Isis owners seek theater operator
Owners of the Isis Theatre are open to ideas from Aspen on how to preserve the movie house, but the community had better act quickly.
Owners of the vacated theater are facing a mortgage of about $55,000 per month, spokesman Sam Houston told the Aspen City Council during its informal noon meeting Monday. How to save the movie theater is not a discussion Houston hopes to be having in February or March, he said.
“We have a mortgage that we have to pay,” he said. “We want to see something happen in a timely fashion.”
Isis owners have been talking with other theater operators since Resort Theaters of America pulled out Dec. 7, citing huge financial losses at the Aspen theater. The longtime theater, expanded from one screen to five in a huge redevelopment project, had operated just short of a year after its reopening before Resort Theaters called it quits.
Houston wasn’t voicing great optimism yesterday that the owners would find a new company to lease and operate all five screens. Keeping the three smaller theaters in the basement and converting the ground floor to some other use may be the best the community can hope for, he warned.
“We’re hoping we can keep some or all of the theaters there, but I don’t know if the community can support those screens . I think they can’t,” Houston said.
Before the Isis redevelopment, the theater’s owners relied on the expertise of several different entities in the film business. They looked at the projected rent – roughly $60,000 per month, Houston said – and concluded a five-screen theater would work, even with competition from the three-screen Stage 3 Theatres.
“They told us it would work and they were wrong,” said Houston, noting the $700,000 in losses one Resort Theaters executive claims the company lost in Aspen in a year.
“If we’d paid them money, they still would have lost money,” Houston said.
“I’ve been to many shows at the Isis, I’ve been to many shows at Stage 3 and I’m one of four people in there,” he said. “I don’t know whether or not this community can support eight screens, plus the Wheeler screen, plus the Harris screen.”
“There was no way they were going to make money in this community, given the population, unless everybody went to the movies every day,” said Councilman Tony Hershey.
With the rent for the theater only a few thousand dollars more than the mortgage, the owners weren’t recouping a huge profit on their investment of millions of dollars to renovate the building, Houston added. They did it because they wanted to save the Isis as a theater when its former owners put it up for sale, he said.
“We never would have spent that money if our intent wasn’t for it to be a theater,” Houston said.
Now, he said, the ownership group needs to act quickly to get paying tenants back in the building. Still, Houston said he is open to working with the city and other community groups to see what they can come up with.
Mayor Rachel Richards suggested a consortium of interests should brainstorm on ways to save the Isis for various uses. Filmfest, Theater in the Park, the Aspen Music Festival and School and others could all make use of the building, she said.
“We all know there’s literally no conference space in town unless you use the Ritz [St. Regis hotel] or Hotel Jerome,” she said.
Jon Busch, founder of the Wheeler Film Society, urged the council to consider a municipal purchase of the Isis, likening the theater to an anchor tenant at a mall.
“In reality, Aspen is a giant mall. It’s just not covered over,” he said.
Houston said there’s a price at which the owners would consider selling. He did not elaborate, but suggested the city would get a better price than a commercial interest. He also said the owners might consider a generous deal to get a new theater operator for the lower three screens if the ground floor is converted to some other use.
Councilman Terry Paulson suggested he would favor saving one of the large theaters on the main floor in any new multi-use plan for the building.
“The Isis is an Aspen institution,” said Councilman Jim Markalunas. “We’ve got to do something to make it work. There’s more to a community than just a television set.”
“I agree,” Houston said, noting the strong public sentiment regarding the fate of the Isis – a sentiment he shares.
“If this were Gucci, I’m not sure this meeting would be happening. I don’t think people would really care,” Houston said.
“Clearly, we share the vision, and we share the dream, but the question is what’s the reality – and the harsh reality is, we have a mortgage,” he said.
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