupancy rate is between 16 and 18% per movie,” Santini said. “At The Prospector, we’re averaging between 33 and 35%. ... We’ve become an industry leader in an industry that has been showing nothing but declining attendance for years now.”

Santini believes one of the reasons why The Prospector has defied industry norms is because its employees provide customers with an experience.

“We have to make it worth their while, we know that and we have to continue to strive to create that experience for the customer,” he said. “... Video on demand, streaming services — these are undeniable forms of competition but the experience we create can’t be replicated by sitting on your couch.”

Engagement practices have been developed and executed over the course of five years, and that’s why customers who attend showings at the theater will often see kids dressed in costumes for Frozen 2 or for Spider-Man.

“Getting people in the door isn’t enough nowadays,” Santini said. “You have to entertain them, educate them, dazzle them and that’s what we strive for and that’s one of the large reasons why we’re having the success we’re having here.”