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Isis Theater to shut down

John Colson

The Isis Theater is expected to shut down this week after less than a year of operation, citing high rents and low turnout for its movies.

The movies will show through the end of the regular schedule tonight, meaning the theater will fall one week short of a year of operations, according to theater manager Sharon McWilliams.

“I hate the thought of there not being a theater operating in this space,” said McWilliams Wednesday.

“But it’s in the hands of the owner now,” she continued, adding, “I think it would be a big loss to the community” if the building is changed to another use, such as retail stores.

Developer Sam Houston, the local representative of the building’s owners, countered that it is not the owners who are shutting the theater down, but the proprietors.

“We gave them a beautiful theater,” Houston said Wednesday, adding that after approximately nine months in business, “they stopped paying rent.”

He noted that a number of other longstanding local businesses have closed down over the years, and that Resort Theaters of America (RTA), the Isis’ managing company, has “obligations that they’re not meeting to all kinds of people. I guess you have to look at the economics.”

When asked about reports that the theater was paying $60,000 a month in rent, and whether that was a negotiable amount in talks with RTA, Houston replied, “I wouldn’t comment on that.”

But, he continued, “I care about the community. I’ve lived here a long time. We are hoping that Resort Theaters is able to keep it open.”

Resort Theaters of America filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and is trying to reorganize the business, according to court filings and news accounts.

The company had 60 days from mid-October to renegotiate its lease and arrange to keep the business in Aspen open, according to McWilliams. That deadline is Monday, she said, and the lease talks have not led to an agreement.

As part of the bankruptcy proceedings, 27 film distributors were demanding payment of debts that RTA had accumulated prior to the bankruptcy filing. They were threatening to cut the theater off if the payments were not made. McWilliams said that as soon as it became apparent that the lease talks were going nowhere, RTA notified its film distributors, and they pulled the films scheduled to show starting on Friday.

While the Isis is closing its doors to theatergoers, it appears that the company’s other theaters are not facing a similar fate. McWilliams said she has been told that the other theaters in the chain are staying open, at least for now.

The young theater company had big plans, according to news accounts in trade publications and other outlets over the past year or so. RTA was at one time planning to open 500 theaters between the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast, featuring digital screens, high-tech sound systems and gourmet snacks at the refreshments counter.

But in filing for bankruptcy protection, the company joined the ranks of other theater chains such as Carmike Theaters, Edwards Cinema and United Artists Cinema Circuit, all of which have reported movie attendance slipping just as theater companies embarked on ambitious expansion plans.

In August and September of this year, according to published accounts, attendance was down nearly 35 percent from the same time a year earlier.

And the management of the Isis estimated that the theater would have needed to pull in at least twice as many people as it did, every night, to break even.

RTA chief executive Richard Lawrence, speaking from a car phone in California, estimated that the theater lost $700,000 in operating costs in the first year. He said Aspen’s theater cost roughly twice what RTA is paying for theater space in Palm Springs and Palm Desert, Calif.

“It makes us very sad to close it,” Lawrence said. “We think it’s the kind of theater that Aspen deserves.”

McWilliams noted that an RTA owner had been living in the luxury condominium perched atop the theater and had tried to negotiate a way to keep the business open. But, she stated, “We can’t make it work with the current rents and operational costs … and they [the ownership] weren’t really flexible with us on that.”

McWilliams said earlier in the day that RTA was trying to negotiate an extension on its lease in order to stay open through the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. But by the end of Wednesday she reported that the talks had gone nowhere.

Although there have been reports that the other chain theater in Aspen, the Stage Three operated by Carmike Theaters, may close as well, that could not be confirmed Wednesday.

Carmike officials at the company office in Colorado Springs could not be reached, and the local manager said he could not comment.

The closing of the theater is not only a blow to local movie fans, but could affect other local organizations as well. The annual Aspen Filmfest, U.S. Comedy Arts Festival and Gay Ski Week traditionally have involved screenings at the Isis, and those uses are now in question.


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