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Curtain closing at indie movie house

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Doug Sitter started Back Space Theatre in March 2011 with the intent to bring small, indie films to Durango, but a failure to attract consistent crowds has left him seeking someone to take over the building’s $2,400 monthly lease.

By Emery Cowan Herald staff writer

Doug Sitter’s dream was to create something that didn’t exist in Durango: a theater devoted to independent cinema.

He started the Back Space Theatre in March 2011 with a lineup of indie films that wouldn’t otherwise have made it to this small Colorado town.

But a year-and-a-half after Sitter started the Back Space at 1120 Main Avenue, he is looking for someone else to take over the space.

“I don’t think there is enough demand to be able to run an independent movie theater solely as independent movie theater in Durango,” Sitter said. “It needs to have a broader mission.”

He is looking for someone to take over the $2,400 monthly lease and use the space primarily as a theater, at least until the lease expires August 2014. He said he would donate all of the film equipment.

Sitter also plans to dissolve the nonprofit behind the theater, BackSpace Theatre Inc., at the end of the year in order to have a clean slate for a potential buyer. People who have expressed interest in taking over the lease would want to run the Back Space as a for-profit venture, Sitter said.

There were a few factors behind the theatre’s undoing, employees said.

Low demand was the most fundamental.

“The challenge is that anything that gets people off the couch is a mystery,” said Jane Julian, who booked films for the theater until this summer. “People love to know it’s there, but they don’t utilize it, or they would say: ‘Oh, I wanted to see that movie, but couldn’t get down there.’”

The theater also lacked an employee with experience in advertising and promotion who could effectively spread the word about movie offerings.

“Not one of us was a marketing person,” Julian said. The theater tried posters, newspaper advertisements and email blasts, but never hit a successful marketing formula, said Kaiya Toop, the theater manager.

Without strong attendance, the Back Space struggled to cover the cost of movies it showed. Each film generally cost a flat fee of $250 to $350. If revenue from ticket sales exceeded the flat fee, the theater also had to pay 35 percent of the additional revenue to the distributor. It’s a standard arrangement that makes it difficult to bring in significant revenue if audience attendance is low, Toop said. The cost of employees is another expense.

“We haven’t been breaking even, and we never were,” Toop said.

When it wasn’t showing films or hosting occasional performances, the space went unused. Toop said she tried to advertise the space for rentals, but she never received much interest.

The theater has no movies currently scheduled, and doesn’t have anything planned for after Jan. 1.

“Things are a little bit in limbo,” Toop said.

Despite its current situation, Sitter said the theater served exactly the mission he originally envisioned of bringing back independent film to Durango.

“It was fun to operate it for a while, but it cost me several thousand dollars (per month) to keep it afloat,” Sitter said. “At some point, it had to come to an end.”


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