The Isis crisis: A theater in peril
Aspen’s only movie theater is in flux as the industry changes and the fallout from pandemic makes an encore appearance
For the Aspen Times Weekly
City of Aspen officials are working on ensuring that the show will go on for Aspen’s 106-year-old Isis Theatre, which is in peril due to the movie house’s struggle to cover rent and wider film industry challenges.
The city took ownership of the five-screen theater on Hopkins Avenue last year when it refinanced $2.1 million in debt on the building, which the nonprofit, Aspen Film, is responsible for as the municipal government’s sublessee.
It’s based on a deal, designed to save from the Isis as a theater, brokered in 2007 between Aspen Film, the city and an out-of-state retail group.
That deal offers a path to ownership of the theater for Aspen Film, which subleases the space to Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Theatres as its operator, which it has been for the past 14 years.
But with the fallout of the pandemic – which had the theater mostly shuttered for nearly a year – as well as changes and challenges in the industry, all parties agree that the lease terms for Metropolitan are untenable. Thus, the future is uncertain.
Behind the curtain
As it stands currently, Aspen Film is on the hook for $331,000 in back rent and HOA payments that it owes to the city, according to Pete Strecker, finance director for the municipal government.
Rent, to be paid by the theater operator, was calculated as the mechanism to pay off the debt on the building, as well as common area maintenance charges to the homeowners association.
But terms of the lease changed during COVID-19 so that Metropolitan was paying a percentage of gross receipts, which brought less revenue to Aspen Film.
Metropolitan declined to renew its lease after June but agreed to pay one-third of its prior rent through August.
Metropolitan Theatres President David Corwin declined to give details on what the agreement with Aspen Film will be in the future.
“At the end of the day, we are not going to pack up and leave,” he said. “The city plays a big role in this and the industry continues to have challenges but we continue to talk to Aspen Film and figure out how to keep it open.”
City manager Sara Ott said she and Aspen Film executive director Susan Wrubel regularly discuss options and potential solutions.
“Susan is working in good faith, staff is working in good faith and we have some ideas about how this would go forward but we each have to give and take some to make it happen,” Ott said, declining to give details due to ongoing negotiations.
She said she plans to update Aspen City Council sometime this month on any progress made. Elected and city officials have discussed the issue multiple times in recent months in closed-to-the-public in executive sessions.
“(Council) was clear on the record that their goal is for the administration to find a path forward to keep an active first-run movie theater for the community,” Ott said.
By the numbers
Keeping it open is council’s aim. But at what expense to the taxpayers? That is the million dollar question.
Per council direction, the city, as Aspen Film’s landlord, has not actively pursued collecting on past due rent and HOA payments, which has been covered by the municipal government’s general fund since April of 2020.
Seventeen departments are supported by the general fund, so any money taken away competes against other public services.
The city paid the principal and interest payment on the building’s debt this past September for $130,000, as well as $27,000 in interest only in March and plans to pay $52,000 in remaining interest and a principal payment this September, according to Strecker.
“The city is making all the debt payments, plus $8,000 a month in HOA dues,” he said. “We have to continue to make the debt service because we want to own that space and not hurt our credit rating.”
A changing landscape
Mayor Torre, who served on council when the 2007 deal was struck, said the challenge is different this time around because the theater is not under threat of turning into a commercial retail use, but rather the industry is producing more product geared toward online platforms.
Still, he and his colleagues recognize that the Isis is a community amenity that needs to remain an entertainment center and a place that is family friendly.
It’s unlikely that the city will underwrite any solution or take on the role of operator, Torre said.
He added that he is open to amending the 2007 agreement, if Aspen Film can offer a workable solution.
“This is not a sustainable model and we are trying to work it out,” Torre said. “We are adults, we are not playing in the sandbox saying ‘give me my truck;’ we support them as a partner.”
Aspen Film, with an annual budget is $650,000, is a film society that produces three annual festivals uses the Isis for Aspen Filmfest and special screenings.
Wrubel limited her comments to say that, “we are all working toward a solution and everybody wants the same thing: to keep the Isis open.”
Ott said for Aspen Film to fulfill its vision of building ownership it has to be responsible for paying the outstanding debt.
“That is not something that can be ignored in resolving the situation,” she said. “The Isis needs to stay for the community, that’s the outcome that both Aspen Film and the city council and city staff want from this.
“To be realistic, the business model that all of this was done under, that whole industry has been turned on its head from when this deal was structured, because I think in 2007 we were still sending DVDs in the mail to a little new company called Netflix.”
Partly as a result of the pandemic, there’s not a lot of profitable film product available for theaters as more viewers are watching movies on online platforms like Netflix.
Additionally, Disney+, AppleTV+, HBOMax and others have launched films online, adding more competition to traditional moviegoing. Ticket sales for summer’s biggest hit theatrical hit, Marvel’s “Black Widow,” for example, dropped 67% in its second weekend in theaters as viewers chose to pay to watch it on Disney+.
Corwin of Metropolitan Theatres said recent industry survey data shows that 81% of respondents feel comfortable going to theaters but that signs point to a slow recovery.
“2019 levels won’t be reached until 2024,” Corwin said of recent data collection. “There’s a long way to go here and a lot at play.”
Ott said she and Wrubel discussed Aspen Film’s capacity to deal with the outstanding note on the building prior to the pandemic.
“It’s a tough one and it is also something that I think the community is really clear that there’s some things that are the role of government and some things aren’t,” she said. “I think the notion of assuming that debt without a conversation with the community would be misplaced.”
Metropolitan Theatres has been operating the Isis just four days per week this summer, running Thursday through Sunday. Corwin said the limitd hours are the result of a labor shortage. They added Wednesday screenings this week.
“I hope the people who care so much about the Isis will come visit and support it,” Corwin said.
A storied past
The theater had strong community support from the beginning, when it opened in 1915, based on reports in the Aspen Democrat-Times.
The building was constructed by shoe merchant Henry Webber in 1892, and was home to a wholesale produce and commission house, as well as Landgreen & Hickey Wallpaper and Paints at the turn of the century, according to the Aspen Historical Society.
“Finally, to keep the kids off the streets and give them something to do, the building was made into a movie house by the Women’s Civic Improvement League,” reads the historical society’s walking tour pages on the Isis. “In between the silent films shown once a week, there were variety shows and minstrel shows which were very popular. Church services were held here on Sundays, with some of the best voices in town joining together for the hymns.”
That effort was done by James Morrison, the first owner of the Isis, whose theater appeared to not have had the same community support as today.
“For many months Mr. Morrison has been maligned, abused, his character assailed in every possible manner, simply because he had the enterprise and the temerity to think of such a thing,” reads a piece in the July 29, 1915 Aspen Democrat-Times. “But with it all he has had nothing to say — just plugging ahead, buying all the equipment necessary and patiently waiting for the day when Jake Reichert could start. This Mr. Morrison realized would stop all the howling, cursing and would close the gates of vituperation.
“Every citizen in Aspen will welcome the fact that the Isis is to be opened September 6th and The Democrat-Times will extend the heartiest congratulations and best wishes to Mr. Morrison,” the writer continued. “You are a booster, Jim, and you are deserving of the greatest prosperity for your enterprise and your loyalty to your home town.”
Decades later, Dominic and Kitty Linza owned and operated the Isis for 30 years, often offering their commentary over the PA system to audiences prior to a film being shown.
They sold the funky old one-screen theater to a group of new owners in 1998 and retired to Grand Junction.
Kitty died in 2014 and Dominic, 88, still lives in Grand Junction.
When reached last week, he said he doesn’t recall the nuances of operating the theater.
The Linzas told The Times in 2003 that they hoped the Isis would remain, and watched from afar as city officials and the building’s ownership group hash out an agreement.
And now the community is watching another sequel play out in the saga of saving of the Isis.
“Deep breaths and patience are all we can do right now,” said Mayor Torre.
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Former race-car driver, current Lewis Cellars winemaker Randy Lewis hosts Aspen dinner alongside chef Byron Gomez as part of the “Aspen Summer Supper Club Series” at 7908.