Independent owners struggle, but love showing films
An old projector at The Magic Lantern in Ketchum now serves as a lobby decoration, but much of the equipment upstairs isn’t far removed technologically. Although owner Rick Kessler would like to convert his whole theater to digital, he says if Thomas Edison were to walk in today, the inventor could likely figure out all Kessler’s film projectors with ease. (ARIEL HANSEN/Times-News) ARIEL HANSEN/Times-News

BURLEY — To own a small, independent movie theater these days can feel a bit like you’re David, going up against the Goliath of an industry. Patrons are asking for the latest, expensive technology (most recently 3D), film distributors can’t hear your voice in the din coming from chain theaters, and studios ignore you completely.

But for three theater operators in south-central Idaho, there’s nothing they’d rather be doing. Bob Harris, who owns two theaters in Burley, Rick Kessler, who owns Magic Lantern in Ketchum, and Terry and Gayla Zech, who own Shoshone Showhouse, all describe their love for movies and their communities. It’s why they continue to show cinema in the face of these challenges.

“We get to put people in a dark room and tell them stories. It’s really primal,” Kessler said. “I love seeing people converse as they’re getting ready to sit down, or gather afterward to talk. That’s your night at the movies.”

Like any small business

All three have owned their theaters for decades and have learned, sometimes painfully, what their audiences will and won’t pay to see, and where they can eke out that dollar that puts them into the black.

“No matter what the (small) business is, you can knuckle under and go out of business, or you can do your best,” Harris said. For example, he recently invested in 3D projection technology. “The hardest thing is to commit the funds when you’re not sure whether you’ll be around the next year or not.”

As Kessler put it, a third of the years you break even, a third of the years you make a profit, and the remaining third? “They’re ‘What am I doing in this business?’” he said with a laugh.

Even the days with lines around the block aren’t necessarily proof that a theater is doing well.

People who see the lines “think we’re making a lot of money, they think we must be rich,” Terry Zech said, noting the overhead it takes merely to open the theater’s doors. “Over 50 percent of the gross goes to the movie company … and we have to pay sales tax on every ticket we sell.”

The Zechs, who offer three showings of a film each week during the warmer months of the year, have rarely made money, often subsidizing the theater with profits from their other businesses.

“We call it our nonprofit theater,” Zech joked. But they have owned it primarily to teach a good work ethic to their children, who all worked there, and to provide family entertainment for the community. “I don’t regret it one bit; I think that’s one of the best investments we’ve made.”

Kessler and Harris have a different goal when it comes red versus black on the ledger, but they have similar overhead costs.

“We’re in the candy and popcorn business,” Kessler said, describing how he might break even on tickets and see a profit on a particular film only because of concessions.

Getting the movie to you

Complicating the issue is how the theaters actually buy their movies. When an owner belongs to a larger consortium — like the Hailey theater’s association with Metropolitan Theaters, or Interstate Amusements’ half-dozen theaters in Twin Falls and Jerome — it is easier to negotiate with movie studios to get a film. Only a certain number of prints are made of each movie, and they tend to go to big cities and theater conglomerates first.

Some owners, like Kessler and Harris, contract with a distribution company that negotiates on behalf of many theaters.

“That helps, somebody with a little bit of clout,” Harris said, noting that the biggest names in directing often write into their contracts where and when their film will be distributed, and there’s nothing the distribution companies can do about it.

“We’re just a little guy,” Kessler said. “Distribution is supposedly our partner in this, but sometimes you feel like you’re not getting treated well by your partner.”

That’s especially true for his Ketchum audience, which tends to choose independent or award-winning films rather than the latest blockbusters promoted by studios. “The shoe doesn’t fit, but we’re stuck with it,” Kessler said. “I can’t give away tickets to certain films.”

Harris has the same problem, but with different movies. “Nightmare on Elm Street,” which Kessler said wouldn’t sell in Ketchum, had the kind of teen appeal to be popular in Burley. On the other hand, Harris didn’t book “Oceans,” based on past experience. “We played ‘Earth’ when it came out, but we couldn’t pay people to go see it.”

Harris’ investment in the equipment to play 3D movies has proved a good one so far, drawing viewers from across the region, but it will be years before it pays itself off. Kessler is skeptical of the longevity of the 3D craze, but he would like to get digital projectors.

“If I could pay for it, I would convert the whole place to digital tomorrow,” he said. That would make it easier to get the films he wants to show, because it’s so much cheaper for a studio to copy a hard drive than to make a film print. “As the medium turns over to electronic, it’s going to do nothing but help the art and independent market.”

Although every advance in moving pictures has been heralded as “the end of movies in the theater,” television, VCRs and Netflix have not significantly affected the numbers of people who go see movies, Kessler said.

“We always survive, but attendance is not really increasing,” he said, calling the greater availability of on-demand movies a double-edged sword. Being able to see nearly any movie at nearly any time at home allows people to enjoy films that are no longer in theaters, including old classics, which creates a greater interest in movies in general.

In Shoshone, perhaps because the Zechs are so selective about what they show and when, they often sell out their 350-seat theater, even in a town of 1,300. They won’t be able to convert to digital in that not-too-distant future when production companies stop making film, but they hope to continue to be able to provide entertainment and a community experience in some way, perhaps even the theater productions their 1911 opera house was built for.

“That’s what’s fun about an audience; when they respond to a movie it’s so different than when you watch a movie at home. It’s infectious,” Zech said. And the family has fun meeting that community as they sell tickets and popcorn.

Harris said the best moments he has had running a theater are those he spends with his employees.

“Generally speaking, it’s their first job, so it’s neat to see them grow and mature,” he said. “You know them, you know their parents. I’ve actually had grandkids, a third generation, work for me.”

Offering subsidized tickets to school kids and running food drives and illness-related fundraisers is another way Harris said he is committed to not only providing entertainment, but also support, to his Mini-Cassia neighbors. “You need to give back and make sure you thank people for being customers,” he said.

No matter what medium comes along to compete with a movie theater, people will always want that primal experience of a story in a dark room surrounded by their neighbors.

“All a movie should do is entertain you, captivate you and maybe enlighten you,” Kessler said. “All you should expect is to get an interesting story, well told.”

Ariel Hansen may be reached at ahansen@magicvalley.com or 788-3475.

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